After the sun set, the snow took on the shadowy blue of winter dusk. The fading light reduced the pine trees to ink-brush silhouettes. The calm air tasted sharp with the cold. The only scent was the faint incense of woodsmoke.
For a couple of hours, I'd been skiing up and down gentle slopes, across level fields and through thick stands of woods that had survived at least a couple generations of lumberjacks. Even though the temperature was 8 degrees -- typical for northern Wisconsin in February -- I was warm from the exertion.
I spotted the glow of white Christmas-tree lights strung up along the fence of the horse pasture, and then the broad-shouldered shape of the barn on the horizon, and I knew I was close to a hot meal and my home for the night -- Palmquist Farm.
Palmquist Farm is an oddity for a number of reasons. It may be the only cross-country ski resort in the region that is also, in the truest sense, a working farm. It's also the only cross-country ski resort that doubles as a hunting preserve (although there's no crossover in seasons, so don't fret about that). In an era of corporate agriculture, the farm has been owned by the same Finnish family for four generations. Owner Jim Palmquist even speaks Finnish -- when he was a small boy he worked as a translator for his grandfather in the family's logging camp. The oddest thing of all may be that at Palmquist's, cross-country skiing has been a part of the farm for more than 100 years.
"We can honestly say that there has never been a year here when there wasn't a ski trail on this farm," said Jim Palmquist. "Skiing was a necessity. People used skis to get around. My mom and dad courted on skis. They went to school and church on skis. Our people just love to ski."
Every winter I make a point to take one vacation that involves going north. Instead of fleeing winter, I head for its white-cold soul. For years, a friend who is a devoted Palmquist patron had been urging me to try the place. In February, I finally made the three-and-a-half-hour drive to sparsely populated north-central Wisconsin to see for myself.
Last year's winter was whiter and colder than the globally warmed norm has become. The gravel road that leads to Palmquist's had a 4-foot-high wall of hard-pack on each side, evidence of a busy season for the snowplows.
The farmyard was also packed with snow, and the air was cold enough that it produced a satisfying squeak-and-crunch with every step. As in any true farmhouse, the door everyone uses leads to the kitchen. At Palmquist's, the kitchen doubles as the resort office, gift shop, coffee shop and meeting place of choice. Jim Palmquist, ruddy-cheeked with pale blue eyes, checked me in, then grabbed a much-abused leather cowboy hat and led me on a tour of the yard.
A two-story, wood-stove-heated sauna has a place of honor near the driveway. Two lovely rust-colored Belgian draft horses (Pat and Pete) nosed around in the hay in front of the massive red barn. Guest lodgings are scattered on the periphery; they range from a massive log structure known as the White Pine Inn, with four suites each holding two bedrooms, to the cozy two-bedroom Sauna House (so named because it has a private sauna). Another log building serves as a hall for business meetings, weddings and reunions.
Palmquist said the resort business helps fill a need he has as a farmer.
"One problem with agriculture is it's such a lonely occupation," Palmquist said. "It didn't always used to be that way; in the '40s and '50s when they'd thresh oats here, there might be 30 people working, and teams of horses. But with mechanization, that changed. You spend a lot of time sitting by yourself in a big machine. Taking guests is another way of making sure you've got friends around."
A midwinter break
Jim's wife and partner, Helen Palmquist, cooks the meals -- hearty rural fare such as pork chops and mashed potatoes -- and they are served family-style. On the first day, I shared my dinner with two couples in their 70s from Bloomington who'd been coming to the farm for 15 years, and on the second night chatted with two honeymooners and a sawmill efficiency expert who was involved in an attempt to cut costs at the mill down the road.
Conversation, conducted by Jim Palmquist, was lively and congenial. Like a lot of farmers, Palmquist has worn many hats in his career; he has a curious mind and thoughts to share on many topics.
When I wasn't enjoying the informal salon in the farmhouse kitchen, I took full advantage of the resort's amenities. I watched Palmquist's friend and horse handler, Andy Kurth, put Pat and Pete into harness so they could pull a sled loaded with thrilled kids out to see the small bison herd. I steamed on the sizzling second floor of the two-story sauna. I ate vast and well-made home-cooked meals, including Helen Palmquist's memorable freshly baked cinnamon rolls.
But what I enjoyed most was gliding over those farm fields and through those pine woods on my skis. The farm is spread out over 800 acres, with about 20 miles of smoothly groomed trails. The hills were mild; the terrain wasn't technically challenging. But it was perfect for a midwinter break, a chance to move in rhythm through the silence of the season.
As I headed out on the ski trails on my last morning, Palmquist shared his thoughts on the sport.
"There's one problem with cross-country skiing these days," he said. "People have made it too darned difficult. You have to have the right skis, right boots, right clothes. Otherwise you aren't skiing. The fact is, you can ski at any level you want. You can put on skis and walk the trails in your jeans and an old jacket and it's just as good."