Hit It! Minnesota's Waterskiing Obsession
Nearly a century ago, a local daredevil strapped two pine boards to his feet and walked on water. Now his renegade spirit is keeping the sport afloat.
Photos by Ryan Taylor
The first time that Ralph Samuelson walked on water, in the summer of 1922, a small crowd had gathered to watch him break his neck. Samuelson had been trying to stand on Lake Pepin since the ice went out in April, holding on to a hundred feet of window sash cord while a boat dragged him around. He tried lashing his feet to curved boards from a barrel, then slender snow skis. But they may as well have been anchors.
Lake Pepin, a scenic bulge in the Mississippi River about 60 miles southeast of Minneapolis, is long and narrow, rimmed with bluffs and buffeted by wind—the profile of lakes such as Loch Ness, where massive waves bounce from shore to shore, stirring up debris and rumors of monsters. Explorers in the 1600s reported “a huge serpent” in Lake Pepin and called the place Lac des Pleurs: Lake of Tears. In 1890, a wave lifted a paddlewheel boat into the air above Lake Pepin as though it were popping a wheelie, killing 98 passengers.
Samuelson wasn’t deterred. His family lived in Lake City, on the Minnesota side of Lake Pepin, a block and a half from shore. He’d grown up diving for clams. “That lake had been almost a mystic force in my life,” he said many years later. “The good Lord must have kept his eye on me. I never got hurt, as long as I was on the water.”
Compelled by a sense of adventure and the girls watching from the beach, Samuelson ultimately took two eight-foot pine boards, boiled the tips until he could turn them up, and strapped them to his feet with two strips of leather. He painted his initials on the skis—RWS—as though they might be mistaken for someone else’s.
On July 2, one day before his 19th birthday, Samuelson tied his rope to the fastest boat in town, stepped into his new skis, and leaned back. Gawkers crowded a crescent of sand in Lake City, looking across Lake Pepin at the sheer face of Maiden Rock bluff, as Samuelson was pulled past the beach again and again. Then suddenly he rose out of the water and stayed there—“like Jesus,” he noted.
For the next 15 years, the inventor of waterskiing scarcely came down. He tipped over a diving platform, greased the top with lard, and skied off it—the first jump. He lost a ski and kept going on the other one—the first slalom. When an amphibious bi-plane came to town, he hitched a rope to it and skied at 80 miles per hour. He took his tricks on the road, to Detroit and Florida.
And then he disappeared.
At 6 a.m., headlights flash on a gate in an industrial park in Prior Lake, near Valleyfair. Steve Melcher gets out of his sedan, opens the gate. A couple more cars arrive, rattle down a gravel road to a dock, where a single speedboat waits in the dark.
It’s cold, a Tuesday morning in September. “I’m usually in denial,” Melcher says of fall weather. Two shadows strip down to trunks and get in the boat. Dave Rutt—shaved head, energetic, owner of a women’s apparel boutique in Edina’s Galleria mall—jumps in the water. He gets his feet into a single ski and holds on to a rope. “All right,” he says, “let’s rock!”
Quarry Lake, as the name suggests, is a pit. When these guys started skiing here, dump trucks and bulldozers still drove around it. There are jumping carp, sunfish that bite, and not much else. “Our little utopia,” Rutt says.
A few years ago, feeling pressure from swarms of Jet Skis and wakeboard boats designed to create tsunami-size curls, the Shakopee Prior Lake Water Ski Association won permission to use Quarry Lake as a private park for its 200 or so members. Melcher, Rutt, and two other friends—Marty McAlpin, a financial planner, and Mike McCollow, who says he works in software—signed up for the early-bird special: sunrise to 9 a.m.
Melcher, an attorney, is silver-haired and avuncular, the de-facto coach of the quartet. He’s usually here four days a week and gently offers observations as McCollow takes the wheel and pulls Rutt down a gauntlet of 22 plastic buoys lined up like runway lights—a slalom course. Rutt squirts to one side, then the other, leaning to squeeze around the buoys while sending a plume of water about 12 feet in the air.
Then it’s McCollow’s turn. “Thirty-four off, right?” Melcher asks. The number is how many feet of a 75-foot rope are kept in the boat—taken off, so to speak. The higher the number, the less rope is at the skier’s disposal. At 38 feet off, the rope no longer reaches the buoys; to get around them, you have to stretch your body. The world record is 43 off, set by a 6-foot-2 Hoosier with arms like bungee cords. “Nate Smith,” says Melcher. “Really nice guy.”
As morning takes hold and the covert course is illuminated, the skiers are still playing in the water while commuters stream to work.
