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Boyne puts a resort spin on Midwest skiing

January 5, 2015

Riding the slopes in a winter sun at Boyne Mountain, Mich.

BOYNE FALLS, Mich. — Perhaps Midwesterners were not meant to ski. Consider what they’ve been given: flat terrain, oppressively gray winter skies, subzero wind chills and fickle helpings of a ski weekend’s most crucial ingredient.

During my first morning at Boyne Mountain Resort in northern Michigan, the server at the ski lodge restaurant pointed to the broad windows that led to the slopes I’d soon be whooshing down.

"See those tables out there?" she said, pointing to some metal lawn furniture. "They had three feet of snow on them a couple weeks ago."

Alas, that was before the resort had opened for the winter. Now that the season had officially begun, there wasn’t a flake on those tables. A most Midwestern thing had happened: Temperatures warmed, the skies dropped rain and the snow vanished. The elements had conspired against Midwest skiing. Again.

But skiing is fun, so we try here in the Midwest. Among the places that try hardest are the Boyne resorts. There are two Boynes: Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands, about 25 miles apart, just below the Upper Peninsula. They provide one of the Midwest’s most comprehensive ski experiences, including the sorts of things you’d find at resorts out West: outdoor hot tubs and swimming pools rising with steam, ski-up bars and restaurants, facials and massage, plenty of rooms with wide views of the slopes and, no matter how much nature fights us, snow. Both Boynes spend ample time making it, spitting bright mists into the air from squat, hair dryer-looking machines as often as 24 hours a day.

And so it was that during a recent weekend, even as the terrain around both Boynes sat mostly brown and snow-free, the mountains (or, more accurately, hills) hosted a steady stream of skiers and snowboarders, me among them.

Boyne Mountain was opened in 1948 by Everett Kircher, a ski enthusiast who bought the resort’s first 40 acres for $1. He opened with two runs, a small lodge and the region’s first chair lift, which Kircher imported from Sun Valley, Idaho. In 1963, he turned what had been a private ski club into Boyne Highlands. The Kircher family still owns and operates both resorts, along with close to a dozen more both west and east, including Big Sky in Montana, Brighton in Utah and Sugarloaf in Maine.

The first thing to know about skiing at the Boynes, or most places in the Midwest, is that it is not skiing out West. It’s not even skiing at the better resorts in the East. We just don’t have the elevation. Out West, the runs can go on seemingly forever, or at least several miles. Here, they’re lucky to reach a mile. But that’s OK. It’s still fun.

The Boynes don’t offer a lot of ruggedness or adventure (unless of course you’ve never skied — in that case the adventure is ample). And the most daunting black-diamond runs here are about on par with challenging blue runs in the West. But ultimately there’s no point in comparing. The greatest attraction of skiing in the Midwest is that it is skiing — in the Midwest. No airplane required.

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BOYNE HIGHLANDS

I began at the quieter Boyne. Sitting just north of charming lakeside town (and onetime Ernest Hemingway haunt) Petoskey, Boyne Highlands is a decidedly low-key experience. That was especially the case on a Wednesday and Thursday early in the season. Aside from a group of Midwestern ski instructors working on their certification, the slopes were mostly quiet. Better still was the sun, which had decided to come out. Everyone was in a tizzy about it. One lift operator said he hadn’t seen it in several days.

Because I had only skied one day the previous winter, I started with a lesson to refresh my skills. My instructor was a Dutch woman named Sandy Reich who wore the standard Boyne uniform of black ski pants and a red jacket. She has taught skiing for 20 years, both in the U.S. and back home. (Kircher launched his ski school with an all-Austrian staff, and though the school is still run by an Austrian, instructors now are mostly American.)

During our two hours together, Reich told me about the ski novices who show up at Boyne Highlands: the man who spent a week learning to ski the gentlest slope on the hill because he dreamed of skiing with his 8-year-old daughter; the man who took a lesson for the first time at age 80; the singles group that held an outing at Boyne and made for one of the most fun teaching experiences she’s ever had. Among Boyne’s greatest virtues, she said, and the virtue of Midwestern slopes in general, is they’re an ideal place to learn.

After Reich helped shake off my rust, it was time to explore. I spent a couple of hours learning the trails and finding my favorite spots. Among them was a modest green run called Little John, which began with a short downhill that allowed me to pick up some speed before launching into the most exquisite tree-hugged curve that then curved again (first left, then right) before rocketing into a wide-open and still-curving expanse that offered a broad view of the Michigan hills in the distance. I must have done it five times, taking the curves with a little more speed and joy in each pass.

Snow quality is not one of the merits of Midwestern skiing, and that day was a bit of a patchwork: mostly hard-packed and speedy, while veering between icy patches (ick) and soft, freshly made powder (hooray). A sign near the equipment rental promised that anyone unhappy with the conditions could "simply return your daily lift ticket within a half-hour after purchase to receive a voucher for future skiing." No such issues on this day.

For lunch I skied up to the cozy bar on the lodge’s first floor. It had plenty of Michigan beer on tap and the requisite toasty fire in the requisite stone fireplace. The lodge — a cross between a Swiss village and "The Shining" — is a bit trapped in the 1970s with its maroons and reds all over the place, but frankly I appreciated it as an expression of Midwest authenticity. We don’t need to be flashy here, just comfortable. (Nevertheless, a renovation is on the agenda.)

(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

While I worked on a bowl of vegetable beef soup that my server recommended, the men a table over discussed the conditions.

