Michigan's newest ski area, Mount Bohemia, feels like a 900-foot Jackson Hole.
Let's play a little word-association game. I'm going to throw out a handful of terms, and you shout out the first geographic reference that comes to mind (yes, right there in the optometrist's office). Ready? Fat skis. Light, knee-deep snow. Rock bands. Cliff drops. Yurts. Steep, sustained-pitch tree skiing.
What did you come up with? British Columbia? Utah? Perhaps. But if you said Michigan, you're one of the select few hundred powder fiends that made the trek all the way up to the end of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula last year to sample the inaugural season of Mount Bohemia.
As for the rest of you, I can see the skepticism furrowing your indignant little brows. But let's not be so prejudicial, eh? The skiing at Mount Bohemia is no joke. It's got nothing in common with the rest of the Midwest (save the abundance of Wisconsin license plates in the parking lot); instead, it bears comparison to points west. And I'm not talking Minnesota.
Last March I made the journey up to the Keweenaw, a beautifully desolate arm of thickly forested, basalt- and granite-ridged land that arcs out into Lake Superior from Michigan's Upper Peninsula like a shark's fin. I'd just been in Aspen, and after reading the near-hysterical exhortations on Mount Bohemia's website ("Triple-diamond, extreme backcountry terrain! No beginners allowed!"), I was prepared for disappointment. But when I got to the mountain, I had to wonder if that connecting flight in Milwaukee had somehow redirected me to Montana. Mount Bohemia's base area, such as it is, was made up entirely of Pacific Northwest-style backcountry yurts. Leaning against a railing were a couple pairs of fat skis mounted with tele bindings. Grizzled locals were milling around in helmets, Arc'teryx pants, and Scarpa Alpine touring boots. Looking up at the mountain, all I could see was a phalanx of treacherously steep bump runs. What was this, Jackson Hole?
That idea turned out to be not all that far off. Standing 900 feet tall (ahem, 839 feet, according to locals in the know), Mount Bohemia may only have two lifts, but stretched between them is an expanse of steep, tree-choked pitches, pockmarked everywhere with rocks and cliffs, at least one of which tops out at over 80 feet. The cut runs are ledged and corkscrewed, with headwalls dropping into steep mogul fields. And the constellation of diamonds spangling the trail map isn't an exaggeration: Mount Bohemia's only blue run, Prospector, would be a legendary black at any other Midwestern resort. In fact, before its 2000 opening, development plans on Mount Bohemia had been halted at least twice before (once in the '40s and once in the '80s) because the mountain was deemed too steep for skiing -- a concern that lingers in the resort's current master plan, which calls for more intermediate terrain. The place is like a rinky-dink version of Jackson, minus the base village and RVs. Ripping through new snow in the old-growth white pines on Mount Bohemia's southwest flank, you may as well be in the Hobacks.
And let's talk about that snow, eh? I actually hit it exactly wrong, showing up for corn and crud at the tail end of a near-300-inch season, which is astronomical by Midwestern standards (and plenty impressive otherwise -- Aspen gets 300 inches in an average year). But the locals' talk was excruciating to hear: two separate 30-day stretches of continuous accumulation. Snow deep enough that people were hucking 40-footers off the Horseshoe Chute and sticking it, just like in the movies. Mount Bohemia's location at the tip of the Keweenaw -- smack dab in the middle of Lake Superior -- delivers quantities of lake-effect snow, with moisture content roughly comparable to that of the Colorado Rockies. Temperatures hover in the single digits and teens from December through February, so all that snow stays crystalline. Best of all, it falls at a fasst and furious pace in the early season, so you can be relatively assured of powder in late December and January, an excellent time to bone up on your fat-ski skills before that spring trip to the Rockies. (In fact, if you were thinking about going west for the holidays, you may want to head north instead: When Keystone and Vail are overflowing with tourists, Bohemia is going off.)
Of course, there are downsides. Mount Bohemia is a long way from anywhere: seven hours from Milwaukee and Minneapolis; 10 or 12 hours from Detroit (though you can fly into Hancock or Marquette, Michigan, which are 45 minutes and two and a half hours away, respectively). Once you get there, the lodging and nightlife options are limited, but good food and tidy little cabins are available at Lac La Belle, five minutes down the road, and the ski resort hopes to have cabins of its own installed in time for this season. There are also decent lodgings and restaurants located 20 minutes or so away in the picturesque lakeshore towns of Copper Harbor and Eagle Harbor, as well as hotels and bars less than an hour away in the university town of Houghton (home of Michigan Tech).
The other downside you might run into is a smattering of local resentment toward the ski area -- mostly from snowmobilers and those who, rightfully so, are concerned about long-term ecological and cultural change in one of Michigan's most beautiful regions. But Mount Bohemia is being slowly and sensitively done -- its rather garish marketing efforts notwithstanding -- and it won't be long before the mountain's reputation, as the Alta of the Midwest, gels.
Lac La Belle Lodge
Mariner North Resort
(between Eagle and Copper harbors)