The Hiawatha: Secret skatepark of local board legends

Old Timers Club unites select group of skaters over 30

Jay Jensen perches at the coping of an eight-foot drop, his board dangling over the curb. He's as lithe as a coiled cobra, and filthy across the shoulders—after just a half-hour of skating, he's damp with sweat and coated in a sheath of grime from knee slides and bails.

As he plots his line, he has a falcon's presence—a sharp jaw, wary, analytical eyes, a Roman nose—and his face is terse as he scans the double bowl before him. The slope and depth seem hard to fathom.

Then he drops in. He pumps into the pool, descending into its deepest lagoon, building speed. Up along the coping, he goes into a grind, then dives deep once more. Over a pasture of plywood, his wheels roar. In an instant, he is airborne, clutching his deck, skimming the lights, and sending a shower of dust into the still air.

Skating at "The Hiawatha"
Darin Back
Skating at "The Hiawatha"
Left to right: Olaf Gilbertson, Brian Kevitt, Eric Froland
Darin Back
Left to right: Olaf Gilbertson, Brian Kevitt, Eric Froland

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Ripping around the turns of his park, Jensen is as smooth as a silk ribbon. He handles its dips with practiced ease. His balance is uncanny.

But when he kicks his board to his hand to hoist himself out and yield the bowl to another skater poised to drop in, Jensen grunts and favors his left knee. Jensen is 36. Behind him lay almost three decades of skating, years spent building quarterpipes in a disused barn of his father's hog farm.

And before him lies the Hiawatha. It's right there, stamped in black tiling on the farthest lip of the mammoth pool Jensen helped build: "The Hiawatha." This indoor park is the fruit of those decades—a hidden fortress, built by hand, plank by plank—a Valhalla where a cadre of local skaters escape the hassles of adulthood.

The Hiawatha never closes, but only 15 men hold keys to its gate. The Hiawatha is free, unless you count the innumerable hours spent laying the planks, installing the copings, hanging the lights, and outfitting the room with a stereo and a P.A.

But most of all, the Hiawatha is theirs.

"There's no crowd," says Jensen. "There's no bikes, no rollerblades. We're not dealing with a bajillion little kids who aren't watching out. It's a spot for the older guys. It's our clubhouse. It's been a lot of hard work. But it feels like paradise."

   

SPRAWLED OUT ON SOFAS and folding chairs, a dozen skaters sit sipping cans of Mountain Crest and mixing whiskey Cokes, their boards beneath their feet, catching their breath before taking their turns. But unlike the average skate-park crowd, most of the faces here are aged, the elbows densely knotted with scar tissue. Their boards are wider, their wheels flattened in spots from endless power slides. As they dismount from the pool, their groans echo through the rafters.

They are the veterans of the Hiawatha, the very clientele for whom the place was built, and they aren't alone. Throughout the Twin Cities, at parks and street spots statewide, the sport of skateboarding is aging. Within the walls of the Hiawatha, and in skate groups like the Old Timers Club, the hobby of 11-year-old kids from Farmington to Faribault has become a life passion, sustaining this guild of skaters into its adulthood.

"Once you're in it," says co-founder Mark Leski with a smile, "there's no way out. It's the most amazing thing. It's architecture. It's art." He pauses, then shrugs. "It's family."

When Brian Kevitt stalls on the coping of the Edina skate park pool, you can see it flashing on the bottom of his deck—a narrow black sticker that reads "O.T.C.—Old Timers Club."

It's dusk, almost too dark to skate. But Kevitt keeps dropping in. He wants to nail a Madonna, a grab he hasn't tried in years. Each successive attempt finds Kevitt sliding into the basin of the pool on his kneepads, grabbing his deck, and hoisting himself out. "One more," he keeps muttering, even as the sun diminishes to a glowing cinder against the Edina horizon.

You wouldn't guess Kevitt to be 36. He has a fair face—hardly a mark on him—with eyes as clear as polished stones. He's one of those rare skaters who skates hard and high but never seems to break a sweat. He's a natural.

Over the last half-decade, the Old Timers Club has grown to include more than 25 members, all of them above age 30. On an ordinary Wednesday evening, they convene in a great herd on the Edina park to carve and catch air. But tonight at the park, it's just Kevitt and Olaf Gilbertson skating into the settling darkness.

By day, Kevitt is an applications engineer, Gilbertson a CPA. Kevitt has two daughters, Gilbertson one. They both have mortgages. And between the two of them, they've lived half a century on skateboards. Like many in the O.T.C., neither of them went pro. Neither of them got sponsored. They have spent half their lives skating for nothing but the love of it.

"Even if I walked away from it, I always find my way back to it," says Kevitt simply. "I didn't choose it. It chose me."

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