Minnesota Daredevil and Waterskiing inventor Ralph Samuelson, flying off a Jump (Circa 1922) and posing with his handmade skis (Circa 1970). Photos courtesy of Lake City Historical Society.
When Ralph Samuelson vanished, in the late 1930s, so did any hope of Minnesota becoming a hub of waterskiing. Samuelson never bothered to patent his skis. It was years before anyone skied on Lake Pepin again. Lake City forgot his claim to fame.
By mid-century, someone else was being hailed as the inventor of waterskiing, a guy from Long Island, New York, named Fred Waller. Waller had patented his skis in 1925, three years after Samuelson’s feat. He also invented an IMAX-like film technique called Cinerama, and one of the first things he shot, in 1952, was Cypress Gardens waterski park in Winter Haven, Florida, south of Orlando.
Cypress Gardens had elephants and hippos. It had Aquabelles—waterskiing beauties. And Waller’s film helped turn central Florida into the self-proclaimed Waterskiing Capital of the World. The American Water Ski Association opened its headquarters in Winter Haven, and celebrated Waller as the sport’s paterfamilias.
By the 1960s, waterskiing was an international phenomenon, at once wholesome and titillating, like hula-hooping. Its competitions were nationally broadcast. Yet time and again, Minnesota missed out. Tommy Bartlett, a Milwaukee native and early waterskiing star, settled his popular show in Wisconsin Dells, which was already a tourist mecca. Elvis Presley’s last big movie, about a playboy who becomes a waterski instructor, was set in Florida.
Waterskiing for tourists never really caught on in Minnesota. But waterskiing tourists—meaning any of us heading up north—have become as much a part of Minnesota’s cabin culture as knotty pine and Zorbaz. We have the lakes, the boats (most registrations per capita in the country), and the laws—among the nation’s most permissive, allowing skiing from sunrise to half an hour after sunset, the last possible wink of light. Waterskiing classes are among the first to fill up at summer camps, and there are more waterskiing clubs in Minnesota than in larger Midwest states such as Michigan and Ohio.
For some Minnesotans, like the quarry crew, waterskiing has become an addiction. There are “polar bears” who chip away the ice below Hidden Falls in St. Paul, opening a channel in the Mississippi River where they can waterski in winter. They used to haul a hot tub to shore and jump in after skiing.
There are guys like Roger Wahl, who built his own boat in the mid-1950s and started perfecting tricks. “You fool around,” he says, “starting with two skis, and then one ski, and then maybe someone would get a saucer and pull that behind the boat, and then someone would put a chair on the saucer. These are the things you did on a Sunday afternoon, and pretty soon you’re doing it after work every night.”
Wahl eventually bought a place on Prior Lake, to make things even easier. He started skiing in tournaments in 1959 and won nationals 10 times. He performed in shows—“a lot of double jumping with a woman on the front of my skis,” he says. He still competes at 82, training all winter on a lake near Fort Myers, Florida.
The advantage to Minnesotans’ do-it-yourself approach is a lack of hubris. In his 60s, Wahl broke both arms in a bicycle accident and skied anyway in the Midwest waterski regionals, where “some of the hot dogs didn’t pay attention to the wind,” he says. With his arms in casts, he won.
It’s lightly snowing outside the Twin City Twisters gymnasium in Champlin, and also inside the hangar-like space, it seems—the air is thick with chalk. A half dozen tweens bounce on the in-ground trampolines, including an 11-year-old girl wearing a T-shirt that says, “I waterski. What’s your superpower?”
It’s early April. Since January, the Twin Cities River Rats have been practicing for this summer’s waterski shows—on dry land. Waterskiing is the easy part. The real challenge is everything that happens above the skis.
Men grab ski ropes stretched across the gym and start hoisting women on their shoulders. In the water, they might wear harnesses so their hands are free to move the women around, as in figure skating. They might have swivel skis, so they can spin around. They might be skiing barefoot, which only works if the boat is going fast enough that the water acts—and feels—like cement.
Walker Judd, the Rats’ show director, is 25 and already a veteran. He started show skiing at age 4. Boyish and soft-featured, he has the dewy look of someone who has spent a lot of time in the water. “It’s a hard thing to get out of your system,” he says.
The River Rats have been performing since the 1970s. Every Thursday at 6:30 p.m., starting in June, they hit the Mississippi River north of downtown Minneapolis, playing to several thousand people for donations. In the last four years, with Judd’s prodding, they’ve taken things up a notch. Their tricks have become more creative, along with their storylines. Judd and his family “watch tape” every week like NFL coaches.
