ABR, the upper Midwest's Nordic bellwether
Reliable snow & 10K more trail promised this winter
The first snow of the season fell October 7 in the western U.P., enough to whiten the ski trails at ABR in Ironwood but not enough to warrant opening the Nordic center early.
"If it had been cooler and we'd gotten an inch more ..." ABR co-owner Eric Anderson teased. The popular cross-country skiing destination was able to open that early a few years back, he said.
But it usually isn't worth the effort it takes to groom even a fraction of his 60K of trails for one fleeting, unseasonal weekend. "It's not a good decision business-wise because of all the time and work it takes, and then only hardcore skiers take advantage of it," Anderson said.
Early October is better spent prepping for a Thanksgiving weekend opener. The weather has cooperated eight out of the past 10 years to allow ABR to open its doors for that four-day holiday break in late November, Anderson said.
After 17 years in business, Anderson and his wife/business partner Angela Santini know ABR's opening weekend tends to be a bellweather for Nordic skiers throughout the upper Midwest. As the season plays out and snow is scarce elsewhere, ABR can be relied upon to have plenty of lake-effect white stuff blowing in from Lake Superior.
That reliable supply explains why, out of nearly 300 ABR season-pass holders, only 50 or so will be skiers who live in the Ironwood area.
"We may not seen 300 inches fall every winter," Anderson said, "but if we get 180 inches, we have more than enough to ski on."
The ABR trails tend to stay open until the end of March. "We stopped going into April because then you're dealing with the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle and trying to breakup and groom ice," Anderson said.
Windy Ridge adds 10K of trail
New for ABR skiers is about 10K of additional trail on adjacent private property called Windy Ridge. Ken Hazel, who owns the property with fellow Team Gogebic Ski Club coach Jackie Powers, laid out the trail that will only be accessible from ABR.
Anderson said the Windy Ridge trails pass through scenic and challenging terrain along the Montreal River, up into the bluffs and through cedar swamps and open meadow. Hazel said the trails, as he's laid them out, include the 3.3K Otter Slide striding-only trail along the Montreal River and the 6.4K Ridge Runner Trail that can be groomed for classic or skate skiing.
Hazel said the trails are difficult but Anderson said he encountered beginning skiers enjoying Windy Ridge last winter. Even to those who found their way to the new trails then will find signage and "a completely redesigned" link from ABR this season, Hazel said. "It will be exciting."
A ski instructor for some 30 years, Hazel retiring to Ironwood from Waukegan, Illinois, a few years ago. Windy Ridge, he said, "has given me an opportunity to do something I've always wanted to do, which was design ski trail."
The next generation of skiers
Hazel is also excited about the growth of the Gogebic ski club since it started in 2006. He said the club now has 90 members, 30 of which are young kids. Although there are no teens involved, he said a group of eight- to 10-year-olds may be the start of a middle school team in a few years.
"They're just fired up," Hazel said. On's as young as five and demanding to race."
He said he was initially surprised by the lack of a Nordic ski team at the high school level in Ironwood. But as Anderson alluded to, there just hasn't been a strong cross-country skiing tradition in this aging community of 4,500.
This has changed since the establishment of the SISU Ski Fest, with events from 2K to 42K, in 2010. "SISU has brought awareness of skiing to the community. A lot of team members do the races and more locals have been inspired to learn and take up the challenge," Hazel said.
Most of the SISU race courses use the ABR trails. In fact, 33K of the 42K marathon takes place within ABR's circuitous confines. The event will be held January 12, 2013, and more information can be gleaned at www.sisuskifest.com.
ABR will also host Day 2 of Silent Sports Demo Days, December 15-16. Ski equipment reps will allow skiers to demo new gear there and at Minocqua Winter Park the day before. In late February, ABR sets up for Taste of the Trails, at which several area restaurants offer samples off their menus to passing skiers. That event attracts 200 to 300 skiers, Anderson said.
Whatever it takes to get people out into the snow - and the ski trails and comfy cabins at Wolverine Village present another enticement in Ironwood (see wolverinevillage.com and Phil Van Valkenberg's feature story in the February 2011 issue of Silent sports) - the local ski community is doing it.
"We get five months of winter up here," Hazel pointed out. "You gotta love it, because we have a lot of it."
Joel Patenaude is the editor of Silent Sports.
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