Upper Michigan’s Ski Town
By RON BERGIN
Driving east along Michigan’s State Highway 28 through Ishpeming enroute to Marquette you’d hardly think you were entering one of the top cross country ski communities in America. But once you get away from the strip malls and fast food joints along the highway, you soon discover that the Marquette, Michigan area has everything it takes to make it one of those true cross country ski enclaves where when the word "skiing" is used, it usually means Nordic.
Although it has thus far maintained a relatively low profile, the Marquette area is poised to take the stage as one of the region’s pre-eminent Nordic skiing destinations. This is due in no small part to the dependable and bountiful lake effect snowfall the area receives – over 200 inches annually. Marquette is usually the first and last area to report skiable snow in the entire Midwest. It would appear that only its remote location has kept it from receiving the recognition that it deserves.
Marquette, a city of 20,000 people and the largest city in upper Michigan, is located on the south shore of Lake Superior, almost dead center east to west in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Much of the region’s heritage is rooted in iron mining, which, along with logging, had sustained the area’s economy for over 100 years. But more recently, mining output has declined, leading local officials to look elsewhere for economic support. Tourism, including cross country skiing, is quickly stepping in to help at least partially fill the void.
Home to Northern Michigan University, Marquette’s Nordic skiing reputation has been bolstered by this perennial powerhouse in collegiate cross country ski racing. Coached by Sten Fjeldheim for over 25 years, NMU has been a dominant force throughout the region and is one of the few universities around the country that aggressively recruits top high school ski racers like a Big Ten school recruits football players.
Marquette, Ishpeming, and the surrounding small towns extending eastward almost 50 miles comprise a Nordic skiing region on par with any ski community in the country. Many of the trails are on public land and others on private property by easement. Much of the recent boon in trail development, organization and ultimately recognition for the area can be attributed to the creation of the Noquemenon Ski Marathon in 1999. The Noquemenon (pronounced no-KAY-mah-non) has quickly become one of the most popular events of its kind in the Midwest. Participants cite an extremely scenic trail and great race organization as key attributes of the race, not to mention its novel finish area adjacent to the Superior Dome near downtown Marquette. Over 1,000 skiers are expected for the 2003 Noquemenon Ski Marathon on Saturday, January 25, 2003. The event includes a separate 53 km classic start in addition to the 53 km freestyle. There are also 25 km classic and freestyle events. Other events and activities include the Thursday evening Torchlight Trek for kids and Friday’s Noque Sprint Shootout – elite and citizen sprint races and Ski Expo.
As a spin-off benefit of the now well-established event, a 25km portion of the 53 km marathon course has been opened to the public for winter-long skiing. The Noque trail represents a progressive partnership between the local skiing community and the logging and paper industries as much of the trail runs across land owned by Mead Paper. From what I’ve seen, the Noque Trail lives up to its hype – truly scenic and a blast to ski, including a 1,000-foot descent over the final 25 km. I look forward to skiing the entire course one day and may just tackle the marathon next year.
Long before the coming of the Noquemenon Trail, the Suicide Bowl ski area had been the popular local site for recreational skiing, training and competition. The trails were on mining company land and unfortunately closed when plans for a new mine included the ski area.
On the positive side, the Al Quaal Recreation Area in Ishpeming has stepped in to fill the void created by the demise of Suicide Bowl. The Al Quaal Trails are still underdevelopment, but if the final product is anything like the trails I sampled last March, the system is sure to become the centerpiece of the Marquette area Nordic scene. I enjoyed the Blue Trail and its outstanding use of the available terrain and geographic features. This trail, design by Nordic trail artist John Morton, winds back on itself numerous times and packs a lot of skiing into a small package. The Al Quaal is practically in the backyard of the local elementary school. In fact, students of the Birchview School have their own trail within the trail system. The Noquemenon Marathon starts in the fields near the school and traverses part of the Al Quaal system before continuing its 53 km journey to Marquette.
Blueberry Ridge, five miles south of Marquette, is one of the most popular trail systems in the area. Unfortunately, the only times I have been able to ski there the weather has not been the most cooperative – too much fresh snow or late spring freeze/thaw conditions. But what I have skied begs further exploration. There’s a good deal of easy/moderate trail plus some fun more advanced sections that under good conditions should be skiable by most competent skiers.
