Small community on Lake Superior serves visitors and themselves with events and trails
by Joel Patenaude
“I tell people who are thinking of moving up here ‘You have to find something to do during the winter or you go nuts,’” Ashland, Wisconsin, native David Wherritt said.
For Wherritt that “something” is cross-country skiing – 20 American Birkebeiners’ worth – and grooming trail for others to ski.
As an active member of the Ashland Ski Trail Association, Wherritt grooms 5K of trail near the Memorial Medical Center on the southwest side of town – population 8,130 nestled along Chequamegon Bay in the southwest corner of Lake Superior.
He’s also a former groomer for Book Across the Bay, a night-time 10K ski and snowshoe race across the lake ice from Ashland to Washburn. The course, lit by the stars and 1,000 luminaries, is expected to attract some 4,000 participants when it’s held again on February 13.
Bike Across the Bay, a separate but affiliated event held earlier in the day, takes fat bike and studded tire riders out on the ice, too.
Organized winter biking has increased in the Ashland area, coinciding with the growing popularity of fat biking. In addition to several weekly rides organized through the North Coast Cycling Association, events have included the Double Doughnut Derby on the CAMBA singletrack at Mt. Ashwabay near Bayfield in January and the Bike on Water from Bayfield to Madeline Island in March.
Out on the ice
Whatever your means of nonmotorized conveyance, Wherritt says Bike or Book Across the Bay is not an easy traverse. “The course meanders toward the Ashland Breakwater Lighthouse and then toward the shore,” he said. “It’s not a straight shot. Sometimes the wind is in your face, sometimes at your back.”
It’s an even more difficult course to prep, he said. Wherritt knows because that was his job for a decade ending about as long ago.
“The snow on the lake tends to crystallize and becomes hard to pack down, and the wind can scour the snow right off the ice,” he said.
Pressure ridges of ice can also take shape, too, from a couple inches to four feet high. “You have to use a chainsaw to cut a path through them, then lay down plywood and cover it with snow,” Wherritt said.
The Book the Bay course is marked with Christmas trees, the trunks of which are dropped into holes cut in the ice. Between a skate skiing lane and two sets of classic tracks for striders are placed more than a thousand luminaries made out of two-liter plastic bottles and votive candles.
“Lighting those is the hardest job of the whole thing,” Wherritt said.
In what is usually fairer weather in early October each year, Wherritt sets the mile markers for the CenturyLink Whistlestop Marathon (then keeps his streak going running every Whistlestop Half Marathon) between Iron River and Ashland on the Tri-County Corridor Trail.
“Someone said ‘It’s a community event, so if you’re not running it, you’re working it,’” recounted Mary McPhetridge, executive director of the Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce.
So Wherritt’s involvement in the Whistlestop race is only unusual in that he both participates and volunteers.
“No one is an island up here,” added Joe Groshek, president of the 150-member strong North Coast Cycling Association. “Up here there’s all these crazy people who do stuff out of their passion for the outdoors.”
Groomed ski trail
That passion has resulted, not only in event organizing, but also the construction of trails for mountain biking, such as 12 miles for flowy fun at Mt. Ashwabay, and the grooming of snow for Nordic skiing.
Wherritt still grooms the Ashland ski club trails, which include several loops on private property, requiring easements from several property owners. That arrangement has prevented the club from charging a trail use fee since the trails opened in 1993.
Trail passes and fees are required to ski any of the nine other Nordic ski trail systems within 40 miles of Ashland. (See below.)
In Ashland, donations alone sustain the ski club. Despite the per capita income of Ashland County ranking near the bottom for the state, its skiers and tourism benefactors have proven generous. A few years ago, the ski club was able to raise $10,000 locally in only three weeks with which to buy new grooming equipment.
“It’s not a place that has a lot of extra money.” Wherritt said. “That let us know that the community saw value in having a ski trail.”
Then three years ago, Dave Bretting, CEO of C. G. Bretting Manufacturing Company, the city’s largest employer, approached the ski club. Bretting wanted to connect their trails with what he was grooming with his snowmobile on the Chequamegon Bay Golf Course.
Since then, skiers have been able to park in the golf course lot, ski the open, rolling course to the 18th fairway, remove their skis and walk across Sanborn Avenue to the hospital-area trails, to complete a 10K outing.
“I go out and groom the hell out of it to make it beautiful,” Bretting said for the half he rolls and combs. “There can be 50 people out there in the middle of the night. I just enjoy watching people ski it.”
While skiers on the golf course are out in the open, they find themselves in the woods on the hospital side of Sanborn. “It’s old growth white pine,” Wherritt said. “We see deer and bear out there, and once in a while a partridge will explode out of the snow.”
Because the trails are relatively flat and there’s some ambient light from town, you can ski at night without the aid of a headlamp.
High interest in silent sports in the Ashland area, no matter the season, prompted Solstice Outdoors, a gear and apparel retailer on Main Street for the past five years, to open another outlet in the new Blue Wave on the Bay building this past June.
From that structure, which looks like the prow of a ship, the Solstice owners rent bikes to riders of the Waterfront Trail, kayaks for paddling and fishing in the bay, as well as skis and snowshoes.
Fifty percent of the rental business at Solstice comes from local residents, said co-owner Katy Gellatly.
“It’s about connecting people to the outdoors and whatever we can do to provide those opportunities,” she said. “It’s what brings you and keeps you here.”
Ski trails in every direction
Ashland, on the southwest shore of Lake Superior, is 220 miles from the Twin Cities (less than a four-hour drive) and 300 miles north of Madison. But once there, superb ski trails lay in every direction.
Many of the trail systems listed here can get a lot more snow than Ashland. One might assume Ashland would be the recipient of great quantities of lake-effect snow. But due to orographic lift, air rising off the surface of Lake Superior delivers more precipitation in the higher elevation Penokee-Gogebic Range south of town.
Nevertheless, Ashland is a great place to “set up camp.” If the 10K of ski trails within city limits are not sufficiently snow covered, Ashland is only …
• … 20 miles southeast of Mt. Valhalla Winter Sports Area in the Chequamegon National Forest, which is 10 miles west of Washburn. Includes trails for skiing (skate and classic), snowshoeing, snowmobiling and ATV’ing.
• … 21 miles south of Mt. Ashwabay Ski and Recreation Area, Bayfield. 40K classic & skate trails, beginner to expert, groomed and tracked.
• … 25 miles north of Copper Falls State Park, Mellen. 22K classic, 10.5K skate.
• … 26 miles south of Big Bay State Park, Madeline Island. 5.2 miles of classic trail. There is also three miles of ungroomed trails on the south end of the island and four- and seven-mile ungroomed trails on the north end. Take passenger van on ice road from Bayfield to La Pointe.
• … 28 miles north of Penokee Mountain Ski Trail, Chequamegon National Forest, west of Mellen. Loops of 3.2K and 8.6K, groomed and tracked for classic only.
• … 37 miles east of to Afterhours Ski Trail, Brule River State Forest, Brule.
• … 30 miles northeast of Drummond Ski Trail, Chequamegon National Forest. Almost 50K, classic only.
• … 40 miles northeast of the Birkie Trail, Cable.