MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Snow asylum

In northeast Wisconsin, Afterglow Resort stays on top of the heap.

Two young girls at the bottom of a tubing hill.

© Beth Gauper

Two young guests from the Twin Cities hoist their tubes for another trip down the tubing hill at Afterglow.

In the wilds of northeast Wisconsin, winter always looks like winter.

It's the kind with snow snow that comes early, stays late and blankets the forest in heaps, supplying reliable skiing and snowshoeing to people from less-blessed locales.

But in 2003, the heaps of snow didn't come there or virtually anywhere, and skiers were desperate. So was Pete Moline, who runs Afterglow Resort on a lake near the Michigan border.

With no snow, he had no skiers and no livelihood. Then, he decided if snow wouldn't cover his trails, he'd bring it there himself.

"So, we have no snow on the trails, and I'm keeping everybody happy, serving a little more brandy than usual," says Gail Moline, his wife. "And I see Pete out plowing the lake. He's putting snow in this johnboat, and I think, 'What is he doing?'

"But pretty soon, the word gets out we're the only place with snow, and 200 skiers show up, and then all these people come and want to interview us. I had to eat crow for a long time."

That winter, Afterglow literally had boatloads of snow, spread over the trails with a shovel and combed out before dawn, to give the track time to set. 

Moline was able to groom his 11 miles of trails 33 times before other trails were groomed even once, and his feat cemented the resort's reputation for reliability, giving it the skiers' equivalent of an AAA bond rating.

"I always know the snow is going to be really good here," said Sandy Lotto, an elite skier from Eagle River. "We're spoiled to have this in our back yard."

Lotto was skiing for fun at Afterglow, fresh from a third-place finish in the Noquemanon Half Marathon on the Upper Peninsula.

"You see a lot of wildlife here, too," she said. "There are two porcupines, and I saw both of them today."

Playing in the snow

When I was there one January, there was plenty of snow and plenty of ice, too so much, in fact, it made the traditional post-sauna Polar Plunge into Afterglow Lake impossible.

"We got down to 22 inches with our chainsaw, and we said, 'Nope,' " said Gail Moline.

But jumping into a hole in the ice was the only thing we weren't able to do on our weekend at Afterglow.

Skiers at Afterglow Resort.

© Beth Gauper

Longtime guests ski on the trails around the resort.

The 240-acre lake resort, surrounded by Nicolet National Forest, was started in 1950 by Pete Moline's father, Bert, who was joined in 1957 by his new wife, Alice.

The year Pete was born was the first the resort stayed open for the winter, catering to snowmobilers and skiers, and young Pete took to the snow like a seal to water.

In his 20s, he skied in Colorado on the professional mogul circuit, placing fourth in the 1990, 1992 and 1993 world championships. 

But then he returned to northeast Wisconsin with Gail to run the resort and foster the snowboarding careers of their sons, Scott and Mitchell.

When the boys were younger, Pete Moline built a hill in the back yard, with a ramp connecting it to the roof of their house. In his snowmobile, he towed each boy up to the roof, whipping him up to the top as he turns to drive down.

The two boys also practiced on the 300-foot tubing hill across the lake. Every time their father towed guests to the top, they caught a rope and followed behind like water-skiers.

At Afterglow, no one sits around, least of all the guests. There's snowshoeing, tubing, broomball, skating and skiing, and most people try to do it all.

But nearly everyone, child and adult, plans the day around tubing, and they're ready when Pete Moline shows up on his snowmobile to take them up the hill.

"The first time you see it, you think, 'Whoa, it's so steep and narrow,' " says Dan O'Loughlin, of Minneapolis, who goes to Afterglow every year with family and friends. "But he grades it so you don't go into the trees."

"You're about halfway down, and you're not sure you're going to stay in the groove," adds Mark Halvorson, his brother-in-law. "You have a little minute of terror, and then you get through it."

You can't do it just once. And pretty soon, you're hooking your legs with other people to make a tube train, so you can go even faster and slide even farther onto the lake, coming to a stop in an exhilarating spray of snow.

When we weren't tubing, we were snowshoeing through the trees on 6 miles of snowshoe trails or skiing on trails groomed for skating as well as striding.

Once, we spotted one of the porcupines sitting in a tree right over the trail, its quills gleaming in a halo of sunlight.

