The peaks are low, and the turns are plentiful
Posted December 12, 2017 11:14 p.m. EST
The snow sparkled on broad Kath Run at Boyne Highlands in northern Michigan as Tony Sendlhofer and I hit the powdery margins with each slope-hogging S-turn, leaving a joyous loopy trail on the freshly groomed corduroy of a sunny March day.
“They say about Midwest skiers that we love to make turns,” said Sendlhofer, a native of Austria and the director of the resort’s snow sports. “That’s what we have, to make it last.”
By our turns, we Michiganders say, you shall know us, from Aspen to Zermatt. Our mountains, with their 500-foot drops, some call hills. But the resorts of northern Michigan have a tradition of teaching by European experts that goes back to the earliest days of skiing in the United States and a reputation for raising ski enthusiasts eager to make tracks at the larger mountain destinations of the world.
“Because of shorter runs and sometimes icy conditions, skiers in this section of the state seem to really focus on making a great turn,” said Jim Neff, the editor of MichiganSkier.com. “When I go out West, I can make turns lasting 100 yards instead of five or 10 yards.”
As a Detroit native and a lifelong visitor to the region known as “Up North,” I learned to turn on these hills, acquiring ski skills that have served me well from Switzerland to New Zealand. Affordability is a major draw — lift tickets often cost less than half what the big Western resorts command — as is natural beauty, albeit of the subtle Midwestern sort.
Three of the region’s top ski areas reside in the upper left quadrant of the Michigan mitten, which is rough geography for the map of the state’s Lower Peninsula that locals commonly make with their palms held high. None are more than 90 miles apart, making it easy to hill-hop from the fruit-growing region around Traverse City following the Lake Michigan shoreline north to the highlands bracketing Little Traverse Bay. It’s a part of the state that has drawn celebrity émigrés, hardy winemakers and a fair number of protectionist locals. As my friend Mike Fisher, who grew up near Petoskey, often says: “This is the best place on Earth. Don’t tell anyone.” In summer, the Great Lakes and the lesser ones attract tourists and second-home owners from near and far, swelling towns like Charlevoix and Harbor Springs. In winter, most of their T-shirt and fudge shops close, reminding me just how lean a four-season existence in northern Michigan really is.
I’ve always thought of winter as the magical season of warm fires, trackless drift-filled forests and sunsets that paint the snow-covered lakes pink. For skiers who like to explore, it’s also the best time to meet the locals in resort towns like Traverse City and Petoskey with the sort of history and authenticity that most newer Western ski resorts try to construct.
Over a long weekend last winter, I took a northern Michigan road trip to test my theory that elevation isn’t everything and compensations can come well off-piste.
The snow guns at Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville, 30 miles south of Traverse City, were blasting when I arrived on a bright afternoon, blotting out the blue sky in artificial clouds during a remarkably warm winter season. The thrum of the machines continued all night, frosting the tidy base village and piling more promising accumulations on the hills as the conditions, dipping to 11 degrees, improved.
Eight lifts provide easy access to 102 acres of skiing, which is helpful as, with a 375-foot rise, I found myself riding the chairs a lot. The main high-speed quad delivers skiers to beginner, intermediate and expert runs, as well as what turned out to be my favorites in the Backyard: five mostly blue runs on the far side of the hill that I had to myself for hours without having to slow much to catch the lift. Crystal was my first reminder that Michigan resorts do not compete on mountain stats. It takes creativity to vie for winter business in an industry dependent on increasingly unpredictable weather and the challenge of bigger mountains within a three-hour plane ride. Recreational diversity abounds, and Crystal’s unique attraction, Michigan Legacy Art Park, strews over 40 pieces of sculpture throughout a wooded, 30-acre plot threaded by rolling snowshoe trails where the spiraling wood boards of “Sawpath No. 2” by David Barr seemed a fitting descendant of the hardwoods above it.
Liftopia, which sells discounted lift tickets to ski resorts globally, named Crystal Mountain second nationally in last year’s Best in Snow awards, a measurement that considers skier visits, size, cost and the passion of its 10,000 respondents. Like them, I was impressed by the cheer of the hotel staff at Inn on the Mountain and the availability of amenities ranging from a spa to good restaurants. The menu at the slopeside wood-paneled Thistle Pub & Grill hewed to local flavors like cherry barbecued pork (more than 70 percent of the nation’s tart cherry harvest is grown in the area annually) and shaved Brussels sprouts salad with Michigan apples. The house red wine came from Black Star Farms in the nearby Leelanau Peninsula.
Ask a simple question of a Michigander — my go-to was “What’s fun around here?” — and you’re bound to get a laundry list of recommendations. I quickly found my Michigan ski trip was less about the resort than about the region when I was directed off-property for a drink at Crystal’s new neighbor, Iron Fish Distillery. The farm-to-flask operation grows 30 percent its own grain and gets the rest locally, then mills, mashes, ferments and distills it on site. The end products, including a tasty gin made with regional botanicals, are named for the steelhead in the neighboring Betsie River.
“Its personality is similar to whiskey,” said Richard Anderson, one of the owners, showing me around the stills installed in a barnlike production room. “Fishermen describe them as coy, territorial, strong and determined. It’s a fish with attitude.”
A Mexican food truck was pulling in for the après-ski hour as I set out for Traverse City. The largest city in the north, Traverse, as it is called, has taken its cue from the orchards and vineyards nearby to nurture a culinary flare evident at a range of restaurants and bars, from thoughtful microbreweries to ambitious locavore restaurants such as Alliance.
