Friday, March 26, 2021

Chasing Snow and The Great Bear

I wanted to go on a ski trip this year but given all the uncertainty with COVID-19, we decided on a fairly “local” trip to Minocqua Winter Park and the Keweenaw Peninsula. Unlike the cold weather we’ve seen for the past couple years, this March turned out to be quite warm. Despite this, over our nine day vacation, I made a goal of skiing every day, with a mental note to lower my expectations.

We started off with a ski at Hyland’s snowmaking loop where we incidentally caught up with some friends. That afternoon we went to Whitetail Woods Regional Park where our Vakava friends, Craig and Eva, had an outdoor COVID-appropriate skiing wedding. Mother Nature obviously had other plans but Craig and Eva weren’t to be detoured. They spent a good chunk of Friday shoveling snow into a mini strip so they could hop on their matching retro three-pin binding wood skis and ski away. Their ceremony was short and afterwards there was no reception owing to COVID-19 rules, but a few of us hung out talking outdoors through masks and Erik and I were able to find enough snow to do a couple sledding runs! 

Craig and Eva's winter wedding. I loved the bridesmaid outfits!


Craig and Eva skiing away.

The next day we headed off to northeastern Wisconsin with the state high point, Timm’s Hill, on the radar. Timm’s Hill is located in a county park. In the summer the high point is a short walk from the parking lot but in the winter the road isn’t plowed. We left the snowless Twin Cities but as we got near Timm’s Hill, there was snow! When we got to the road, it was not plowed as expected. But then we discovered ski trails at Timm’s Hill! By now it was afternoon and the ski trails were slow and transformed and at least one person had walked down the middle, but still, we were stoked to find actual ski trails. 


The closed road at Timm's Hill County Park ended up being a ski trail!

And nice ski trails at that!

Here comes Erik! Yes, lots of hiking tracks on the skate deck:(

 

After doing a short loop, we made our way to the summit, somewhat foolishly double poling up a steep narrow trail. I say foolishly because what awaited us was an arm-busting climb up an old fire tower via ferrata-style. I’d read about this on Summit Post and we had brought our harnesses. Unfortunately for us, even though the weather was sunny and in the mid-forties, it was terribly windy. As I stood at the bottom of the tower shaking in the wind, trying to figure out how to connect my ferrata kit to the ladder rungs, I had serious doubts about climbing this tower. But I had to go.

Erik let me go first. I was wearing my ski boots which sometimes can be slippery. I wore my gloves and really struggled to clip and unclip the ferrata gear. As I got higher, the wind got stronger and this whole endeavor felt like a lot of risk. I moved slowly. I clipped into every other rung as that’s as far as my ferrata kit stretched. Sometimes it seemed it would be better to go without the protective gear so I could just go faster. I don’t know why I was so scared, but I was. 

Starting my climb.




Getting higher! Note the surrounding hills.

Finally I got to the top where there was a small platform. Erik had already started up so I had to wait for him before going down. I tried to enjoy the view as we were surrounded by hills on the west, south, and east, but with the wind whipping I was getting cold fast. As soon as Erik got up, I started down. This time instead of clipping my ferrata kit around the rungs, I clipped into the shell that somewhat protected the ladder. Unfortunately the metal shell shape made it really hard to get my carabiners undone and briefly I thought I was stuck. Finally I was able to undo it only to re-clip into the support and repeat my folly 10 feet farther down. 

Erik up on the tower.



Glad to be back on Terra Firma. You can zoom in and read the sign post. The wooden tower is seen here with the old fire tower just behind.

 

By the time I was two-thirds the way down I gave up clipping in and quickly descended to the ground. While Erik made his descent, I climbed the adjacent wooden tower stairs. This tower wasn’t quite as high but obviously much safer. After Erik got down we completed the ski trail loop and went back to our car. This was plenty of adventure for me for the day- probably even the trip!

 

GPS from our Timm's Hill via ferrata-ski.

 

We stayed in Minocqua with plans to ski at Minocqua Winter Park on Monday and Tuesday. With no snow in the Twin Cities and recent highs in the 40s, we were concerned there wouldn’t be any snow at Minocqua, but there was plenty. It was also possible they would close to the trail system to prevent damage to the trails during the warm weather, but to our satisfaction, they didn’t do this either.

Minocqua Winter Park has quite the trail system, touting 86 km. Arriving at opening, 9 am, icy trails greeted us. We were able to get an edge but conditions sure were fast. After an hour, the sun beating down, the snow began transforming. I had some difficulty as we started on a black trail where halfway down hills, the conditions would go from ice to slush. I fell twice trying to navigate these conditions. Later in the day I’d realize that staying in a tuck position can help and snowplowing seemed to be about the worst thing to do.

