Editor’s Note: Jim DuFresne wrote and filed this blog for MichiganTrailMaps.com on Friday morning, Jan. 27. That evening five inches of snow had fallen on most of Emmit County and on Saturday Mother Nature added two more. There is good Nordic skiing from Gaylord through most of the northern half of the Lower Peninsula. For an update snow conditions report contact the Petoskey Visitors Bureau (800-845-2828; www.petoskeyarea.com) or the Gaylord Tourism Bureau (800-345-8621; www.gaylordmichigan.net).
By Jim DuFresne
When I left on my journey to find snow in northern Michigan, there was none around my house in Oakland County. Brown grass and fallen leaves were covering the ground.
It’s been horrible year for cross-country skiers in Southeast Michigan. At Independence Oaks County Park, my home trails, we’ve had exactly one day skiing when three inches had fallen the night before. Not enough for the park staff to groom and barely enough for some diehards to show up with their rock skis and take a loop around Crooked Lake.
So last week I jumped on I-75 and headed north and saw nothing for the first 100 miles. Then at Mile 191, there it was, in the woods, small patches and mounds of white.
Snow, it’s what allows some of us to endure everything else about winter.
By the time I passed West Branch the ground was white, at Grayling there was four to five inches and at Harbor Springs, my base of operation for the next five days, almost foot in most places. But a thunderstorm (you read that right; a thunderstorm with lightening and heavy rain) had occurred two days before I arrived and the snow was hard and icy.
The first trail on my list was more ice than snow so I ditched the Nordic skis and stepped into my snowshoes. The second was further north in Emmet County and further inland but the snow was still hard and crusty and the skiing was laborious. On the downhills I was taking my life into my hands, on the climbs I had work at my herringbone to dig the edges of my skis into the crust.
I was ready to call it a day when suddenly the sun appeared and on impulse I pulled into Petoskey State Park. The park has such a limited trail system that in the winter it’s where the locals go for a quick ski. Everybody else who has driven this far north searches for something more extensive.
This year the staff has set up a 1.4-mile loop, a ski trail that winds through the closed campgrounds, into the woods and then back along the unplowed park road. The trail is used enough that there is usually a decent set of tracks for classic skiing.
In the time it took me to park at the trailhead and step into my skis, the sun had already softened out the snow. I marveled how fast conditions can change in the winter and then glided into the woods on tracks that required only a few strategic kicks to keep the momentum up. Under a blue sky and with large pines whisking pass me, I found that Nordic rhythm that makes cross-country skiing such wonderful activity.
It was my first ski of the season and like that first cup of coffee in the morning, it never gets better than this. Even if you are only in Petoskey State Park.
When the trail entered Tanner Creek Campground at the south end of the park there were tracks everywhere. To add additional mileage some skiers where heading east into the dunes for more challenging elevation. Most headed west to check out Little Traverse Bay.
I headed west and skied between tuffs of brown beach grass along the low fore dunes. On a rounded, white mound that are the dunes in winter I stopped to take in the view; Little Traverse Bay with a shoreline of jumbled ice formations that were slowly taking on the pinks of January’s early sunsets. As far as I could see nobody else was around.
It was quintessential northern Michigan. Without snow spring can’t come fast enough. With it, summer and those humid days in July can wait.
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In every room at the Best Western of Harbor Springs there is a sign asking skiers “to please use caution with boots, skis and poles.” No doubt about it, this motel knows its clientele in the winter and caters to them shamelessly.
If you’re looking for a place to stay in Petoskey area, this Best Western (231-347-9050) is an excellent choice. The rooms are large, the breakfast will provide enough carbs to keep you going all day, there’s an indoor swimming pool and, more important, a hot tub.
The Best Western is located on M-119 just south of Harbor Springs, making its location ideal for both the downhill areas and major ski trails. I highly recommend it.