2019-20: Ski The Keweenaw

 

Chassell Michigan Tech Maasto Hiihto/Churning Rapids

Swedetown Eagle Harbor Copper Harbor

Genesis

Some winters ago, in a conversation with my buddy Adam Griffis (he took up social media distancing well before the social distancing became a thing in recent times) that most certainly involved good food and a fine beverage, we had an idea: ski 5 kilometers in every one of our trail systems in the Keweenaw while stopping for nourishment at our favorite local dining establishments in one day. Plagiarizing the name of another well-organized trail running event held in July, Run The Keweenaw, A Festival of Trails, we gave it a very unimaginative name … Ski The Keweenaw! I remember us being honest in our intentions: this was not just about skiing but using skiing as an excuse to enjoy good food and fine beverages – hot and cold – throughout the day!

Winters came and went (I won’t admit to how many but you can get an idea by counting the number of annual ski passes I have bought), and so did my excuses for keeping this plan on paper – trails are too technical, I am not good enough for this project yet, the next weekend looks like a good weekend to do it, trails are too icythey stopped grooming, trails are to soft, it’s too cold, it’s kinda warmwinter’s over, next winter will be the winter this project comes to fruition … just to name a few. 2019-20 winter showed no signs of being any different. More so because I had a very valid excuse – that I was training for a Spring marathon and needed to focus on running. On 2019-12-14, the sixth day of the first week of the said marathon training period, I got to ski with Mike Young (he’s the race director of the aforementioned Run The Keweenaw). During that outing in Maasto Hiihto Nordic Ski Area, I explained my hibernating plan to Ski The Keweenaw and how I might not be able to do it until 2020-21 winter. He liked the idea but politely disagreed with my excuse … his thought was that my skill set was good enough to ski every loop/trail in every trail system in the Keweenaw. I was grateful for his belief and confidence but I still didn’t think the project’s fruition was on the cards in 2019-20 winter.

But then COVID-19 came around and things changed. Keeping in line with The greatest good for the greatest number for the longest possible time philosophy that I so am in love with, organizers of the Spring Marathon diligently postponed the event to the second half of 2020. That meant I could temporarily pause the race-specific workouts (i.e., speed, tempo, race pace portions) for the next few weeks and revert to general aerobic base building. Remembering Joan Benoit Samuelson’s interview after her 2019 Boston Marathon and the lessons from my friends/mentors in the community, cross country skiing would provide a full body workout and help build aerobic base with lesser impact on joints. I am lucky enough to live in an area with several top-class nordic trail systems and thanks to the respective parent institutions/governing bodies, the trails are being meticulously groomed, tilled and tracked, and just as meticulously documented in Keweenaw Trails. If nordic skiing was/is good enough for Joanie and for my friends/mentors, I figured it’s gotta be good enough for me. Maybe this will help me in my marathon project down the road when the time and opportunity arrive.

 

It’s nearly impossible to articulate the combination of overwhelming emotions that many of us have been experiencing while the humanity has been going through a global pandemic. I have the good fortune of being able to work from home and maintain good health. In the grand scheme of things, nobody would/should care whether or not I completed this silly little project – 2019-20 Ski The Keweenaw. But getting out of the house to find some fresh air and think through things became a refuge – a necessary act to preserve and gain physical and mental clarity/sanity. It was/has been more of time to pray than just time to play. A lucky byproduct of this exercise just happened to be completion of 2019-20 Ski The Keweenaw.

 

2019-12-15: Chassell

 

My first exposure to the wintery side of Chassell trail system was shortly after Thanksgiving … riding in SeƱor Tervo’s snowmobile lopping branches/shrubs and stopping at his casa for a yummy grilled cheese sandwich on homemade bread along the way. It’s easy to get lost (not literally; the trails are very well marked) and lose track of time as the narrow, classic-only course winds its way through the canopy of tall Pines as well as expansive fields. I am not a mountain biker (yet?) but Mike Young’s description was that the Chassell Trails are for skiing what a single-track trail is for mountain bikers. A goal for the 2020-21 edition would be to start earlier in the day than 4:15 pm – as the ambient light diminishes quickly as soon the Sun starts going down.