We skated 23 km, ate a quick lunch in our warm car, heated by the sun, and then started out on a slow classic slog. Like talk about 21 km in 2 hour and 46 minutes slow! By the end of the day we’d amassed more than a marathon and headed to the hot tub at our hotel. 

Skiing in a sports bra Monday afternoon.



The next day I promised myself I wouldn’t ski another marathon but that’s just what I did. Again we skated in the morning and classic skied in the afternoon as temps got up to 60, skiing almost every trail in the network except for Nutcracker, a black that looked too scary for our liking under the conditions. Erik did several sledding runs on Squirrel Hill while I kept skiing. I joined him for one final epic run, slaloming down the big tubing hill.

Scantily clad by Tuesday afternoon. I thought it might feel weird to ski in shorts but it was so warm it wasn't weird at all. 

 
Erik was hot, too.

All ready for a sledding run in my sports bra and shorts!



And then the rains came!


Wednesday was predicted to be rainy. I got out for a 4 mile run before the precip started. Despite the forecast, I was quite determined to ski. I’m not sure if Erik was truly as determined, but after four days of skiing every day, it would be hard to break our streak. 

Fun running loop over two bridges on a winter snowmobile and summer bike trail and on a winding hilly road.



We were driving up to Calumet that day and planned to ski at the Watersmeet Trails en route. While we loaded up the car, a steady rain fell. While skiing in a mist is one thing, I was less than enthusiastic about skiing in rain.

As we drove north, we debated whether we should ski or just skip it. In Watersmeet, before detouring to the ski trail, Erik checked the radar and saw it would soon stop raining so we went to the trail but when we got there, it was closed to preserve the snow during the warm weather. Well, I guess that settled it. We wouldn’t have to ski in the rain!

From there we kept driving north to Calumet where we stayed downtown in a nice Airbnb above Cross Country Sports. Then we watched the rain come down.

By Thursday morning the rain was changing to snow. Given the snow conditions seemed iffy, we drove farther north towards Copper Harbor to find some adventures. Hwy 41 is a pretty drive, especially as we neared Copper Harbor the road got quite narrow and was completely overhung by snow-covered trees.

Our first stop was Estivant Pines, but alas, it’s a summer road only and a snowmobile trail in the winter. After a lot of driving, I was ready to ski and so we took off skiing on the snowmobile trail. At first it was awesome, but after not too long the rutted ice from the snowmobile tracks left something to be desired. And then we hit some gravel. The snow coverage in the UP wasn’t terribly legendary this year. We took a wrong turn and by the time we righted ourselves we were getting tired of the adventure. We eventually made it to Estivant Pines and skied just a tad but the snow was deep and trail narrow and steep, covered in one down tree, and not conducive to racing equipment so we turned around, enjoying a fairly fast descent to our car.  


Erik skiing towards Estivant Pines.



Getting hot with all the uphill. Note the snowmobile tracks.

GPS of our Estivant Pines adventure.


Next we went for a walk at Hunter’s Point Park by Copper Harbor. The wind was really strong and the waves on Lake Superior quite impressive. These were definitely the biggest waves I’ve ever seen in person. 

Big icy waves on Lake Superior.



By now it was mid-afternoon and we drove along the coast on hwy 26, stopping a couple times to watch the waves and marvel at the ice. We had planned on climbing Lookout Mountain, outside Eagle Harbor, but that was at least a 3 hour adventure so we deferred to another time and headed back to Calumet. 

 

No vacation is complete without at least one crow pose. This one was on a floating piece of ice. The horizon line in the background are big waves on Lake Superior.



I was glad to be wearing my Alaska boots as there was some slush on these floating pieces of ice. Erik captured a pretty cool picture here with the snow/ice-covered rocks in the background.


On Friday we were ready to ski the Michigan Tech Trails despite less than promising trail reports. After the warm weather early in the week, temperatures were down to the teens in the morning so we waited until the afternoon to ski. Unfortunately with the warmer temperatures, the grooming was less than ideal. Yes, it was better than the icy snowmobile trail from yesterday, but some trails barely so. We did a big loop, skiing most of the trails. We also didn’t want to ski too long or hard because it was the day before the Great Bear Chase. The competition trails were so icy I had to work super hard to get an edge to V-1 up them. 

 

GPS from our Michigan Tech Ski- note the elevation profile.



One of the big goals of this trip was to make skiing at Michigan Tech a priority but with the less than ideal conditions, I guess we’ll have to go back. These trails seem like they’d be really fun in good conditions.