"How is it out there?"

"Pretty good for early in the season."

"It was rough a few days ago with the rain. But we’ve had a good few days of makin’."

As in makin’ snow.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

That night, I discovered one of the most remarkable joys of Boyne skiing: Boyne Highlands’ bean-shaped swimming pool. It sits just outside the lodge, in plain view of the ski hills. The pool was heated to a nerve-tingling, soul-warming 98 degrees, and after a day of skiing, nothing could feel finer, especially paired with a swim to stretch lightly sore muscles.

The next morning again dawned gray. The skies remained low and stewing — interminably soupy in that Midwestern sort of way. As I boarded the lift for my first run, the operator who had been relishing the sun the day before still had it on his mind.

"Where’d the sun go, dude?" he said.

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BOYNE MOUNTAIN

I found it once again at Boyne Mountain. In fact, the sun came out both days I skied there. We Midwesterners have modest dreams, but two consecutive days of sun in winter is one of them.

Boyne Mountain, which is about 35 miles south of Boyne Highlands, was clearly a different animal, with signs pointing the way to the Avalanche Bay indoor water park and Solace Spa — the largest spa in Michigan, according to Boyne staff. Boyne Highlands has neither of those amenities. There it’s mostly about the snow.

The lodge itself was also starkly different. Just 10 years old, Boyne Mountain’s accommodations evoke modern rusticity with stone columns, wood trim and stuffed animal heads peering down from the restaurant walls. It was an even more different Boyne the next morning, when, by 7 a.m., little feet and bright squeals echoed through the hallway. It was at that moment, still horizontal and eyes closed, that I realized I hadn’t seen anyone younger than about 12 at Boyne Highlands. With its spa, water park, s’mores making and the magician whose act I caught in the lobby, Boyne Mountain is very much geared to families.

After a breakfast below those animal heads of a made-to-order vegetable omelet and fresh fruit, I headed for the slopes. It wasn’t just sunny; the weather was near perfect. Thirty degrees, no wind and a honeyed winter Midwestern sun.

The mountain itself was also different — Boyne Mountain is much more open than Boyne Highlands, with broad slopes that swoop toward the ski village in relatively straight lines. There is a handful of hidden backside runs that usher skiers through trees and a few twists and curves but seemingly fewer than Boyne Highlands. One feature they shared was the mostly hard-packed snow that moved relatively fast.

This being a weekend, and the resort more popular, the slopes were well populated with a democracy of skiers, from 6-year-olds fearlessly winding down the most challenging runs to red-cheeked snowboarding teens to adults of all skill levels. Few seemed to be in particularly new or expensive ski gear; a few even wore jeans.

After a couple of hours of morning skiing, I slid up to Happy’s taco truck, perched at the edge of the snow, and perused a menu of gourmet tacos (Beer-braised chicken taco with cactus-serrano slaw? Yes, please.). I felt warm from rushing around the slopes — and from the fire pit chugging a pleasant woody, wintry smoke — so the bright 30-degree afternoon felt perfect for alfresco dining on the patio.

That afternoon I shared most of my lift rides with strangers, generally men between 35 and 65 who lived within a three-hour drive. We exchanged pleasantries, like whether we had kids and where we were from. When they learned I was from Chicago, the conversation almost always turned to football.

"What’s wrong with the Bears?" I was asked more than once.

We Midwesterners love our football.

Turns out we also love skiing. One guy said he owned a condo in Breckenridge, Colo., that he would be visiting in a couple of weeks. Another, who owned a condo at Boyne Mountain, said he was headed to Vail, also in Colorado, in January.

"So are you happy skiing here?" I asked the man headed to Vail as we gathered our poles and prepared to launch ourselves in separate directions from the lift.

"Sure," he said. "It’s close, and it’s good exercise."

The point was clear: It’s not the West, but it’s what we have, and what we have is better than nothing.

I skied until the lifts’ 4:30 p.m. close, when long shadows from the bony trees were stretching across the snow. That night I headed to Pierson’s, a cozy wood-walled restaurant in the small ski village, and shoehorned myself into a table beside the fireplace. Happy people packed the place, cradling drinks and wearing the glow of a day well spent. I sat there with my beer and relished the hot muscles that come with a few days of skiing. I won’t lie: I was dreaming of the West, but I was quite happy to be home.

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IF YOU GO

Boyne ski runs are open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday. Lift tickets are interchangeable between the resorts. Packages that include room, lift ticket and breakfast (all of which are free for kids 8 and under and reduced for kids 9 to 15 when booking packages) start at $125 per person per night at Boyne Mountain (boynemountain.com) and $118 at Boyne Highlands (boynehighlands.com). and $118 at Boyne Highlands (boynehighlands.com).

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BOYNE BY THE NUMBERS

Boyne Highlands

Opened: 1963

Acres: 4,000

Skiable acres: 435

Peak elevation: 1,325 feet

Vertical gain (lowest point on ski hill to highest): 552 feet

Chair lifts: 8

Ski runs: 55 (37 percent green, 29 percent blue, 34 percent black)

Season ends: March 29

Boyne Mountain

Opened: 1948

Acres: 5,000

Skiable acres: 415

Peak elevation: 1,120 feet

Vertical gain: 500 feet

Chair lifts: 10

Ski runs: 60 (29 percent green, 41 percent blue, 30 percent black)

Season ends: When the snow melts

 

 


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