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U.P. Extreme

It’s true what you’ve heard about the skiing at Mount Bohemia, smack in the middle of Michigan's copper country.

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Words by Tim Sohn; Photos by Keri Bascetta

Steve Rowe sliced the air with his ski pole and pointed north toward the horizon, across a frozen landscape that looked like the edge of the known world. We stood atop Mount Bohemia on northern Michigan’s remote Keweenaw Peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the vast expanse of Lake Superior. Rowe, Bohemia’s lone full-time patroller, was giving me a tour.

“Out there you can see Isle Royale on a clear day,” he said, nodding toward a point 60 miles off, closer to Canada than to us. Then he pivoted back toward the mountain, pointing east. “Over that way is Outer Limits and Middle Earth, but I think we should head to the north side.”

He smiled, skated away, and ducked into some trees. I followed. It was a Friday in late February, sunny and cold, and I was already several runs into my first day at the place that boasts the Midwest’s only extreme skiing.

The extraordinary copper-rich Keweenaw juts sharply northeastward off Michigan’s already remote Upper Peninsula. Bohemia is its highest point, and thanks to a strong lake effect, it’s blessed annually with 300 inches of fluffy powder on its 900 feet of vertical. “It’s Eastern-type terrain with Western-type snow,” Rowe had told me on the lift. “And it skis bigger than it looks.” I must have cocked a skeptical eyebrow. “You’ll see,” he’d said.

And I did. The runs were short, some open, some gladed, some with cliffs and chutes. All were blanketed with light powder. All were challenging enough to make the place feel like a much larger mountain. But looking out at the lake from the top, I had trouble reconciling the skiing I was doing with the landscape: an empty white expanse of ice and nothingness with very little vertical relief save for the hill on which we stood.

Mount Bohemia piqued my interest when I first read about it: steep, ungroomed, with the Midwest’s only triple-black runs and an end-of-the-road location in a former copper-mining district. I was intrigued by its uniqueness, and the photos looked legit. I knew it was small—two chairlifts and 550 skiable acres—but who wouldn’t want to ski at a place that expressly forbids beginners? A conversation with Lonie Glieberman, the owner, only heightened my curiosity. “We’re what skiing was back in the ’60s, when it wasn’t all about condos,” he told me. “Like Taos or Alta—those classic places.”

I’d met Rowe the morning after I arrived, and he’d confirmed the dispiriting news I’d heard from locals, that the cold winter meant the lake had frozen over almost completely, turning off the snow machine. But he offered some hope. “You just have to know where to look.” It had been a few days since the last dump, a six-incher, but he assured me that there were plenty of stashes out there. “It’s like trying to keep a garden from being ravaged by a pack of wart- hogs, but we’ve still got snow.”

Rowe is 56 but looks 40 and skis like he’s 30. He grew up in nearby Calumet and spent 15 years working in emergency medicine, but skiing and a life outdoors kept calling to him. He skied around out West, came home to work as a kayak guide, and spent winters prospecting for powder. He’s hiked and skied here since the mid-1980s, long before lifts, and he cut most of the trails himself.

We notched lap after lap in the north-side trees in an area called Haunted Valley. Getting to the best stashes took some work, but the rewards were ample. A typical run: 15 buttery turns through pillowy snow in complete solitude. Soon Rowe was smiling, and so was I.

It had been just a decent snow year—about 220 inches—but the consistently low temperatures had preserved the snow nicely. The average annual total is about 300. The record: 390 inches, in 1978–79.

Rowe is deeply rooted here. His Cornish great-grandfather came to the area to work in the mines. The Keweenaw’s copper drew people from all over the world and generated tremendous wealth, and the Victorian buildings lining Calumet’s downtown streets speak to a bygone prosperity. “The last mine closed when I was eight,” Rowe told me. But he takes great pride in the recreational boomlet that is helping revive the economy. This has long included snowmobiling, nordic skiing, and dogsledding along with summertime boating and fishing. Bohemia opened in 2000 and has found a loyal following. The diehards love its solitude, its powder, and its terrain. They also love the way Glieberman, with Rowe’s help, has developed it: slowly and with an eye toward simplicity.

“Here we just get the one mountain,” Rowe explained as we rode the lift again in the afternoon. “We have to make the most of it.”

The genesis of today’s Bohemia was an ambitious 1987 plan commissioned by then-owner Lake Superior Land Company during a time when local timber companies began investigating skiing as a potentially profitable opportunity. “An exceptional ski mountain,” the promotional literature called it, promising “a winter vacation experience far superior to that of the region’s other ski areas.”

First among the advantages cited was the most important: the highest vertical of any resort in the Midwest. The plan called for long groomed runs and extensive slopeside development—even a mountaintop restaurant. It estimated that by 1998, annual skier visits would be nearly 100,000. It was a Cadillac of a plan, bloated and doomed, and when Glieberman arrived to look Bohemia over in 1997, it seemed moribund.

