By MIKE NORTON
Everybody loves the first Christmas-card-pretty snowfall of winter. Maybe even the entire first month of winter. But after a few weeks, opinions begin to diverge sharply among those of us who live in the northern regions.
Some of us just love winter. In spite of the snow shoveling, the driving hazards, the wet feet, we love the skiing and the snowshoeing, the crackling fires and the snuggling and the almost total absence of mosquitoes. (And some of us pretend to like it because, well, we’re Midwesterners; when things can’t be changed, we’re expected to suck it up.) I put myself in both of these categories, depending on whether it’s January or April – April winters are something even a Midwesterner is allowed to complain about.
But there are other folks, even here in northern Michigan, who can’t really work up a lot of enthusiasm for the season. For them, there are basically two ways to deal with winter. Some, for the sake of their physical and mental health, will act as though they enjoy skiing through a frozen forest even when they’d much rather be sipping mojitos in Key West. Others take the “cozy strategy;” they stay inside and enjoy the warmer aspects of the season – the fireplace, hot cocoa, down comforters and Downton Abbey – while watching the snow fall outside the picture window.
This weekend, it looks as though there’ll be plenty of opportunities to employ both of these winter survival strategies in Traverse City – or, best of all, to combine them into a two-part plan that allows you to get some exercise, enjoy the outdoors and still have time for good eats, fellowship and fun. And it’s a particularly good weekend for those of you who’ve never been winter-sports fans before. Here’s why:
Saturday is the Fourth Annual Winter Trails Day up at Timber Ridge Resort – a wonderful, non-intimidating way to try cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The wonderful folks from TART Trails, Brick Wheels and the VASA Ski Club have teamed up with Timber Ridge to provide free trail use, introductory ski lessons, guided snowshoe hikes and free use of rental equipment (first come, first-served – so if you have equipment of your own already you should probably bring it.) The fun lasts from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
(Here’s the indoor part: there’ll be lots of tasty treats available in the lodge at Timber Ridge.)
Another great free event is available at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore which holds free ranger-led snowshoe hikes throughout the park every Saturday afternoon. You can enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery in the country – “a winter wonderland of forests, fields, beaches and historic sites.” And if you don’t have your own snowshoes, the park will lend you a pair at no charge. The groups usually meet up at the park visitor center in Empire at 1 p.m. and you can expect to be out on the trail until 3 p.m.
Meanwhile, the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa has transformed its golf clubhouse into a Winter Activities Center that’s open to guests and the public every weekend. You can enjoy ice-skating, explore groomed trails on cross-country skis or trek through fresh powder on snowshoes. Bring your own gear, or find Winter Snow Sports Rentals at the Clubhouse or Adventure North in the Resort’s Gallery of Shops.
Once you’re ready to come in from the cold, you can warm up in the Winter Activities Center. Here families can purchase s’mores supplies for the bonfire, enjoy hot chocolate and adult beverages, play board games or savor favorite comfort foods off The Grille’s winter-themed menu.
If you’re on the east end of town, though, you might consider heading over to the Grass River Nature Area near Bellaire to take one of their winter bird classes. Grass River is a magnet for winter birds, with its rich mix of forest, creeks, wetlands and uplands, and if you’ve ever wondered what all those different winter birds are, this is a great opportunity to learn. They recommend advance registration, so give them a call at 231-533-8314.
And as long as you’re in Bellaire, you really should head up the hill to Shanty Creek Resorts, already well-known among ski and snowboard aficionados – and being a ski resort, their various lodges are skilled in providing midwinter coziness. Perhaps not quite so well-known is the fact that Shanty has a wonderful snow-tubing hill, as well as facilities for cross-country skiing and even snowmobile rentals.
Finally, the indoor winter event to end all indoor winter events is the 18th Annual Downtown Chili Cook-Off held Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Park Place Dome. Area restaurants will be cooking up their special recipes as they compete in eight different categories - 1 and 3-alarm, white, vegetarian, no bean, seafood and ethnic as well as the coveted "people's choice award.
Every year, more than 1,000 people come to sample the many chilies and vote for their favorites. All proceeds from the Cook-Off go to support downtown community activities like Friday Night Live, the Halloween walk and the Christmas tree-lighting. Besides, who doesn’t like chili?