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Looking for Skiable Snow in November

Start Waxing! You can be Skiing On Thanksgiving

Editor’s Note: We no more ran this feature out on the first week of November than that weekend Michigan was hit with a colossal snowstorm. Parts of Southeast Michigan were hit with 9 inches of snow while the Upper Peninsula and Lake Michigan were buried in a foot or more.  Ski season has begun.

By Jim DuFresne

The first set of tracks I saw on the Valley Spur Ski Trail were those of a snowshoe hare. The second set was made by a pair of deer, meandering on and off the wide trail.

The third set was the ones I was hoping to find and suddenly I had it all. On a long downhill run, using the tracks of an early morning cross country skier, I kicked and glided easily through snow that was dry, powdery and 15 inches deep.

A wild downhill run for a cross-country skier in December.

A three-day odyssey into the Upper Peninsula and I found what eludes so many of us in southern Michigan at the end of the year.

Perfect skiing, in mid-November no less. That year I marked it in my calendar; “Nov. 17, ski season began.”

Why wait until January to pull your skis out of the attic? If you’re willing to search for snow you can begin your Nordic season now.

And if Heikki Lunta (the Yopper snow god) is smiling down on us, it isn’t as hard to find as you might think.

“It’s super no-wax skiing then,” says my skiing partner. “You kick to the woods and if you get a leaf underneath your ski…well you just keep on going.”

Early season skiing extends from your first encounter with snow until January when traditionally the woods and trails from Higgins Lake north have a permanent base that lasts until March.

The most important thing to remember when skiing before the New Year is what you wear; plenty of hunter orange because it’s also deer season.

The next thing to consider is your equipment. You know that new pair of racing skis you dropped $350 last winter?

Leave them in the attic.

“Up here everybody uses their rock skies in the early season,” said Rick Oikarinen of the Cross Country Sports Shop in Calumet, where the ski season has started, sort of, with 3 inches of snow on the ground.

Rock skis are an old, beat-up pair of no-waxers with so many gouges on the base that you’ll never know if you add a couple more.

Early season snow is highly unpredictable in both its composition and its depth. You can be striding along in 10 inches of snow in one section of the trail and a quarter-mile later you’ll hit leaves, dirt and rocks.

Best to use your “rock skis” in early season snow.

Having a no-wax base is also crucial. In the early season, the snow literary changes by the hour making most wax jobs obsolete before the tour is halfway over.

The key to decent skiing – we’re not calling this great skiing by any stretch of the imagination – is being on the trail fairly early in the morning. As the day warms up, the snow gets softer and from 1-3 p.m. the skiing is generally pretty poor.

Of course, you first must find snow. There are a handful of areas in Michigan that receive the white stuff on a regular basis in November and December. Here’s where to start your search:

Lake Michigan: Because of the lake effect on weather, the western shoreline of the Lower Peninsula will often get hit with several early season snowfalls. It just doesn’t last that long. But those with their skis already in the car rack can often squeeze in a sudden afternoon of striding through the snow.

Best bet is to try either the trails in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore in Leelanau County or the always well-groomed Vasa Trail near Traverse City. For snow conditions or more information contact Traverse City Tourism (800-872-8377).

Gaylord: A snow belt exists north of Grayling to Indian River. At 140 inches a year, the average snowfall of this area is one of the highest in the Lower Peninsula and much of it comes in the early season.

Consider the 23 kilometers of trails at Forbush Corner Ski Center, (989-889-1644), or the Shingle Mill Pathway, with loops of two, six and 10 miles in the Pigeon River Country State Forest. Within Gaylord itself, there is wonderful Aspen Park that even offers night skiing. For snow conditions call the Gaylord Area Tourism Bureau (800-345-8621).

Munising: The Munising area averages 160 inches of snow a year and Lake Superior can dump a mountain of it on Alger County in a hurry.

You’ll find more than 35 miles of ski trails in the surrounding Hiawatha National Forest and Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore. One of the best in the U.P. is the 45-kilometer network of trails at Valley Spur that is groomed almost daily at the height of the ski season. Call Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (906-387-3700) or  Downwind Sports (906-387-8025) for snow conditions.

Keweenaw Peninsula: This is where the snow is the deepest in Michigan. Copper Country averages more than 200 inches a year and a 300-inch year is not uncommon.

“We have collegiate teams who come up here for Thanksgiving break to train, said Ryan Bischer of Cross Country Sports. “It’s often their first time on snow.”

The peninsula’s best area is Swedetown Ski Trail, featuring 30 kilometers of groomed tracks, varying from beginner to more advanced trails, and a warming center. For snow conditions or rentals contact Cross Country Sports (906-337-4520).

Ironwood: The western half of Gogebic County often receives heavy early snowfalls making a six-month ski season a reality. It’s a long way to drive, 10 hours for most of us, but some would say people who want to strap on their skis during the firearm deer season are a little crazy to begin with.

If you are driving to the ends of the world to ski, an excellent destination is ABR Trails (906-932-3502), a full-service ski touring center with 75 kilometers of trails on 1,100 acres along the scenic Montreal River near Ironwood. They’re up and usually grooming by mid-November.

For a unique adventure, ABR Trails also features five rustic cabins located along its ski trails, accessible only by skiing or snowshoeing. There is no electricity or plumbing but there is a clean outhouse for each cabin. The cabins are heated by a wood stove which also has a flat cooking surface.

Ski Rentals

Forbush Corner Ski Center north of Grayling, ABR Trails in Ironwood and Cross Country Sports in Calumet all offer rental skis throughout the winter. So does Downwind Sports in Munising (906-387-8025).

Additional Information Rentals

For snow conditions or a list of trails in the Western U.P. call the Ottawa National Forest Supervisor’s Office in Ironwood (906-932-1330). For the entire U.P. contact the Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association (800-562-7134).

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