My love affair with downhill skiing began at tiny Mount Hardscrabble near Rice Lake, Wis., in the mid-1960s. Those were the days of leather ski boots and bear-trap bindings. Our skis were long, heavy and unshapely.
Hardscrabble had some steep pitches, a fast three-stage rope tow and a base lodge built around a huge open-hearth fireplace. There, kids and adults would be scattered about in happy chaos, breathing in a heady mix of wood smoke, wet wool and grilled burgers. An oompah band wearing lederhosen would play polkas.
Those days may be gone, but much of the local ski-hill spirit still remains in places like Mount Ashwabay in Bayfield, Wis.
Perhaps you know the property by its summertime identity as the Lake Superior Big-Top Chautauqua, where music legends such as Johnny Cash, B.B. King and Gordon Lightfoot have performed over the years.
Come winter, the 300-foot hill overlooking the Apostle Islands reverts to its cold-weather persona and becomes a place for youngsters to learn how to ski or snowboard, a place for high school race teams to shave microseconds off their times, and a place for everyone else to have fun during the seemingly endless weeks of white along Lake Superior.
Cross-country skiers are accommodated, too, with more than 50 kilometers of Nordic trails snaking around the alpine area.
My two daughters and I grinned our way through a day at Ashwabay this past New Year's weekend while visiting relatives in Bayfield.
The weather was sunny and seasonably cold, but not too windy, and we were psyched to find a couple of inches of fluffy overnight powder lying atop previously groomed snow -- a surface that proved fast, grippy and quiet. We were virtually alone on the slopes until after lunchtime, when a few dozen skiers and boarders joined us on the gentle terrain.
A single chairlift and one rope tow serve the handful of runs, all of which face the lake and provide panoramic views of downtown Bayfield, Madeline Island and other Apostles off in the frosty distance. Classic rock tunes from an Ashland radio station are piped out onto the slopes, just loud enough. A couple of simple one-story structures squat at the base of the hill. One is a bar with a pool table and a pot-bellied stove. The other, a chalet/rental shop, has two stone fireplaces that keep the place toasty and smelling wintry. Picnic tables and benches are populated by locals getting geared up to ski or maybe taking a break from the slopes with a warm drink. A small but efficient kitchen pumps out burgers, brats, fries and the like.
Named to reflect the nearby communities of Ashland, Washburn and Bayfield, Ashwabay isn't a fancy resort (in fact, it's a nonprofit operation), but it's pleasing in its honesty and its affordability. An all-day adult lift ticket will set you back a mere $23 on weekends, $18 on weekdays. A rental package of skis, boots and poles adds only another $13.
This is a place where the trail map on the chalet wall was painted by hand, where you don't need to lock up your valuables (operations manager John Mesko says there's never been any theft, of anything) and where the knotty pine paneling evokes memories of your favorite mom 'n' pop resort Up North. You'll probably wind up sharing a table with a local or two, and they'll be only too happy to engage you in chit-chat.
"So, how's the snow?" they might ask you.
"Wonderful! Just terrific!" you might reply.
Bill Hammond • 612-673-1730