By Brian E. Clark | Photos Courtesy of Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce/John Noltner
This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of experience WISCONSIN.
When Wheaton residents Willie and Kathy Beshire wanted to learn how to skate ski last winter, they made a bee-line for Minocqua in the far northern tier of Wisconsin. In early February, they figured there would be plenty of snow. And they’d heard good things about Minocqua Winter Park, a premier cross-country skiing facility about 10 minutes west of town.
But it’s not just cross-country skiers who flock to Wisconsin’s Northwoods in the winter. snowshoers, ice fishermen and women, snowmobilers and many more come here for adventure.
“We’re busiest in the summer, but we get all kinds of folks in the winter, too,” said Dan Hoehn, with the Pointe Hotel and Suites (thepointeresort.com) in Minocqua. “The biggest group is snowmobilers, but lots of snowshoers and nordic skiers come and stay with us, too. There’s a lot to do up here in the cold months, you just have to have the right clothes and gear.”
The Beshires spent four days at Minocqua Winter Park (minocquawinterpark.org) — which offers more than 50 miles of groomed trails, plus a snow tubing hill and lift, and trails for skijoring and snowshoeing — after their drive up from Wheaton. On the first day, just to get warmed up a bit, they did some classic cross country skiing. On the second day, they had their skate ski lesson and then spent the rest of their stay practicing.
“We’ve been traditional skiers for many years,” said Willie, a retired management consultant who has fished around Minocqua in the summer. “We’d seen people skate skiing and thought we should give it a try. It’s not easy to learn because your balance is different. But all in all, it went well.”
“I figured if we wanted to learn it correctly, we should spend three days practicing. So we worked at it around four hours a day. I had a few hard spills, but after the second day, I was getting comfortable and relaxing. on the third day, I was actually feeling pretty good. My wife did well, too, though we know we have a lot of room for improvement.”
I met the Beshires at the park last winter, just as they were about to buy new skis and boots. They wished me luck as I headed out the door for a lesson with Tim Collins, who manages the park and also teaches.
I, too, had come north to see what I could learn about skate skiing. Though I’ve been doing traditional cross-country skiing for years, skating was something new for me.
Collins was patient with me. Fortunately, when I flailed (which happened more than a few times after I lost my balance), I never poked him with my poles.
There were a few times when I actually felt like I had my balance under control and was able to skate using what Collins called the v2 skate skiing technique, which involves a double-pole push with every outward kick.
“It’s the most powerful top gear,” he said, encouragingly.
Next, I tried the v2 alternate, in which you use a double-pole push and then skate on both sides before poling again to save energy. For good measure, Collins tossed in the v1, a staggered poling technique for climbing hills, and what he called the v1 half, where you pole and glide on opposite sides.
Collins said it’s common to struggle during an initial skating lesson. “If you are unaccustomed to narrow skating skis, it can be quite a challenge,” he said. “The key is to focus on balance and shifting your weight from one ski to the other. It takes practice.” After a break to warm up in the lodge, Collins and I went for a tour on the resort’s extensive trail system. We skied through some tall pines where Yukon Creek runs through the property and then out to the squirrel river.
Many novices, he said, ski the 5.5-kilometer Cookie loop; there are miles of routes for intermediate and advanced skiers. For those who would like more of a back-country experience, Minocqua Winter Park has 15 kilometers of wilderness trails that aren’t groomed very often. But Collins says most skiers come to the resort because of its longtime reputation for having well-groomed trails.
If we had more time, we could have skied out to the park’s tea house, where you can rest, warm up and have a cup of tea.
In addition to Minocqua Winter Park, there are a half-dozen other cross-country skiing routes around Minocqua, including 20 kilometers of trails at the North Lakeland Discovery Center near Manitowish Waters and the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest. The next morning, after a breakfast of french toast and hash browns at the Black Bear Bar, I drove to the shore of Lake Minocqua and met up with Chad Bierbrauer, who runs Adventure North Snowmobile Tours (adventuresnowmobiletours.com). Soon, Bierbrauer and I were zooming over the frozen lake on our sleds past ice-fishing shacks and shuttered boat houses.
Over the next hour, he led me deep into the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest on trails groomed by the Cross Country Cruisers Snowmobile Club. (there are thousands of miles of snowmobile trails, all maintained by local clubs.) We zipped up and down hills toward the towns of Lake Tomahawk and St. Germain.
The best part of the trip was when we stopped our machines, shut off the engines and looked around at a large stand of tall, 300- to 400-year-old white pines.
“That section of trees was left behind from the big logging period of the 1880s to 1920 or so in this area, though I’m not certain why,” Bierbrauer explained. “I like to pause here and show people what the northern forests looked like before Europeans arrived.”
My Minocqua winter adventure wasn’t over yet. South of town I stopped at Northwoods Zip line (northwoodszipline.com), where guides Andrew Warner and Guy Posielenzny gave me a rundown on proper zip-lining technique and took me for an abbreviated tour on a couple of the outfit’s eight lines. It was nippy, but because I’d been dressed for snowmobiling, I wasn’t cold as I flew through the air under the cables with a big grin on my face.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of experience WISCONSIN. Some of the written details may have changed since the article was published.
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