Ironwood the reliable
When most of the Upper Midwest is brown, cross-country skiers know where to find snow.
© Beth Gauper
A skier follows the Montreal River on ABR's Jack Pine Trail.
In Ironwood, there’s one thing people can count on besides death and taxes.
Snow, and lots of it, is a sure thing in this former ore-mining town just over the Wisconsin-Michigan border. Blown in over Lake Superior, the snow starts falling as soon as days cool down in late autumn and keeps falling until spring sun turns the pink-tinted piles into slush.
Its sheer quantity often exasperates locals, but it exhilarates the cross-country skiers who converge on the town like sheep to salt, desperate to hear the crunch of newfallen snow and cast their eyes over a world of white.
When snow slights such ski meccas as Cable, Duluth and Minocqua, skiers head for Ironwood and its conjoined twin in
“You can always count on the snow here,’’ said Scott Miller of Winona, whom I met skiing with nine friends
at Wolverine Nordic Trails. “It’s just a matter of how much farther you have to drive.’’
Miller said he and his friends, all from the Winona-La Crosse area, used to go to Cable, an hour closer to their homes.
One year in early March, I’d driven from the Cable area myself, looking for something better than the icy crust on the trails I’d hoped to ski there.
Winding my way through forest roads, past Whitecap Mountain ski hill and through Hurley’s honky-tonk downtown, I crossed the Montreal River and drove through an Ironwood neighborhood to ABR, whose superbly groomed trails have made it the fail-safe for skiers from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.
Eric Anderson, who runs the cross-country ski area, was at the counter selling day passes.
“This has been the best year ever,’’ he said, smiling. “Until everyone else gets snow, we do a great business.’’
In the parking lot, Melva Cain of Burnsville and Lee Pedersen of North St. Paul were getting ready to ski.
“We didn’t get to ski at all last year, and we’re not going to let that happen again,’’ Cain said. “We’re going where there’s snow.’’
“If Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, we have to do something,’’ Pedersen said. The two had tried to find a room in the Ironwood area but instead landed at a B&B in Manitowish Waters, 40 minutes south in the snow belt of Wisconsin.
© Jodi Stammer
Skiers cruise past snow-flocked spruce at ABR.
“There was no snow there,’’ Cain said. “So this is the place to find snow.’’
After skiing several loops on the rolling terrain at ABR — along the river, through open meadows, through forest and past an ice fall — I headed east of town to Wolverine, a volunteer-run system of trails just south of Big Powderhorn, one of three downhill ski slopes along the range of hills between U.S. 2 and Lake Superior.
Wolverine Ski Club organized in 1935 as a ski-jumping club and, as its Finnish founders aged, switched to cross-country skiing. Now it has a cozy chalet, with a wood stove, hot chocolate and coffee and homemade cookies.
“It’s nice when outdoor winter activities can become a lifestyle, and you can count on it,’’ said member Bruce Greenberg, who was leading a children’s ski outing. “We’re here for the community, we’re here for everybody — recreational skiing, ski-joring, people out with their pets.’’
Wolverine’s 54 acres also have more hills than ABR, and many fewer skiers. I saw only a few people as I skied, though
conditions were very good.
And it has some lovely stretches; once, at the top of a run made shadowy and mysterious by a grove of white pine, I had to stop and just take in the view.
As the sun began to sink and I started driving back to my lodge room in Seeley, snow started to fall. By the time I was 15 minutes into Wisconsin it was blowing horizontally into my windshield, and I had to creep along the forest roads.That Sunday morning there was snow on the trails around Cable, but none of them were groomed. For Cable, it was a case of too little, too late.
Trip Tips: Nordic skiing in Ironwood
Getting there: In best conditions, it’s 4 hours from the Twin Cities via U.S. 2 across Wisconsin from Duluth
and 5½ to 6 hours from Milwaukee.
Snow conditions: The Ironwood Daily Globe lists the amount of snow on the ground and the snowfall to date on its home page.
For more about alpine skiing at Indianhead, Blackjack and Big Powderhorn, see Ski the UP.
For more about Whitecap Mountains, just west of Ironwood and Hurley, see Cruising at Whitecap.
2013 events: Jan 12, Sisu Ski Fest. This Finnish fest includes a 7K Taste N Tour with food stations showcasing Yooper cuisine, a kids' race and 21K and 42K races through historic mining areas, scenic bluffs and along the Montreal River.
© Beth Gauper
A warming shack sits at the junction of four trails at ABR.
There's a free Finnish reggae concert after the Saturday awards ceremony at the Historic Ironwood Theatre.
Active Backwoods Retreat in Ironwood, Mich.: This ski area, on the outskirts of Ironwood along the Montreal River, has the most reliable snow in the region by far, and skiing usually continues into April.
It has 60 kilometers of beautifully groomed skating and striding trails and a 4-kilometer snowshoeing loop on more than 600
It rents the Hilltop House, which has has three bedrooms, two baths, a Jacuzzi and fireplace and sleeps up to 14. The
three-bedroom River House has a fireplace and electric sauna and sleeps 10.
To get there, turn south from U.S. 2 onto Lake Street and follow signs onto Frenchtown Road and South Range Road.
Wolverine Nordic Trails: This volunteer-run system in the north part of town has 17 kilometers skating and classical; they're maintained by donations to the Wolverine Ski Club ($10 is suggested).
Dogs are allowed, and there's also a snowshoe trail.
It's adjacent to the Big Powderhorn alpine area. To get there, drive a mile east of town on U.S. 2, turn north on Section 12
Road and drive 1.3 miles, turn east on Sunset Road and drive half a mile until you see the Wolverine chalet on the right,
across from Lookout Lane.
© Beth Gauper
ABR's wide River Trail connects to many other trails.
At Big Powderhorn, Nordic skiers can buy a $2 one-ride lift ticket and reach Wolverine’s 7-kilometer Powderhorn Loop by skiing off Lift No. 4.
Accommodations: Reserve rooms for weekends as soon as possible, since there’s also heavy demand from downhill skiers and snowmobilers, especially when there’s little snow other places around the Upper Midwest.
Across the street from Wolverine Nordic, Wolverine Village is a newly built skiers' retreat. Small cabins that sleep up to three go for $55, and large cabins that sleep up to 12 go for $175. There's also a dining hall, laundry area, showers and wax rooms.
Black River Crossing B&B, overlooking Big Powderhorn, has three rooms and common areas that include a workout room and wood-fired sauna. 906-932-2604.
Black River Lodge is eight miles north of Ironwood along Black River
Road, which leads to the nearby Black River Recreation Area and its scenic five waterfalls along the river gorge.
There’s a pool and hot tub, 906-932-3857.
There are many franchise motels along U.S. 2, also known as Cloverland Drive: Budget Host Inn, 906-932-1260; Super 8,
906-932-3395; Comfort Inn, 906-932-2224; Americinn, 906-932-7200; Sandpiper, 906-932-2000.
Dining: In downtown Hurley, just across the Montreal River from downtown Ironwood, the Iron Nugget on Silver Street
is friendly, has a nice atmosphere and a menu that includes gnocchi, spinach ravioli and other Italian specialties. The
nearby Branding Iron is known for steaks and ribs.
The pleasant Sharon's Coffee Co., in an 1888 brick building, serves sandwiches as well as hot drinks.
Nightlife: The 1928 Historic Ironwood Theatre downtown is a renovated
vaudeville house that showcases visiting performers.
Last updated on February 8, 2013
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