Weather 16 F/16 F, 79% humidity; mostly cloudy but pleasant
Wax 1:1 Toko Base Performance (NF) Blue and Toko Base Performance (NF) Red

 

2020-01-19: Swedetown

 

I had skied every loop/trail in this system in 2018-19 winter and one of the first ski outings of 2019-20 winter had taken me through all but the Flamingo Hill loop. I do love the variety of trails in this system – from mostly flat expansive ones to hilly portions that whip our behind into shape. For as many automobiles one might see in the parking lot or people in the chalet, one seldom encounters anyone on the trails … off of Valley Trail. As an added bonus, a vast majority of these trails/loops are part of the 25 km/50 km Great Bear Chase course. So, it never hurts to get to know these trails and their local geography better. Truth be told, this outing was supposed to be an easy 10 km as active rest in the Spring Marathon training plan. But pleasant weather conditions (better than what the weather app indicated), fresh (to the extent possible amongst continuous snow fall) corduroy for skaters and crisp tracks for striders, and snow flakes that seemed to dance their way around changed my plan from a quick lone confessional to a full on pre-Christmas like service. I skied couple segments more than once at the end to get past the 30 km mark.

Weather 19 F/10 F, 9 mph NNE, 73% humidity; cloudy and snowy with some winds but pleasant
Wax Toko Performance (LF) Black, Toko Performance (LF) Blue, Toko High Performance (HF) Blue, Toko Blue Structure 1x and Toko HelX Liquid 2.0 Blue (originally applied for the 2020 SISU Ski Fest in Ironwood, MI)

 

2020-03-16: Churning Rapids

 

Today was the first day of working from home to keep up with social distancing and doing my part to flatten the curve. Studying the trail system map from the Graph Theory perspective (more info here) – treating every intersection as a vertex and the trail between two vertices as an edge, it was clear that I couldn’t ski the entirety of Churning Rapids Trail System without passing through some trails more than once. The snow was very sticky for the most part and it was lumping up frequently resulting in jerking motion. I was under the impression that I hadn’t properly cleaned the skins of my skis … until I meat Dave and Mark around 6.7 km mark. They too had been struggling with same issue, and I needed double-poling to get down the Thoroughfare Trail. Though I felt like I skied the entirety of this system, taking conditions into account, this felt more like a one for the sake of records attempt. I’ld love to enjoy this system when the conditions are favorable.

Weather 34 F/25 F, 14 mph WSW, 75% humidity; mostly cloudy, warm and pleasant
Wax Toko Base Performance Liquid Paraffin Red polished with a dedicated brush and Toko Red Structure

 

2020-03-17: Michigan Tech

 

This particular outing had been in the works for quite some time: start at the main trailhead in the upper system and go through every trail/loop including Tolkien and lower systems until back at the trailhead. Think of NASCAR but only making right turns. A couple years ago, I didn’t have the skill or the stamina to ski every loop/trail. Last year, I had the skill and stamina but a part of the Ridge Loop in the lower system was blocked off (an aftermath of 2018 Father’s Day Flood). Today was the first time this winter, not counting the two occasions I got to be a part of the forerunning team for 2020 Pre-National and National Championships, that I skied any of the hillier/challenging trails or lower/Tolkien system. Skiing through the Royalwood Loop in the lower system has always been a fond memory – that’s where my dear friends – Kaitlyn, Kris and Greg – got my cross country skiing journey started back in 2014 January! I did carry a bit of Mathematics problem with me on this outing: skiing an Eulerian Circuit (more info: genesis of Graph Theory). Treating every intersection as a vertex and every trail as an edge, the route would have been one if not for the single entry/exit trail into/out of Tolkien system.

Weather 27 F/13 F, 22 mph WNW, 68% humidity; mostly sunny, windy, warm and pleasant
Wax Toko Base Performance Liquid Paraffin Red polished with a dedicated brush and Toko Red Structure

 

2020-03-18: Maasto Hiihto

 

Beyond a few kilometers under the guidance of Bryant Weathers in my initial days of skiing (circa 2014-15), the 5-kilometer loop for Glide n’ Gorge a few times (I was more interested in gorging than gliding during those outings: first stop for appetizers, second for a variety of soups and a final one for desserts) and ~10 km outing with Mike Young (yes, the same outing in 2019 December described in the Genesis section earlier). The system, in spite of washed out trails (from the 2018 Father’s Day Flood; not sure if/when they’ll be repaired), was very pretty and I’d love to ski it again – maybe in combination with Churning Rapids.

