Finding friluftsliv in the big city
Winter childhood memories from New York
What does someone with a Norwegian soul do to satisfy their desire to soak in nature, when they move to an urban area like Brooklyn? Even Oslo, Norway’s densest city, has a green oasis nearby, Marka, “the people’s forest,” easily reached by public transportation in about 20 minutes. There you can ski, sled or just savor a meditative walk while “forest bathing” as the Japanese say.
But how does one experience friluftsliv (embracing nature) in an urban area in winter, when you reside cheek by jowl? Well, over time, Brooklyn Norwegians have found creative ways to do so.
As a child, my siblings and I were lucky to live across the street from Leif Ericson Park for four wonderful years. In the winter, the basketball court, which was slightly below ground, was flooded with water, just waiting for the temperature to cooperate so it would freeze. Then you would just go and grab your skates—no release forms, no fuss, and no parents.
One day, 9th Avenue froze. It was less than half a block from this rink, but I was determined to skate on it. It was impossible to go for more than a few feet without falling, due to the deep cracks and uneven surface that formed. It was back to the park for me.
Of course, we had larger rinks in Prospect Park, Brooklyn Central Park, Manhattan, and Clove Lake Park, Staten Island, which are still in use. Decades ago, you would have skated on a frozen pond in each, a much more natural experience.
Al Koehler, whose grandfather was from Norway, reminisced, “I started skiing on Dec. 26, 1950. My friend, Doug Nelson, had received skis for Christmas. He asked me to go to Bliss Park with him to try out his new skis. After a few runs down “deadman’s hill,” I was sold. I bought a pair of Belgian Army surplus skis the next day, using tip money from Christmas tree deliveries…. I developed a love for skiing, which lasts to this day.”
If you wished to head out of the city, there were several Norwegian established ski clubs. Koehler recalled, “We both joined the Norway Ski Club as junior members…. I met some wonderful people who came from Norway and were avid skiers.”
My non-Norwegian friend Susan used to go cross-country or Nordic skiing in Bliss Park from the 1930s until about a decade ago. Whenever there is a blizzard in New York, you will see folks cross-country skiing in the middle of the desolate Manhattan avenues, which, on a typical day, are some of the most congested in the world.
Elsie Willumsen recounted a wonderful story from the 1930’s about winter in Brooklyn. “I loved snow days. We made igloos out of big piles and piles of snow. Sometimes they lasted until Easter. We had to go to school. We only had radio; no TV reports.”
“We used to sleigh ride from the top of 6th Avenue straight down to 4th Avenue in the middle of [47th] Street. There were no cars. We all piled on top of each other on the sleigh—a flexible flyer. When we got soaking wet and all had frozen fingers and hands, my mother would invite us all in and make cocoa for us with Hershey’s chocolate. She always had some cookies. They were happy days—simple pleasures.”
To this day, during the first snowfall, it remains a ritual for kids to head toward Bliss Park and other inclines that surround our beautiful neighborhood. Walking toward the park, you are enchanted by the sounds of laughter reverberating up the block. Brightly colored hats in a variety of shapes—tentacles, snouts, and cartoon characters—are propped on children’s heads, keeping them warm as they swoosh down the hill. Albeit, these are not your grandfather’s Norwegian stocking caps, but the same love of the outdoors remains.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 21, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.