Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Resorts optimistic for regional skiing


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Ironwood — Area ski resort managers are optimistic that more regional skiers will stay closer to home this season and help boost the struggling pandemic economy in the new year.

All the local ski hills and trails plan to be open with adjustments to operations that discourage crowds and lines. Area cross country ski events have gone virtual, were canceled or are still being considered.

Big Powderhorn Mountain Resort in Ironwood Township is preparing for a busier than usual season, according to Bruce Noren, co-owner and general manager. The ski industry anticipates that winter sports skiers will follow suit with the growing popularity of nearby weekend trips for camping and other outdoor activities over summer.

“I think we’re going to benefit from this situation,” Noren said.

The family chalet rentals provide distancing from other families, he said. Families can ski and return to the chalet for meals and recreation to minimize public interaction.

The ski lodge bar, restaurant and other common areas present challenges, he said. Outdoor seating areas will be open when weather permits and ski rentals may be conducted through appointment or using pod shields to protect staff and guests.

“With the exception of the holidays we should be just fine with providing social distancing requirements that people can be comfortable with,” Noren said. “The holidays are always a challenge with density over Christmas and New Years and we’re just going to make a little more of an effort.”

Noren said his hope is that the pandemic’s impact on cabin fever might mean an uptick with the local skier base that has declined. The other factor is getting enough snow and the predictions are promising.

Big Snow Ski Resort

The news from the ski resort associations is very promising, said Matthew Vaughan, CEO of Big Snow Ski Resort that includes Indianhead and Blackjack Mountains ski hills in Wakefield. Sales for boats, recreational vehicles and camping are up this year and the resort booking and requests for information indicates a normal to above average year.

The resort can expect up to 2,500 people on a Saturday and he said operations will run safely with 120 acres of ski hill to distance people. Crowded lift lines are a concern of the major resorts on the East and West coasts while the Midwest hills have much smaller lines and open slopes.

“We feel generally in the Midwest that we’re going to see an uptick in skier visits this season because people don’t want to travel,” Vaughan said. “Also, with the older two-seat lifts here you’re not riding up with anyone you don’t know, so that’s pretty safe.”

To further reduce crowding and lines the resort will have online ticket sales and outdoor point-of-sale systems so skiers can hit the slopes without ever entering the lodge. Staff will be directing people to lodging, ski lessons and rentals and opening more dining rooms and lodges on busier weekends.

“The biggest concern is our indoor capacity,” Vaughan said. “We need to be cognizant of who is in the building and we will be keeping track and sanitizing more than ever.”

The ski resort nightlife will remain an important part of the experience as happy skiers seek to relax after a day on the slopes, Vaughan said. It may be necessary to shut down some winter activities but overall the resort can operate safely, he said.

Whitecap Mountains Resort

David Dziuban, manager of Whitecap Mountains Resort in Upson, Wisconsin, said the summer renovations are completed and that everything is ready for what should be a great season.

“We held off on announcing events to see what was going to happen,” Dziuban said. “It’s fortunate that our winter events for the most part are outside.”

Air travel is down 70% and airlines are laying off people by the thousands, he said. If people are not flying to the Rockies or out East then they will be driving to resorts closer to home.

“That puts us in a very advantageous position,” Dziuban said. “We think that we’re going to be busier than in years past just because of the COVID situation, the travel restrictions and the fact that flying is down.”

The restaurant and hotel are operating with main floor and balcony seating to seat more people with distancing. People at the bar can sit with family and friends and distance from others, or use the outdoor Wine Hut bar on the slopes, he said.

The resort is encouraging people to comply with signage saying, “Be Whitecap Smart, Stay 6 Feet Apart.”

Mt. Zion and Porkies

Considered the area’s “local hill” where everyone learned to ski, the Mt. Zion ski hill is also a training ground for students in the Ski Area Management Program at Gogebic Community College that is adjacent to the hill in Ironwood. The GCC students also run the Porcupine Mountain Ski Area in Ontonagon County.

“I believe that we will have a good winter and believe that we will be up in skier visits,” said Jim Vander Spoel, director of the GCC program and Mt. Zion Operations.

The camping and mountain biking numbers were very strong this summer, he said. People will also want to winter recreate outside and skiing is an ideal way, he said.

“I see an uptick and this should be a good winter for us,” Vander Spoel said.

The ski hill will likely be open regular hours, he said. What is less clear right now is if the elementary school programs that bus children to ski on Wednesdays and Fridays will occur this season.

“We don’t know one way or the other yet,” Vander Spoel said.

Ticket sales will likely be moved outside into a tent with heaters to control the traffic flow in the small chalet,” he said. Distancing on the mountain is natural and skis make it easy to distance from others in lines.

The Team Z youth competition skiing program should be able to operate with modifications, he said. The annual King of the Mountain Ski Race is not canceled but it’s also late in the season.

Cross Country

Area cross country ski trails draw individuals, families and ski teams from all over who seek well-groomed trails and the expectations that the U.P. will have a lot of snow.

Wolverine Nordic Ski Trails, a course and chalet in Ironwood Township, has 24 kilometers of classic skate skiing trails, 14 kilometers of snowshoe trails and 7 kilometers of snow bike trails.

Wolverine will be fully groomed and operating the trails this season, according to the management. The nonprofit board will meet in October to determine if the chalet will be open on a limited basis.

Active Backwoods Retreat, better known as ABR Trails, offers 78 kilometers of groomed ski trails and 10 kilometers of snowshoe trails.

According to a website announcement from managers Eric Anderson and Angela Santini, ABR will sell skiing passes from the driveway or a walk up window. Season passes are encouraged with a reduced price to help avoid lines.

The ski shop will be open in a limited capacity for sales and rentals. The center and back rooms will not be available this year as a warming area, concessions, bag storage and restroom. Portable restrooms will be available in the shipping barn.

There will be two unheated men’s and women’s change areas. There will be three emergency warming cabins on the trails.

The trailside houses and rustic ski-in cabins will be rented as usual. The wax barn is closed.

Mike Shouldice, president of the MECCA cross country and snowshoe trails, said the 50-year-old nonprofit organization is expecting a great winter season for people to use 13 miles of trails on land in Mercer that is owned by the town of Mercer, Iron County, and state park land managed by the Department of Natural Resources.

“This summer we’ve seen more hikers since public health experts have suggested getting exercise outside while social distancing,” Shouldice said. “Skiers will get out on the forested trails as soon as the snow falls and the trails are groomed. We tripled our snowshoe trails and will showcase the Mercer Springs Snowshoe Tour.”

This winter season the chalet will be open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. with social distancing protocols.

MECCA Trails Winterfest, a classic and ski-skate style competition scheduled in February, will be a virtual event this season, with four ski and snowshoe events, Shouldice said. The Candlelight Ski, Shoe, Hike event that is scheduled in January is on hold for now, he said.