the slopes in a winter sun at Boyne Mountain, Mich.
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
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
those tables out there?" she said, pointing to some
metal lawn furniture. "They had three feet of snow on
them a couple weeks ago."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
I worked on a bowl of vegetable beef soup that my server
recommended, the men a table over discussed the
is it out there?"
good for early in the season."
was rough a few days ago with the rain. But we’ve had a
good few days of makin’."
in makin’ snow.
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.
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.
the sun go, dude?" he said.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
wrong with the Bears?" I was asked more than once.
Midwesterners love our football.
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.
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.
he said. "It’s close, and it’s good
point was clear: It’s not the West, but it’s what we
have, and what we have is better than nothing.
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.
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 (