The U.P. for last-minute skiing
Skiers ride a ski lift and pass the new lodge at Big Powderhorn Mountain Resort in Bessemer, Mich. (Handout / March 13, 2012)
Anywhere, that is, but here. This is the Midwest, dude. It's flat. Cross-country skiing? Sure. Cruising groomers and shredding powder? Not so much.
But not everyone has the means to jet off to Park City or Vail every time the carving urge strikes, especially for that last-minute ski late in the season. Fortunately, for Chicagoans willing to downsize their expectations, there are nearby options whose seasons can run into April.
If there is a ski mecca in this part of the country, it's the Upper Peninsula of Michigan: Big Snow Country. It has snow (about 200 inches in a typical year), long winters and occasional spots of, well, elevated terrain. Not exactly mountains; the Midwest puts the "hill" in downhill skiing. But my view is that skiing is like chocolate cake. Even the worst is pretty good.
Average low temperatures won't reach above freezing till the end of April. Despite the current warm spell, some late-season snows this year make a late-season ski more likely. And if you can't make it this year, think about it for next season.
At this point last year, I took a trip to the western U.P., making my base in Ironwood, a seven-hour drive from Chicago. I was resolved to try three ski hills in three days, all with verticals of 600 feet or more, to get a full taste of what the area has to offer.
I began on a foggy overcast Friday morning at Indianhead Mountain Resort, which was a bit nostalgic for me. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this season, the resort is where my kids and I learned to ski in 2001. I hadn't been back in years, and I was eager to see how it compared with my memory.
Indianhead has a distinctive "upside down" configuration: Its "base" complex sits atop the mountain, so you start your day by skiing down instead of going up a lift. It's tucked into a valley, and the dark conditions this day enhanced its secluded feel, even though another resort (Blackjack) is just next door, within sight of some runs.
Just west of Wakefield, Indianhead is a medium-size ski resort, offering 29 runs over 220 acres. It features wide, rolling blue runs, and its diamond trails are gently sloped at the top and steep at the bottom — the opposite of the norm for Midwestern mountains. With the usual scattered patches of ice, that makes for some exciting approaches to the lifts.
Indianhead also is atypical in that a couple of the expert runs are accessible only by a rope tow, something I hadn't encountered (or missed) since my days on the bunny hill. One of the blacks wasn't accessible at all, because the lift was closed that day (not uncommon here. There are some elaborate terrain parks, but when I was there it had no moguls, though there are this year.
You'll find a full-service resort with a lodge, trailside condos, plenty of bars and restaurants at top and bottom, a gift shop and a staff of instructors. Pouring drinks at the Red Dog Saloon, next to a main lift, I found Trish, author of a series of messages tacked up under the heading "Trishism of the Day," including: "Lack of planning on your part doesn't constitute an emergency on my part," and, "Some days it's not even worth chewing through the restraints."
The next day, I got up early and drove an hour to one of the least known and most unusual of the U.P.'s sites, a hill with no snow-making equipment, making it completely dependent on what nature can provide. It did, however, have groomed runs. Perched on the shore of Lake Superior, Porcupine Mountain (the mountain chain is known as "the Porkies," to locals) is for those who want skiing or boarding without frills or distractions.
Or, for that matter, a lot of company. I arrived Saturday morning at 10 a.m, forgetting that this part of the U.P. is on Eastern time, to find the parking lot nearly empty. Buying my lift ticket, I asked the guy at the window if it would be crowded later, and he answered cheerfully, "We're never crowded."
He wasn't kidding. On my first three trips up the mountain, amid steady flurries, I didn't see another person except the lift operator. It felt like an episode of "The Twilight Zone." I could hear Rod Serling: "The snow is falling, the lifts are running — it's a perfect winter day (long pause) for the last skier on Earth." Even after the arrival of a bus that unloaded a couple of dozen sojourners from Wausau, the place still felt like my private mountain. And I had thought Indianhead felt uncrowded.
One reason for the sparse attendance is that the Porkies are off the beaten path, in a wilderness state park with no sizable towns nearby. Another, perhaps, is that the winter had been short on snow, a big problem when there is no snowmaking equipment. About half the trails are accessible only by snowcats, which had been stopped earlier in the winter. On the remainder of the mountain, some runs were closed — and some could have been. They were riddled with spots where grass and twigs poked up through the skimpy base, along with large patches of ice. Only three runs were really fit for use the day I was there: one green, one blue and one black. Its website does point out that hidden obstacles exist. It's a good idea to check on what the weather has been before you try this place.
The Porkies, however, have a retro charm along with a grand view of Lake Superior. Lacking a terrain park, the place is short on snowboarders, which can be inviting for skiers. The staff couldn't be friendlier or more informative, and if you prefer Nordic skiing, there are plenty of trails. Anyone accustomed to amenities, however, may feel shortchanged. There's a gift shop but no bar, and the grill has a short menu — meaning it's fine if you like burgers and fries. There are no instructors. I'd like to come back sometime when I can see the mountain at its best, which it was not on the day I was there. And this season, a lone triple chairlift is serving all runs.
On Sunday, I went to Big Powderhorn in Bessemer, the closest of the three to my motel. It's larger than the other two, with 33 runs on 250 acres, and it seems bigger yet. On a mild, sunny day, it had a wide-open feel, with panoramic views from commanding heights. Known for its terrain, ranked first in the Midwest two years in a row by the website OntheSnow.com, it offers long, wide beginner and intermediate runs, and some expert trails feature the steepest pitches I've encountered in the Midwest. But anyone taking on the blacks gets plenty of recovery time on the long, flat sections at the bottom. There is no recovery time waiting for the ride back up, though: Even on a perfect Sunday, I never had to wait for a lift.
This year the handsome new Gun Barrel Lodge is up and running. It houses a bar, a cafeteria, a ski shop, the ticket office, the ski rental and a ski school. It's adjacent to the Caribou Lodge, which has lockers, a bar, a restaurant, a swimming pool and the ski patrol.
The western U.P. is not going to replace Utah or Colorado or Vermont in the hearts of skiers who are able and willing to fly to their favorite resorts. But it has the advantages of lower prices, relative proximity and short lift lines for anyone who wants to ski more than a couple of times a year. Stephen Stills might advise: If you're not near the mountains you love, love the mountains you're near.
If you go
Indianhead Mountain Resort, 500 Indianhead Road, Wakefield, Mich.; 800-346-3426; indianheadmtn.com
Porcupine Mountain, 33303 Headquarters Road, Ontonagon, Mich.; 906-289-4105; skitheporkies.com
Big Powderhorn Mountain Resort, N11375 Powderhorn Road, Bessemer, Mich.; 800-501-7669; bigpowderhorn.net. Single-day lift tickets are $49 for adults at Big Powderhorn and Indianhead. Porcupine charges $50 in a two-for-one deal by credit card or debit card and $54 cash.