Weather 32 F/26 F, 7 mph E, 64% humidity; cloudy and pleasant pleasant
Wax Toko Base Performance Liquid Paraffin Red polished with a dedicated brush and Toko Red Structure

 

2020-03-21: Copper Harbor – Village and Fort Wilkins Historic State Park

 

I had previously run portions of these trails as part of the Run The Keweenaw, A Festival of Trails and Experience The Keweenaw weekends (one during Memorial Day and another during Labor Day) for several years. I had also been in Copper Harbor during winter months – sometimes for a hike and at other times to find a different scene for my runs. But this was the first time my skis made the trip. Thanks to the timely grooming update from dear friends, Kim Green and Dan Kauppi, I found freshly groomed, tracked and (kick) double-pole-able trail all to myself! It was a good opportunity to test somethings for a future race – where the weather conditions change overnight with no opportunity to redo the wax job.

Weather 10 F/10 F, 3 mph W, 72% humidity; sunny and pleasant
Wax Toko Base Performance Liquid Paraffin Yellow polished with a dedicated brush and Toko Yellow Structure

 

2020-03-21: Copper Harbor – Horseshoe Harbor Loop and East Bluff

 

This region of Copper Harbor is a mostly familiar territory – at least a good portion of it – or at least I thought. Not finding any classic tracks but only what looked like backcountry trail, the first 10+ steps to recon the course didn’t necessarily boost my confidence. But I am glad to have ventured out … because I found immaculately groomed and untouched tracks rest of the way. I took the left fork off of Mandan Road towards the Horseshoe Harbor and the tracks ended at the parking area that leads to the Mary MacDonald Preserve. Based on the map of the Horseshoe Harbor Loop, I was expecting a right turn or for the trail to loop back to Mandan Road. The one fork I found (as the official map showed) wasn’t groomed and so, I kept following the snowshoe/fat bike/backcountry trail as far as it’d take me. Falling a few times and learning the elements of backcountry and downhill skills on the go, I ended up at the majestic Lake Superior shoreline.

Thinking that I was at the High Rock Bay (this was a mistake – I should have studied the map better ahead of time) and thus was expecting Snowmobile Hwy #134 to return to Mandan Road. There wasn’t one and I had to backtrack my path to the Mandan Road – Horseshoe Harbor Trail intersection. I carried enough water and energy gels and the weather was quite pleasant. So, I didn’t mind the extra few kilometers. Letting the idea of completing the loop go, I got to explore the 4 kilometers of uphill on East Bluff Trail (with a couple of fake downhills) and the reward was another magnificent view of Lake Superior. If the loop was groomed as the map showed, then my path should have looked either like this (~29 km) or that (~20 km). But I had no problem with the one I traversed during this outing and will look forward to doing it again.

Weather 23 F/23 F, 38% humidity; sunny, warm and pleasant
Wax Toko Base Performance Liquid Paraffin Yellow polished with a dedicated brush and Toko Yellow Structure

 

2020-03-22: Eagle Harbor

 

This outing should have taken place yesterday as part of the Copper Harbor exploration but the Horseshoe Harbor Loop and East Bluff Trail took longer than expected. Plus, I had informed dear friends – Handlers (Christine, Rob, Shannon and Stephen) and Vendlinskis (Andi and Jim) – that I’d be back in town (or at least within the reach of cellular service) by 6 pm … or they should send help. In hindsight, it was a good thing that I didn’t get to do this yesterday. Kim Green joined this socially distant fun outing and with her guidance, I would have been lost (literally; I am not joking) by pursuing an incorrect fork along Long Lake (see a chunk that sticks out like a sore thumb and doesn’t seem to go anywhere?) that in reality was a snowmobile route. I fell a few times, we had to take our skis off a few other times to get through light (or no) snow regions and thus took a bit longer to complete but it was a memorable crisp Spring morning.

Weather 18 F/7 F, 9 mph SSE, 62% humidity; sunny, crisp and pleasant
Wax Toko Base Performance Liquid Paraffin Red polished with a dedicated brush and Toko Red Structure

 

2020-21 Edition

Having completed this project, I believe I can do it again … and per Mike Young’s belief, maybe in a 48-72 hour window during the 2020-21 winter … as long as I pick a better weekend and not wait for the best one. I have quite a bit of time to figure out an optimal strategy to cover these trail systems – minimizing the driving time and maximizing the rest between outings. I hope the next edition will be less of a refuge and more of a celebration of getting through with what we have been going through right now.

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