Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Midwest Telefest draws hundreds to Big Powderhorn


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Ironwood Township - Several hundred people gathered last weekend for the 34th annual Midwest Telefest at Big Powderhorn Mountain Resort in Ironwood Township.

The three-day event normally takes place at the Porcupine Mountains Ski Area in Ontonagon, but it was moved this year due to inadequate snow at that site, which relies only on Mother Nature.

Race Director Peter Werts of Madison, Wisconsin, said he expects the event to return to Ontonagon next year.

According to Keith Opperman, the event organizer, Powderhorn - with its ability to make snow - served as a good backup for this year's event, but he admitted that Telemark skiers prefer natural snow.

"It's more fluffy, softer," he said of fallen snow, whereas man-made snow is "firm" and "less thrilling."

Opperman, of Washburn, Wisconsin, said that last year's event drew more than 650 attendees, whereas he expected the final count this year to be roughly half that.

According to Werts, timing was not an issue in the Telemark races that occurred last Saturday. The only point was who reached the bottom of the hill first.

The Men's and Women's Uphill/Downhill Climb Race was unique in that participants had to climb up Caribou Hill on their skis before then descending back down to the bottom.

Marty Monsa of Grand Rapids, was the men's winner, and Susan Schroeder of Ironwood was the women's winner and came in third overall.

Schroeder later told The Globe that she had competed in the Telefest "many, many years ago" when she lived in Minnesota.

Now, at the age of 58, she tackled it again among mostly male skiers. Telemark skiing, she said, "is kind of a guy thing."

Because she also skis cross country, Schroeder said that climbing up the hill didn't bother her, but she conceded that, when she reached the steepest part of the uphill climb, "I was breathing hard there."

At the top of the hill, she also had to remove the climbing skins on her skis, which she felt slowed her down.

Schroeder said that she and her husband, Jim Syverson, have been Telemark skiing for decades. "I don't even Alpine ski at all," she said, describing the Telemark technique as "a super fun motion."

As for Monsa, he said, "I started in 2000, so this is my 24th season."

He said that family members who worked in the back country for the National Park Service got him interested in the sport. Now, his son, George, 10, also competes with him.

One of the other competitions was the Spills, Quills and Hills Mountain Race, won by Frank Buffy of Milwaukee. "Quills" refer to the Telefest mascot, which is a porcupine.

The final competition was the Smelly Kneepad Super G Race, during which vintage equipment must be used. Garcia Opperman of Washburn won that race.

Members of the National Ski Patrol teamed up to assure the safety of competitors.

"We had two people standing there at the top of a hill with a toboggan," said Evan Sandok of Marshfield, Wisconsin. He said patrol members were ready to descend to an injured racer as needed.

Karna Sandok, his wife, added that another member of the team was stationed at bottom and remained "in constant radio contact" regarding the status of racers.

"Telefest Central" was in Caribou Lodge, where awards were distributed. A chili cook-off there doubled as a lunch break and as a fundraiser for the Telefest, which is a nonprofit organization.

Also inside were vendors from various regions. They included Keith Woods, former president of Telemark Ski Canada, who said he'd traveled 17 hours from that country to attend the event for the first time.

Woods launched into a discussion with Josh Madsen, owner of Freeheel Life in Salt Lake City, Utah, which makes and markets handmade skis.

The two men explained how early Telemark skis were thinner in style, whereas modern skis are a bit broader. As for what's safer, Woods said that may depend on the skier's skill.

Madsen, who was in the 2005 Warren Miller film titled "Higher Ground," also has a weekly podcast called "Freehill Life," available on youtube.

As the board president of Midwest Telefest, Opperman emphasized that the event is about more than just skiing, although many attendees relish the sport.

"I started attending this festival when I was about 12 years old," he said. "The real reason people come out for this fest - really, it's for the community."

He added, "People travel all over America to attend this festival. There are folks that started here in the '90s and they brought their kids, and now they're bringing their grandkids."

Mitch Kreps, of Milwaukee, won the Smelly Kneepad Race last year, but as he pulled on his boots for this year's race, he was less concerned with someone else pointing out his success than he was with the experience at large.

As he put it, Telemark skiing "allows people to have a different experience going down the hill every single time."

Kreps agreed with Opperman that the event is highly social. He said it provides great access for beginners to gather advice from pros and referred to it as "a blast" in general.

"We call this our Christmas," he said with a smile.

Some attendees, such as Marissa Linback of North Dakota, just enjoyed the opportunity to hang out with the crowd even though they had no intention of competing.

"I love it," said Brad Leversee of Marquette. "These are some of the best people, enjoying one common love."

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