Treats from the campfire

On Saturday, we gathered for the noon campfire, when Gail and Pete heat up kettles of beans and bring out hot dogs and buns for guests to grill. That day, they also treated us to shrimp and chicken grilled in cast-iron skillets, one with teriyaki sauce and one with an herb marinade.

A little cider, a little hot chocolate, and we were good to go for an afternoon of broomball, more tubing and skiing, followed by a soak in the lodge's hot tub.

Mike Broeckel and his wife, Laurie, come up twice a year from their home in DePere, Wis., with their two children.

A tube line at Afterglow Resort.

© Beth Gauper

A tube train gets ready to shoot down the hill.

"Isn't Afterglow a wonderful place?" Mike Broeckel said. "There's so much to do. The kids love the broomball, the tubing, the skiing. The campfires that's the best part of it. And Gail and Pete are such nice people."

By midmorning on Sunday, day skiers from Appleton, Wis.; Oshkosh, Wis.; and Phillips, Wis., already had checked in. We headed across Sugar Maple Road to the Phelps Ski Trail, a single track through feathery spruce trees that starts out rolling but soon is bucking like a wild pony.

After surviving that, we tried a more sedate snowshoe trail, on the advice of Mary Lincoln of St. Paul.

"I did every inch here," she said. "Try yellow or green they're both just really beautiful."

Afterglow is on the southern edge of the Lake Superior snow belt and averages 120 inches a year. But sometimes snow cover is thin, or warm temperatures turn it to mush. Then Pete Moline gets out his shovel and his trusty Tidd Tech G2 groomer, which he helped develop.

"In Colorado, I was absolutely determined to be the best mogul skier in the world, and I almost made it," he said. "Here, I'm just as determined to build the best-groomed trails possible and have the best grooming there is."

And Gail Moline is always ready to start a snowshoe baseball game or other scheme.

"Anything to keep everybody outdoors, that's our goal," she said. "We make sure everybody has fun."

Trip Tips: Winter at Afterglow Resort

Getting there: The resort is 17 miles north of Eagle River in northeast Wisconsin. It's 2 miles north of Phelps, off County Road E.

Accommodations: Housekeeping cottages have wood-burning fireplaces. Sheets and towels are not provided. We stayed at one of two units that are 2/3-mile up the road but didn't mind the distance.

Skiing usually is very good through March. The resort also is very popular in summer, with many activities for families; reserve for both seasons as early as possible.

Trail conditions: Moline grooms his entire trail system six to seven times a week when conditions allow. The Afterglow Web site gives updates. The resort doesn't rent skis, but it does rent snowshoes.

Activities: For an hour each day, Pete Moline hauls guests and tubes up a 300-foot tubing hill. There's a snowshoe nature hike Friday morning and, on Saturday and Sunday, beans-and-franks lunches over a campfire followed by a broomball game.

On Friday night, there's lighted ice skating, and on Saturday, skiing with headlamps. Occasionally, it's too warm or too cold for tubing, and then the Molines organize a snowshoe baseball game.

Inside, there's a whirlpool and sauna, plus ping-pong, foosball, pool and air hockey. A game and puzzle room overlooks the lake.

Dining: Lanny's Fireside Restaurant, north of Conover on U.S. 45, is only 10 minutes from Afterglow and features the excellent cooking of chef Lanny Studdard, who favors such European-influenced cuisine as beef rouladen and rack of lamb stuffed with Montrachet goat cheese. Reserve at 715-547-8120.

Bent's Camp, 10 miles west of Land O' Lakes, serves good food and is worth a visit just for the atmosphere; its 1906 log restaurant has stone fireplaces, paned windows overlooking Mamie Lake, lots of old photos and interior walls covered by thick squares of birch bark held in place by cedar strips.

Eagle River, 17 miles south, has many good restaurants and also is the place to stop for groceries. For more, see Full throttle in Eagle River.

Nearby attractions: Twenty miles north, across the Michigan border in Sylvania Wilderness and Recreation Area, Sylvania Outfitters grooms 20 miles of trails in Ottawa National Forest, 906-358-4766.

The area also is known for the Watersmeet Mystery Light, which can be seen on clear nights five miles north of Watersmeet.

Ask Pete Moline for details: "It's very entertaining," he says. "People always come back to the resort and talk about it; we have people telling all sorts of tall tales, spooky this and spooky that."

Information: Afterglow Resort, 715-545-2560.

Last updated on December 19, 2016