“It just never happened,” he told me shortly after I arrived. “There was nothing here, just one test run.” We were sitting in one of the interconnected yurts that constitute Bohemia’s base area. There’s a central yurt with a kitchen, cash register, and rental shop. Attached to it are two dining yurts with
picnic tables and a bar yurt with local
beers on tap. Arrayed around this core are a ski-patrol yurt, a hostel yurt (it looks and smells like a dorm room), and a scattering of private guest cabins and yurts. Breakfast and dinner are included in lodging packages. Glieberman and I ate salad and ravioli from paper plates. A string of construction lights dangled overhead, South Park played on a nearby TV, and groups of mostly men (the clientele skews about 80 percent male) sat eating, reading, or playing cards.

Glieberman is an entrepreneur from Detroit, and prior to buying Mount Bohemia, he’d been working in the Canadian Football League on plans for expansion into the U.S. When that project was shut down, Glieberman needed a new one. He was skiing at Vail when he heard someone mention a mothballed ski-resort plan for the Upper Peninsula. He visited and was immediately intrigued. “Beginner and intermediate skiers are well served in the Midwest, but there’s a drastic lack of advanced, expert terrain,” he said. “And here was Bohemia, the biggest mountain in the Midwest, with the most snow and the potential for the most expert terrain.”

He decided to test an idea he’d read in a marketing book: that the narrower your focus, the stronger your brand. To his eye, the earlier plan had failed because it tried to be everything to everyone. A place this remote, he realized, couldn’t draw the masses. It would have to be a specialized product, aimed at a particular type of skier. “I thought, why can’t a ski resort just be for a niche? Ferrari isn’t targeting minivan drivers.”

Meanwhile, in the years when the original plan was foundering, Rowe and other diehard locals were exploring Bohemia and the hills around it, doing subtle
trail work. “Upland beavers,” Rowe called them. They hiked for their runs, some-
times as many as a dozen a day.A local businessman who knew Rowe asked him to guide Glieberman on his visit, and after a brief internal debate, Rowe agreed. “I really wanted this area to become a sort of outdoors mecca, a skiing, mountain-biking, paddling destination,” he told me on one of our lift rides. “It’s so far from any population center that it was never going to be a crowded experience. So yeah, we had this all to ourselves, but I didn’t see the harm in sharing.”

Glieberman bought the place, hired Rowe, and they pared the Cadillac plan down to something more like a go-cart. Phase I of the 1987 plan called for five lifts. They put in two—a triple and a double—with a shuttle bus along the base road and opened in 2000.

“We made it focused around what it’s good at,” Glieberman explained. That meant no frills and no grooming. “But those first years, it was pretty hard.” The first season, Bohemia opened late and attracted few visitors. The second was worse. One day the lifts closed early because there weren’t any skiers. “Driving home that night, I was like, maybe this was a really bad idea.”

But with no outside investors, Glieberman could indulge his stubbornness. In year four, he inaugurated a strategy that likely saved the mountain: a $99 season pass. Bohemia sold 900 that year. Last year it sold 5,200, and skier visits have jumped from 9,000 to 22,000 in the past decade. (Glieberman estimates that 70 percent of total skier visits are by pass holders.) And with its earned-turns opportunities for those so inclined, Bohemia has ridden the wave of increasing interest in backcountry skiing.

Season passes still cost $99. There are no plans to build a lodge or add lifts. Bohemia has grown slowly, adding cabins and trails, which now number 90. Both by necessity and design, Glieberman has made an asset of the mountain’s DIY ethos. “We’re purists,” he told me over dinner. “We’re going for that old-time lodge feel, for people to feel taken care of. It leads to a lot of interaction. People meet each other.”

The mining-camp ambience seems to be working. I met skiers with near-fanatical attachments to the place. They come from all over the Midwest, even as far away as Cleveland and Indianapolis. I saw old-timers, groups of 20- and 30-somethings having guys’ weekends, multiple father-son tandems, and lots of college students. Demand has been strong enough that for the 2015–16 season Bohemia will make its first major expansion: a cat-skiing operation with 700 feet of vertical and 200 acres on Voodoo Mountain, accessed via a 45-minute cat ride from Bohemia.

Rowe admires the way Glieberman has stuck to his plan. “I give him a ton of credit for keeping it super-modest. People are looking for that alternative, for something more minimalist, more pure, with more value. And it’s not like we’re sitting still. We’re upgrading and changing, but within the idea of keeping this place what it is.”

On Saturday morning the yurts were humming. The prior night’s late arrivals were yawning in the breakfast line. Others skiers had just driven in. I wandered to the bar in search of coffee and found Rick, the bartender, who also handles morning coffee, ticket sales, and anything else that comes up.

