Photo by John Karpinsky
Taryn Coles does more than endure winter in Milwaukee. She relishes it.
When her colleagues at Marquette University begin to decry the snow and cold, she strikes out on the area’s cross-country ski trails. The 37-year-old fundraiser celebrates camaraderie, exercise and meditation during night skiing at Lapham Peak and afternoons spent gliding through the Kettle Moraine State Forest. She makes new friends inside warming shelters and next to roaring fires in lodges. “It’s the only way to survive the winter,” says Coles, who moved to Milwaukee from Seattle in 2008. “Everybody is out and active, and there’s this community. There’s the wine and beer and crackers and hot chocolate.”
Undulating terrain molded by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago serves as the canvas on which today’s skiing enthusiasts mix rhythm, solitude and community.
“You can go, and it just clears your brain out,” says Mary Eloranta, 58, who coaches the Peak Nordic Ski team composed of area elementary, middle and high school students. “You’re in the woods, and it’s you and a ribbon of white. You’re removed, hopefully, from your electronic devices and get back your own time.”
|Hear more about the area’s cross-country skiing scene on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Jan. 7 at 10 a.m.|
Forty minutes from Downtown Milwaukee, Lapham Peak (W329 N846 County Highway C, Delafield) is the team’s home base and one of the most popular winter destinations in the state. More than 100,000 skiers visit Lapham’s more than 17 miles of trails each winter, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. A snowmaking system installed in 2005 helps those numbers by producing a skiable track from early December to March. Also helpful is the cheery Evergreen Shelter, which turns into something of a Club Lapham on weeknights, with skiers gathering near a wood-burning stove to share snacks, training tips, craft beers and wine.
On Wednesday nights, Friends of Lapham Peak hosts low-key races for the moderately skilled, and on Tuesdays, the Peak Nordic Masters team offers free lessons for all skill levels, including beginners.
Phil Van Valkenberg, 67, who has skied on and written about trails in Wisconsin and beyond, says the terrain at Lapham matches any in the world. The climb to the highest point in Waukesha County tests experienced athletes, and the flat ski loops circling the lower meadows are well-suited to beginners.
Other satisfying ski paths can be found in the Southern and Northern Kettle Moraine areas, and in the Waukesha County and Milwaukee County park systems. Many started as hiking trails blazed by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and ’40s or during the cross-country ski boom of the ’70s.
“Each system has its own characteristics and personality, either in terrain or degree of difficulty,” says Paul Sandgren, superintendent of the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest. “Folks in this area of the state are blessed to have the types of trails and the quality of trails – and so many of them within a short distance.”
Where to Make Tracks
The oldest trail system in the Southern Kettle Moraine is also the only one maintained solely for classic-style cross-country skiing, a diagonal stride that dates back centuries. Two tracks wind over hills adjacent to the Scuppernong Wetlands, allowing pairs to stride side by side. “It has a wonderful flow to it,” says Van Valkenberg, who times his outings to arrive at the trail’s observation point “right at sunset.”
On Saturday afternoons after a fresh batch of snow, families from Milwaukee, Madison and northern Illinois collect at this trailhead near Whitewater, turning it into a carnival of color and activity. Sandgren rates Nordic as the best system for beginners in the Southern Kettle Moraine, with seven trails of varying lengths and difficulty spreading skiers across ridge lines and deep kettles. The 15-kilometer blue loop is the longest in the area and mixes long glides through pine forests with steep hills, tight turns and expansive views of regenerated prairie.
At these ski loops located next to a shooting range, skiers and hunters have coexisted peacefully since the late 1970s, when members of the Nordic Ski Club of Milwaukee laid out the paths along walls of conifers and remnants of stone farm buildings. Shorter options suit beginners, while the longer, hillier trails serve as solid training for skiers preparing for tough races. “That’s the most challenging system we have here,” Van Valkenberg says. “Anybody who is training for the [Birkebeiner], they should go there at least a couple times.”
Members of the Kettle Moraine Nordic Ski Club have mixed pleasure and labor in recent years by steadily improving this system west of Plymouth. They added lights to a 1.2-mile beginner loop in 2009 and revamped sections of the Greenbush trails in the fall of 2012. Ski courses here are wider to accommodate both skate skiers and classic striders, and the downhills are relatively forgiving. The elevated terrain has something of a Vermont feel, says Tom Lawn, a transplant from Illinois who lives near the trailhead. “It doesn’t feel like the Midwest. … The landscape changes.”
The Zillmer trails have remained something of a hidden gem since their incarnation as hiking trails in the ’50s. On many days, a skier can enjoy having an entire forest to himself, hearing only skis skidding across a wooden bridge and the waters of the Auburn Lake Creek splashing underneath. A lodge shelter built from white pine harvested in the state forest has boosted Zillmer’s appeal without ruining its gentle pleasures. “It’s kind of rolling,” says Lee Borowski, a former USSA Nordic team coach who lives in Brookfield. “I can go out there and ski the inner loops and not have to struggle with a lot of big hills.”
Crews here pack and maintain short trails in Whitnall, Grant and Brown Deer parks. With limited equipment, the grooming is less consistent than that found in the state forests, but Brown Deer has become popular among skiers who want to squeeze in a few kilometers on their lunch breaks or after a long day at work. Skiers at Grant Park are following in the tracks of Milwaukee historian John Gurda, who prefers to ski by the park’s golf course and wooded areas under the cover of night.