Ski the UP
At snow-blessed Michigan resorts, skiers and boarders get the drift.
The snow appeared on cue, just as Wisconsin faded into the Upper Peninsula. One minute there was a dusting, and the next a whole layer, white and inviting.
It seemed too perfect, as if there must be snowguns hidden behind the "Welcome to Michigan" sign. But there was snow beyond that, too, right up to the doors of the ski resorts that line U.S. 2 just inside the state line.
That's why they call this Big Snow Country. Winds from the west whip across Lake Superior, picking up warmth and moisture, and dump it as snow — more than 17 feet annually, on average — when they hit the cold inland air of the U.P.
Consider it the Midwest's snow reservoir. We did, when we made reservations for the week before Christmas, which is iffy elsewhere in the Upper Midwest. And the U.P. came through, not only with the snow, but with great skiing, too.
The first ski hill, Big Powderhorn Mountain, is just five miles inside Michigan; it has 25 runs in a nice variety that attracts families.
Snowriver Mountain's Black River Basin, formerly Blackjack, has 24 runs, including mogul fields that attract experts and a 100-foot-long, 10-foot-high half-pipe chute that attracts snowboarders. It's known as the locals' favorite.
Snowriver Mountain's Jackson Creek Summit, formerly Indianhead, has 30 runs and lots of good runs for intermediates. Its main lodge and chalet are on top of the mountain, and clusters of condos sit next to the chair lifts; it's a destination resort that draws skiers from around the region.
They all sit within five miles of each other on either side of the village of Bessemer, along the Gogebic Range, and all face Lake Superior, 17 miles to the north.
Iron ore was found here in 1880, and Bessemer, Ironwood and neighboring Hurley became rough-and-tumble mining towns until the 1960s, when their deep-shaft mines no longer could stand competition from the open-pit taconite mines of Minnesota's Iron Range.
Today, the old-fashioned downtowns of Ironwood and Hurley look stuck in the '60s; they're a fascinating side trip off U.S. 2.
But there's not much of a glamour factor, despite the nearby ski resorts. So don't expect apres-ski bars and French bistros.
"This isn't a ski town, it's a mining town," said Gary Alkire, an Indianhead ski instructor. "It's a lot like the Iron Range up here; they're East Rangers."
But the friendliness factor makes up for the lack of glamour.
"One of the first things I noticed when I moved here is people are so nice and friendly," said Norway-born instructor Bjorn "Bing" Bang. "I thought, 'These Finlanders are so nice' — of course, they're not all Finlanders."
At the former Indianhead, we got to know Alkire, Bang and the other instructors as well as Leonard, an elderly man in a Santa hat who roams the chalet putting logs on the fire and busing trays in the cafeteria.
Friendly young people adjusted our bindings, sold us a gaiter and stored our skis overnight.
The prices were friendly, too. Peak-season skiing and lodging cost quite a bit more, but specials and packages cut costs.
In three days, we packed in a lot of skiing. After the first run on the first day, my son Peter was shouting, "I love skiing; it's my favorite sport!"
We schussed right from the slopes onto the chairlifts, progressing from green to blue runs, and on the second day Peter and his sister, Madeleine, were ready for the five-hour Cruiser camp.
After they'd finished that, they took the plunges with aplomb, Peter still with the bat-out-of-hell technique but Madeleine with tidy little turns.
The temperature hadn't risen above zero, so they'd earned some play time in the lodge pool. In the hot tub, I discussed local snow conditions with Mary Loven of Northfield, Minn., who, like me, had been checking U.P. websites before she drove up.
The inland resorts had gotten 41 inches of snow, but Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, right along the lake, had barely received any.
But just before she and her husband, Tom Holt, and two sons drove up for a cross-country skiing vacation, the snow fell.
"We really got lucky, but we didn't realize how lucky until last week," she said. "It was so beautiful. The snow was this thick on the branches."
Cross-country skiers and snowmobilers also flock to the U.P., especially when their home conditions are bad.
In Michigan, the U.P. is so remote it's considered the state's own Alaska — 600 miles from Detroit, contributing only 4 percent of the state's population and no longer good for mineral wealth.
The U.P., however, has one last resource — snow and more snow. And to winter-loving residents in neighboring states, that's a rich resource indeed.
Trip Tips: Alpine skiing in the Upper Peninsula
Getting there: It's a 4½-hour drive from the Twin Cities, the closest metropolitan area. For the most reliable road conditions, take I-35 to Duluth and U.S. 2 across Wisconsin.
Downhill skiing: Snowriver Mountain's Jackson Creek Summit and nearby Big Powderhorn have vertical drops of 638 and 622 feet, a little less than Spirit Mountain in Duluth. Snowriver Mountain's Black River Basin has a drop of 465 feet.
For the best deals, go midweek, before Christmas and after March 1. Always ask for specials and packages. Children 9 and under ski free per paid adult.
On the northeast edge of Ironwood, Mount Zion Recreational Complex, part of Gogebic Community College, has a 300-foot drop and inexpensive lift tickets.
It also has a snow tubing hill with three chutes and a lift.
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.
Nightlife: The 1928 Historic Ironwood Theatre downtown is a renovated vaudeville house that showcases visiting performers.