I asked what was for breakfast. “Monday, Wednesday, and Friday it’s pancakes and sausages,” he said. “The other days are sausages and pancakes.”

Simplicity in action, I thought. On my way out I passed Glieberman standing behind the register, encouraging a woman to buy a pass next year. “It’s a little slow for a Saturday,” he told me, “but it’ll pick up.”

The hill was mostly empty. I worked the fringes of the liftlines and found great patches of fluffy powder. The terrain varied enough to keep me interested. I began to think of it as a sort of my-first-sidecountry experience, a place where good skiers who live in the Midwest can find a challenging tune-up before a trip out West, and where those who have only ever skied Midwestern hills can be introduced to powder and real steepness. Bohemia has a little bit of everything and offers the illusion, at least for moments, of being a bigger mountain.

The run names defy Glieberman’s simplicity program. There’s a dense proliferation of them within the mountain’s relatively small footprint. Some runs are only a couple hundred feet long. This encourages a sort of obsessive connoisseurship: The regulars memorize the names and rattle off their favorite ways of linking runs together to maximize the vertical, and the fun, of each lap. It creates a series of secret handshakes, a feeling of having to work to master the mountain and claim your own secret stash. (As a blissfully ignorant newcomer, my experience was more like an Easter egg hunt. I found good stuff, but usually by accident.)

Among the multitude of runs are the famous triple black diamonds. Glieberman says the designation lets skiers know they’re in for more challenge than they’ve experienced on double blacks at other Midwestern resorts. And they’re a big attraction—a chance for bragging rights and photo ops. Somewhere in the Extreme Backcountry area, I ran across three young snowboarders scraping down a cliffy triple-black chute, throwing in the occasional butt-slide. “Heck yeah, that was awesome,” said one at the bottom. (Yes, “heck.”) “So, so sick,” said another. They asked if I knew the name of the run, but I was more clueless than they were. “Widowmaker?” I ventured, knowing only that there was a run on the mountain named that. They looked at me pityingly. “No, I think that’s way on the other side,” said one. They rode off.

After a run down either Saturn, Jupiter, or Uranus—I was in the solar system somewhere—I ended up at the bottom of an area called Outer Limits, where I waited for the shuttle back to the lift with a cross section of Bohemians—young snowboarders, older freeheelers—doing what skiers everywhere do: swapping stories about other places they’d skied.

Back at the yurts, I joined up with Glieberman and three people who’d come all the way from Boston to ski Bohemia. I’d met Jeff, his wife Sue, and their friend Sunny the morning before. Like me, they’d heard the crazy stories about extreme skiing in the middle of Lake Superior. This year they bought passes to give themselves the push. “At the very least, we knew it would be an adventure,” said Jeff.

The Bostonians, avid Eastern skiers, were amazed at how well the snow held up. Glieberman smiled. “I haven’t sharpened my edges in three years.” And even as the Saturday crowd swelled, every run featured at least a half dozen great turns. Glieberman darted ahead, leading the way through tight trees and rarely stopping to wait. Occasionally he’d turn back to tell us what he had planned, rattling off a few names of runs, but only a diehard Bohemia-head would have understood what he was talking about. We just followed.

When the lifts closed, I joined the Bostonians for a beer at their cabin, which was one in a row of a dozen or so serviceable structures furnished with bunk beds. (A new cluster of nearby waterfront cabins are more comfortably furnished, though still rustic.) Around the cabins milled a crowd of 20-somethings, mostly dudes, telling tales of the day’s adventures over beers and hibachis.

“The snow is so much better than back home,” said Jeff, delivering the verdict after two days of skiing at Bohemia. The rest of us agreed. “The website said it’s Western-style snow, but I didn’t really believe it. And some of the runs feel way, way longer than the 900 feet of vertical. Of course, some of them don’t.”

A few snowboarders, refusing to let the day end, hiked the hill behind the cabins. One of them straightlined into the parking lot, split a couple of parked cars, and launched an off-axis back flip off the snowbank at the far side.

“Yeah, dude! Nice!” his buddies shouted.

That buzz lingered into the evening. Saturdays tend be pretty lively in the bar yurt. Many of the skiers I’d met were there, and I met many more as the night went on. It felt quintessentially Midwestern—the niceness, the openness, the genuine interest.

Everyone had high praise for what’s been created at Bohemia: a haven for people who love to ski, a place that’s friendly and welcoming and pure in a way that big corporate skiing is not.

As Glieberman put it, “People don’t want the same old experiences. And I think that’s why people like it here. It’s different. It’s authentic.” 

Tim Sohn is a New York–based journalist whose work for Skiing has focused on off-the-beaten-path ski areas, including a former pig farm in Indiana. He also works as a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska and is at work on his first book.