The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is located about an hour east of Marquette near Munising. A Nordic skiing journey through this part of Upper Michigan should include a stop at the Munising Cross Country Ski Trail. Again, not a killer trail in the sense of rugged or difficult terrain, but it offers a delightful tour with a bit of a backcountry flavor that includes a scenic portion of trail overlooking a 150 foot bluff providing views of Lake Superior and the beginning of the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore.
A little further a field you’ll find the Valley Spur Trail also near Munising, parts of which follows an ancient railroad spur. But don’t let the railroad grade image give you the wrong impression. There’s plenty of easy to intermediate terrain through the second growth hardwoods forests to offer a satisfying day’s skiing.
This is only a sampling of the trails in the area. Another dozen or more trails abound within an hour’s drive of Marquette making a multiple-day cross country skiing vacation a very feasible plan. And if you’re in the mood for other winter adventure ranging from backcountry ski tours to snowshoeing or dogsledding, contact Rah Trost of Great Northern Adventures. She and her guide teams will show you a good time, U.P. outdoor style.
There are no dedicated Nordic ski resorts in the Marquette area, but there are many lodging opportunities, from the usual array of chain hotels to the recently refurbished Landmark Inn. This upscale alternative, originally known as the Hotel Northland, was once the premier hotel of Upper Michigan. It closed in the early 80s and sat dormant for many years. In 1995 a major renovation project was undertaken and today the historic Landmark Inn on the waterfront in downtown Marquette is again at the top of its game. Its Heritage Room Restaurant is highly recommended for a fine dining experience. Speaking of dining, another good spot to eat and unwind from a day on the trails is The Vierling Restaurant & Marquette Harbor Brewery, a historic little bistro with a menu that features Lake Superior Whitefish, where you can eat, kick back and quaff a local microbrew.
Did I mention this area had a little - make that a lot – of skiing history? The National Ski Hall of Fame, located in Ishpeming is a great place to spend a morning or afternoon while on a break from skiing and take in not only the area’s history, but practically the entire history of skiing in this country. Look for a detailed profile of the National Ski Hall of Fame in the December issue Cross Country Skier.
The Marquette area has recently added two more feathers to its cap and growing reputation. It was recently named as the host site for the 2004 U.S. Masters competition and this spring will co-host the International Spring Series on March 29-April 4. The series will attract a top-level international field along with noted U.S. athletes many of whom are current, former or future members of the U.S. Ski Team as well as the best college and junior skiers from around the country and a large number of other U. S. and Canadian racers. The International Spring Series has long been a celebration of the sport of cross country skiing and is the last hurrah for the 2002-2003 competition season.
The Marquette area also gets high marks for its proactive trail advocacy. The local club, The Superiorland Ski Club, was founded in 1992 to help the local ski community work together for the betterment of area trails and facilities as well as to help provide support for youth skiing in the area. The club has grown to over 160 members of all ages and abilities. The Noquemenon Trail Network Council (NTNC) was subsequently founded to develop and maintain a countywide, multiple use year round, non-motorized land and water trail network. They have thus far been successful in opening several area ski trails, purchasing grooming equipment for the Noquemenon trail, and developed kayak and canoe landings. One particular noteworthy piece of local color is that there is even a weekly column on skiing in the local daily paper, The Mining Journal, something more ski towns should aspire to do.
While we have primarily addressed winter in the Marquette area, the region is developing an equally promising reputation as a mountain biking destination. The summer counterpart to the Noquemenon, the Ore to Shore mountain bike race, uses many of the same trails.
There are numerous outstanding cross country ski towns across the United States, and while it may far from the major population centers of the Midwest, the Marquette area is one worth checking out. Any time during the winter would be good, but don’t forget that it snows early and often and great skiing usually lasts through the month of March.
If you go:
Marquette Country Convention and Visitors Bureau; (800)544-4321; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.marquettecountry.org.
Landmark Inn/Heritage Room Restaurant 230 North Front St., Marquette, MI 49855; (906)228-2580; (888)7LANDMARK; www.thelandmarkin.com.
The Vierling Restaurant & Marquette Harbor Brewery 119 S. Front St., Marquette, MI 49855; (906)228-3533; www.thevierling.com.
Great Northern Adventures P. O. Box 361 Marquette, MI 49855; (906)225-TOUR; www.greatnorthernadventures.com.
Noquemenon Ski Marathon 501 S. Front St., Marquette, MI 49855; (888)578-6489; www.noquemanon.com.
National Ski Hall of Fame 610 Palms Avenue/P.O. Box 191, Ishpeming, MI 49849; (906)485-6323; www.skihall.com.