Great Bear Chase 50 km Skiathlon


Last year on the day after the Great Bear Chase, I skate skied in my classic boots (because that’s all I had and my back hurt too bad to classic so I borrowed some skate skis). The trail conditions were perfect that day and since I wasn’t working too hard, my classic boots did the trick and even prompted me to do a skiathlon this year skating in my classic boots. I really don’t like to kick in my skate boots and even though there isn’t much kicking in the Great Bear Chase, I still wanted to kick.

That and I didn’t think it would be so bad to skate in my classic boots but when I finally gave this a try again at the Michigan Tech Trails which were a bit rutted, it didn’t work out so well. I realized this would be a big disadvantage.

Given we had been on a ski trip for a week, we had waxed our skis for the race before we left. I thought my Fast Wax Tan (no fluoro ban at the Great Bear Chase) would work well for classic skiing, but with temperatures into the 30s for the skate and sunny, I knew without pure fluoro or an equivalent non-fluoro, my skis would be at a disadvantage.

Even though there wasn’t any prize money for the skiathlon this year, the field was still stacked! With COVID precautions in place, the races all started in small waves of which I was in the very first. With such a competitive field, I didn’t worry about getting a good start position. I started in row 4, behind Mara McCollar, who strided away from me on the starting uphill. I almost caught Caitlin, who was double poling, by the top of the hill, as I ran, but then she quickly double poled away from me. Temperatures were in the upper 20s at the start and my kick was bomber with SWIX V50. It was definitely my best kick of the season- not a bad way to end my classic skiing season.

 

Starting at the back of the wave behind Mara McCollar.



And we're off!

Caitlin still in sight.


Most of the field quickly got ahead of me but I stuck with number 4, a guy, through the first hilly section. Once we hit the gradual downhill, he just double poled away from me. Throughout the rest of the first lap, I got caught by some fast skiathlon skiers in later waves (they started 5 and 10 minutes after me), even including a few women! I enjoyed the perfect snow conditions and my amazing kick for the first 20 kms until the snow transformed. I’ve never done a long skiathlon before but it almost felt like I was skiing two races. As a few muscles were getting tired nearing the half way point, I was glad I could keep hammering and didn’t feel like I had to save anything for the second half given I was changing techniques. 

 

Double poling on the classic leg.




I got to the exchange zone and switched skis and poles and grabbed my drink belt. After the disaster in the Birkie with my drink belt, I decided to just wait and put it on for the second half, taking a good drink before clasping it around my waist. Then I was off skating and it was rough! The snow was transforming. I could tell my fluoros were providing some glide but I also had to contend with the rutted trail from all the skate skiers. My skis were very squirrely. Despite this, the conditions were fairly fast and the kilometers ticked by without too much effort. I wanted to go faster but knew the effort would be fairly futile as these are not my ideal skate conditions and certainly not with classic boots on.

Somewhere between 5 and 10 kms into the skate half, I got in a zone and stopped fighting my squirrely skis. I conceded to efficiency, not flailing, and was still moving decently fast, at least for me. It also helped that I was passing more people (mostly 25 km skiers) than were passing me. And so even though this wasn’t the best effort I’d ever put forth, it was the best I could do at the time and still enjoy myself. Alas, these conditions are why I like to classic ski!

When I went to take my gu flask from my drink belt it was gone. Not again! I kinda laughed to myself at how bad I had messed this up yet again. Where had I lost it? I had skied with it yesterday and it never fell out. I hadn’t fallen. Alas, did it fall out when I drank at the exchange zone before I put the drink belt on? That must have been it (and indeed it was as I found it back in the exchange zone). Good thing I had stashed an extra energy bar in my belt!

I finished in just over 3 hours, more than half way back in the field. That doesn’t happen too often for me. If I do another skiathlon, I might need to think twice about using the classic boots for the whole deal. On the plus, I won my age class...by default seeing as I was the only woman in her 30s :)

Erik did the 50 km classic for the third year in a row, placing 2nd and winning his age group as well! 

 

Erik at the start.



And showing good classic form on the first uphill.

And kick-double poling!

We enjoyed the chocolate milk and cookies provided at the finish in a to-go bag and the pasty and cinnamon roll drive-through that replaced the normal skiers lunch. Such great service- half the price of the Birkie and includes a pasty!!! That afternoon we enjoyed sunny skies and temps in the 40s for a nice recovery walk around town.

On Sunday morning we returned to the Swedetown Trails (home of the Great Bear Chase) for the final ski of our trip. We were met with freshly groomed coarse snow that made for a fast 25 km lap of the course- indeed as fast I was racing but with considerably less effort. It was a great ski.

Then we drove home to the land of no snow.

The total for our week: 225 km of skiing and 4 miles of running. Not too shabby given the warm weather.

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