The Twin Cities River Rats
The team has been rewarded. In 2014, they placed 11th in the national show ski tournament. Last year, with a storyline involving the Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles, they took ninth. Asked about whether they’re the team to beat, Judd says, “In this region, they’re gunning for us.”
Yet the traditional powers are all elsewhere, mostly in Wisconsin. No other state has so many teams, or so many good teams. In fact, the Midwest region doesn’t even include Wisconsin—the state is its own region. The national tournament is usually in Janesville, Wisconsin—House Speaker Paul Ryan’s hometown—where the local team has won four of the past five years.
“To compete, we need to do some things out of the box,” Judd says, watching a pyramid form on the shoulders of six broad men. Three young women stand on the men, two girls clamber atop the women, and finally the 11-year-old in the superpower shirt rises to stand alone—the “topper.”
Judd smiles. It’s a four-tier, not the tallest pyramid. But three pyramids of four, three, and four tiers each, skiing alongside each other, actually outscore a single five-tier. Still, Judd says, “we’re hoping to do a five-tier.” Wisconsin won’t see it coming.
Don Schwartz, of the Lake City Historical Society, leads the way to the ballroom in the upper reaches of the town’s city hall, turning on lights as he goes. The only notice that there’s anything up here is a flyer in the lobby, pinned to a bulletin board. “Sometimes these doors aren’t even open,” Schwartz says as he walks into a sunny space lined with glass cabinets.
Among Native American artifacts and memorabilia from the city’s bygone industries is a letter dated April 6, 1966. It’s from the American Water Ski Association, addressed to Ralph Samuelson.
Three years earlier, a vacationing reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press had found a pair of unusually large skis in a changing house by Lake Pepin, under a hand-lettered sign: WORLD’S FIRST WATER SKIS. She couldn’t find anyone who knew what had become of their owner, so she wrote an open letter in the newspaper, asking, “Where are you now, Mr. Samuelson?”
He was just 30 miles away. After breaking his back in 1937, while working in Florida, Samuelson moved west of Lake City to Pine Island and became a turkey farmer. When a terrible storm came through in the 1950s, Samuelson lost everything—his farm, his home, even his family for a while. In his memoirs, he compared himself to Job, the Biblical sad-sack.
The open letter drew Samuelson out of obscurity and into the surprised gaze of waterski officialdom. Lucky for everyone, he was a good sport. “One of the most significant developments in organized water skiing,” notes the president of the American Water Ski Association in his letter to Samuelson, “is the ‘rediscovery’ of your pioneering activities. … It is my real pleasure to recognize you as the first water skier of record.”
In 1972, the association installed a plaque in Lake City, honoring Lake Pepin as the “birthplace of waterskiing.” More tributes followed: a fountain sculpture of a wave, installed near the spot where Samuelson first rose out of the water; a mural in the post office; a plaque on his childhood home; an annual festival called Waterski Days, featuring ski shows and a re-creation of Samuelson’s historic glide, held the last weekend in June.
Samuelson became a pitchman for Lake City businesses and often posed with beauty queens, grinning like a man who had been buried alive and can’t quite believe he was resurrected. “Was he happy to be rediscovered? Oh yeah, was he ever,” says Roger Wahl, who often hosted the Lazarus of the sport at his home in Prior Lake.
“It’s an American story,” Schwartz says as he drives to the western edge of Lake City and turns onto a dirt road lined with tombstones. This is the old Swedish cemetery; among the Swensons and Petersons lies Samuelson. His grave marker is flush with the ground, and a few years ago the historical society hung a wooden sign nearby in case anyone comes looking.
Samuelson died in 1977, when the golden age of waterskiing was already waning, and by the 1990s, with Jet Skis rampant, the glamour was gone. National broadcasts slowed. Cypress Gardens closed in 2009. The wave fountain beside Lake Pepin has fallen into disrepair, and although the historical society is determined to restore it, there are some in town who feel that the waterskiing connection is now too narrow a draw. That it doesn’t entice anyone, say, to shop.
“There are probably more fans now of cigarette boats than waterskiing,” Schwartz jokes. But he thinks it’d be a shame to forget the state’s connection to waterskiing—again. “There’s something so graceful, so inspiring about it,” he says. With the money and magnetism gone, all that’s left is what Samuelson wanted, what Minnesotans have kept alive: the thrill.
On Samuelson’s grave marker is an epitaph—“Father of Waterskiing, Witness for Christ”—and an engraving of a waterskier. He is going off a jump, one arm raised to the sky, into the unknown.