There are many things that make the Northwoods unique, like supper clubs, the Old Fashioned, and summers on the lake. To that list you can add waterski shows. There are more waterski teams in Wisconsin than in any other state. The Minocqua ski team has been in existence for over 70 years.
Duke Hillinger has been involved in the Min-Aqua Bats ski show for 49 years. He joined the team in 1972 when he was 11 years old and skied for the team until 1982. Each summer since, he returns as an announcer or to help out in some way. But his “retirement” from skiing for the team at age 21 is not odd for the Min-Aqua Bats. It’s the norm. Current Club President Kyle Foster describes what may be the most unique feature of the Min-Aqua Bats ski team.
“The interesting thing about our club is that basically it is the kids that run it. The youngest skiers we have are usually about 14 and people usually stay in the club in college until about my age—I’m 22—that is when they get out.
Hillinger explains that other ski teams have a very different membership.
“Most ski teams are multi-generational. The father, the daughter, then grand kids will all be skiing in the same show.”
As Hillinger explains, middle school through college age kids not only are the performers but they also run the club.
“It is run by the skiers and they make the decisions. No parents are allowed in the board meetings.”
Young people have been involved – and in charge – for a long time. According to Hillinger, the ski team arose organically right after the end of WWII and is the oldest amateur ski show in the world. Because of gas rationing during the war, recreational boating and thus water skiing was not permitted.
“When the war ended in 1945, end of August, they immediately, within hours, they were up on the water skiing up and around. It was like a ski fest. They all congregated around down what is now called the Thirsty Whale.”
This is the site, now referred to as the Aqua-Bowl, where the ski shows take place today. By 1949 they were doing shows two times a week. And that has been going on every summer since. Recently retired ski team member Charlotte Patterson describes how her time on the Min-Aqua Bats board provided invaluable experience that she has been able to apply in her career.
“Learning how to run an organization on your own when you are 18 and 19 was really a great learning experience.”
Patterson’s mother skied with the team in the 1980s along with Foster’s mother, which is another unique feature of the team.
“I would say at least 75 percent of my friends, our parents skied together. They are still friends and we were all raised together up here in the summers.”
This may explain why the show has remained so consistent through the years.
“It’s funny, because when I hear my mom talk about some of her experiences in the club,” Foster said. “Just what her and her friends would do. Just what it was like. There are so many parallels between then, in the mid-1980s, to now. It is funny to see how much has changed over the years and yet still stayed the same.”
Although there are some local skiers on the team, most of the Min-Aqua Bats come from families who are only summer residents. This is unusual for ski teams. As part of the show, Hillinger announces where the skiers come from.
“When we announce where all of our skiers are from, we are from all over the United States. I believe we now have Min-Aqua Bats in 46 states.”
In 2019, a film crew followed the team throughout the season to commemorate their 70th season and to tell their unique story.
The Min-Aqua Bats and the town of Minocqua have decided to go ahead with the shows this summer but they have made some changes because of concerns about corona virus.
Bleachers are taped off for social distancing and club members wear masks when interacting with spectators.