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WXPR's We Live Up Here series is a home for stories that focus on the people, history, and culture that make the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a unique place to live.

We Live Up Here: Copper Peak Ski Jump

Image by Jim Skibo

Our We Live Up Here series continues with a visit with John Kusz, the only current Ironwood resident who launched off Copper Peak, the highest artificial ski jump in the world. 

The ski jump scaffolding stands 26 stories tall. Atop it, you can see for miles. A sea of snow-capped forest surrounds the jump, and if it were not for light snowfall on the day of my visit, a different kind of sea, Lake Superior, would be visible to the north.

John Kusz and I walked up to the top of the scaffolding on my recent visit, so I could get a feel for what it was like to fly off the jump, which John had done many times. After we had a chance to catch our breath after the exhilarating climb, we sat down on the very top and John told me what it was like to go off the very first time.

Credit Image by Jim Skibo
John Kusz atop Copper Peak

The US ski team was in town and the coach wanted to watch local jumpers go off the hill before his team members would try it. John climbed to the very top with another jumper from Minneapolis. The wind was blowing so hard that the scaffold was bouncing and swaying. John told his fellow jumper that there was no way that the US ski team coach would wave the flag from below, which was the signal to go. Much to their surprise, the coach gave the “go” signal. They both hoped that the wind was calmer at take-off.

As John told the story my grip on the side rail tightened as I imagined John making the decision to go.

By then, John was a veteran jumper and he was always successful in clearing his mind by focusing on technique, “get set, stay forward, and hit the takeoff.” He hit the jump at 72 mph and made the longest jump of his life to that point. His friend made it too, and he was thinking about going straight to the local bar to celebrate, but the US ski jump team coach had other ideas. He sent them both back up the hill to jump again.

He went on to ride the jump near Ironwood many times, along with a number of other hills across the country. John, however, did not start by flying down the big hills.

He started downhill skiing as a child at a small local hill, “Mt. Zion.” It did not take long for John to get bored with the hill so he headed to Indian Head Mountain, which attracts skiers from across the Midwest. Even those hills, which challenge expert skiers, were not fast enough for John.

His uncles and cousins were ski jumpers so he talked his dad into helping out. His dad built a small bump next to the house, which he would ski for a while before asking, “Hey dad, do you think you could build me a bigger one?”

Eventually his dad tired of building bigger and bigger jumps, so John tried his luck at a small scaffold hill in Ironwood. The community, at that time, had a number of jumps. Once John would master one jump, he would always look to the bigger ones.

Eventually, he tried and mastered a recently built local hill called “Wolverine,” which was big enough to serve as a practice site for the US ski jumping team. At this hill, John started to hone his skill. From the top of Wolverine he could see Copper Peak on the horizon and would always say to himself that someday he was going to go off the biggest jump in the world.

John is a bit of a local legend and at one time held records at several hills in the region. He never fulfilled his ultimate dream, making the Olympics, because by the time he was skiing down the big hills he was in his 30s.

Not making the Olympics did not tamp down his enthusiasm for the sport. Some of his best jumps were made in the Master’s class, which are jumpers over 30 years old. What he did, however, is work hard to keep the sport going in Ironwood.

Despite the enthusiasm for jumping and Copper Peak by John and others, there has not been competitive jumping there since 1994. President of the Copper Peak Board, Charlie Supercynski told me why. The sport was changing at the time and the hill had to be redesigned to meet modern standards.

The landing was too steep for contemporary jumping. The Copper Peak Board has done the engineering for the necessary changes but are still finding ways to acquire the funds to do the work. They are also looking into a surface that will permit year-round skiing.

According to Charlie, they are looking into putting down a surface that would permit skiing in the summertime. A plastic surface, of this type, would permit them to hold practices and competitions in the summer. What is holding them back is simply funding for this expensive renovation.

One way they are acquiring funds is through summer activities at the site. This includes the Red Bull Challenge, which brings in 1000 runners who race to the top of the Peak. In the summer, they also sponsor the Copper Peak Adventure Ride, which includes a chair lift to the base of the structure and then an 18-story elevator ride. When you exit the elevator, visitors are challenged to walk the remaining eight stories to the very top. I can speak to this challenge as on this portion of the scaffold you walk on open grating, which is a bit hair-raising.

The view from the top is worth it.

Credit Image by Jim Skibo
From the very top of Copper Peak, looking down toward the landing

After my interview with John atop the peak we had to make are way down. “It’s a lot easier going down,” John tells me with a chuckle.

For information about Copper Peak, the Red Bull challenge, and the summer Adventure Ride, you can visit their website https://copperpeak.net/.

James M. Skibo is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. He is the author of five books, including two written for the general audience, Ants for Breakfast, and Bear Cave Hill. In 2021 James moved to the Madison area and is now the State Archeologist.
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