Even in town, the country was never far away. I checked into the new Hotel Indigo Traverse City opposite Grand Traverse Bay, where a photo mural of river rocks decorated the room. The city’s many breweries, shops and restaurants lay within walking distance. At the Workshop Brewing Co., runners registering for a chilly 5K race the next day stopped for pints of Sickle saison over board games of Guess Who? and rounds at the foosball table. I continued my pedestrian pub crawl a few blocks away in a former canning company loading dock at Rare Bird Brew Pub, named for the owners’ passion for bird-watching and filled with tables salvaged from a local cottonwood tree that was more than 120 years old when it died.
Overnight snow slicked the two-lane roads that lead 58 miles north from Traverse City to Boyne Mountain in Boyne Falls. The Tyrolean-accented resort became Michigan’s leading ski area when Everett Kircher, a Studebaker dealer and skier from Detroit, found 40 acres with a 1,150-foot rise in the northern woods and paid the skeptical owner $1 to build a winter resort in 1947. Its base village presses against the mountain’s rise, producing an energizing degree of congestion. Snow-flocked Adirondack chairs clustered around open fires near a food truck serving beef shank tacos. Some 10 lifts scaled its broad face, offering plenty of choices.
I joined Wolfgang Russold, another native of Austria and the director of Boyne’s ski school, on the central Mountain Express chair, where he explained Boyne’s long tradition of Austrian recruitment, “for flavor and for labor,” he said. “Ski instructor certification is more rigorous in Austria than here,” and Kircher wanted the best.
In 1954, he recruited Norwegian Olympic gold medalist Stein Eriksen to run the Boyne ski school and dazzle crowds with his signature aerial flip. Othmar Schneider, an Olympic champion from Austria, took over in 1961 for the next 14 winters.
Skiers came from around the Midwest to learn the then-new reverse-shoulder technique at Boyne. As skiing caught on in the 1960s, Kircher, “a wiry little man who operates at Bravura tempo and dances to his own tune,” according to Skiing magazine, continued to tinker with his formula. He developed the first three-person chairlift, installed the first four-person lift and used advanced snow-making technology. There are luxury condominiums here now and a hotel with a grand lobby, testaments to the resort’s year-round appeal that includes two golf courses. An indoor water park, added in 2005, ensures families have plenty of diversion whatever happens with the weather. But its vintage features, including the Snowflake Lounge where après-skiers dance on snowflake-pattern carpet, echo Boyne’s early days as a getaway for singles. Old photos displayed in vitrines devoted to memorabilia in Stein Ericksen’s restaurant capture outdoor parties and couples in a steaming swimming pool beside the slopes, where one exists today.
Boyne Mountain is minutes from Walloon Lake, where Ernest Hemingway spent boyhood summers at his family’s home, and 15 miles from Petoskey, where the author was known to drink at the City Park Grill. But I’ve always thought it was another author, Michigan-born Jim Harrison, who best captured the allure of the north.
“Looking at the Manitous on a winter walk is worth any self-help book save the Bible,” he once wrote of the offshore Manitou Islands in Lake Michigan.
You can’t see the Manitous from the top of Boyne Highlands, Kircher’s follow-up Michigan effort, established in 1963, but you can see the Mackinac Bridge to the north. As a second-generation Boyne resort, the Highlands is more spacious, now encompassing more than 4,000 acres with a significant devotion to golf and real estate sales. The company encourages two-resort vacations by offering interchangeable lift tickets and allowing equipment rentals at one resort to be returned at either.
Between the two ski areas in Petoskey, the company also owns the waterfront Inn at Bay Harbor, modeled on grand 19th-century resorts. Here, skiers are warmly welcomed — every bellman I met asked about the ski conditions — and a free shuttle to Petoskey’s historic Gaslight District, just shy of 4 miles away, encourages guests to explore. Summer’s high tide of visitors largely supports the proliferation of independent shops and restaurants in Petoskey, where one of the typically literate salespeople at McLean & Eakin Booksellers spent 10 minutes extolling “The Sellout” by Paul Beatty when he learned I’d loved “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead. Seasonal staff goes with the tourists, which is why the bartender at Beards Brewery was the owner himself. I found more offseason rewards when I walked into the tiny Chandler’s restaurant, a culinary sophisticate disguised in knotty-pine paneling, and wound up at the bar between a local landscape designer and a chef who claimed the quiet was welcome.
“Winter is our season of recovery,” he said.
On the clearest, coldest and most breathtaking day of the trip, the snow glinted in the sunshine at Boyne Highlands, where eight lifts range across two mountains. The view from the central ridge takes in iced-over Little Traverse Bay in one direction and the peaked red roofs of the alpine base village in the other. “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan played on outdoor speakers, setting a mellow tone.
When he arrived from Austria in 1976, Tony Sendlhofer, then a new recruit to the ski school staff, looked at the 552-foot vertical drop and wondered where the mountain was. “But it wasn’t about that,” he said. “I always wanted to come to the U.S.”
He took up the mantle of the Austrian tradition here and has since taught generations of families how to ski, how to enjoy the outdoors in winter and, most infectiously, how to make the most of where you are.
“Come on,” he said, waving an insulated mitten toward the empty Kath Run below us. “Let’s make some turns.”