Midway through my first-ever ski lesson at Lutsen, I was standing at the top of the gently sloping Ullr Mountain, staring down an “easy” slope known as the Big Bunny.
I turned to my 20-something ski instructor, Amanda. “Uh, is there a “Not-So-Big Bunny?”
Lutsen’s introductory ski run was not how I had envisioned a bunny hill, its name conjuring images of Jake Gyllenhaal’s horrific rabbit alter-ego in the movie “Donnie Darko.” Starting with a short, sharp plunge to build speed, the Big Bunny wraps its way around the side of Ullr. At a sharp right turn, an orange plastic fence protects wayward skiers from plunging into a line of trees.
“The first time I did the Big Bunny, I went right through that fence,” Amanda said. “That was pretty funny.”
Good to know.
I didn’t give myself a chance to follow in Amanda’s tradition. While attempting to zigzag behind her down the Big Bunny’s initial descent, I panicked, sitting back into a painless slide on my backside. It was my first-ever fall on skis.
“That was a really graceful fall!” Amanda called out, supportively.
She showed me how to get back up and resume. But I was still having trouble with turning at downhill speeds. So I fell, again. And again. And again. My skiing progress was crashing to a halt.
Skiing had always felt out of reach for me, something that kept me from being a real Minnesotan. I could rescue myself from a tipped kayak. I could bike 102 miles in a day. I could leg out a triple in adult kickball. But I couldn’t slide down a snow-covered mountain with fiberglass slats locked to my feet. That seemed like something that only Olympians should be able to do — and yet ordinary people do it all the time.
Growing up, skiing seemed like something that only the more privileged kids did. But after years of looking at people’s skiing and snowboarding photos on social media and online dating profiles, I decided it was time to learn. After three months of core-conditioning class at the YMCA, and a winter workout regime that involved kettlebells and thousands of squats, I felt as ready as I was going to be.
Where better to start than Lutsen Mountains? The iconic North Shore ski resort looks like a Nordic winter paradise, claiming the biggest vertical rise (1,088 feet) in the Midwest. That may not be up to Alpine standards, but Lutsen has something that other ski destinations don’t: panoramic views of the largest freshwater body in the world. And Lake Superior, after all, is my happy place.
I woke up in Minneapolis at 5:30 a.m., and five hours later I was standing at the foot of Ullr Mountain with Amanda, from Lutsen’s Snowsports Center. Arriving on the last Wednesday in February meant that my $35 group lesson was actually a private solo lesson. While the Twin Cities area was in the midst of an early thaw, Lutsen was enjoying near-perfect ski conditions, with temps in the 20s, two fresh inches of snow and modest traffic.
We started off on the practice run known as Flapjack, so named because its 10 percent grade is flat by skiing standards. It was at the base of Ullr Mountain, so named for the grunts I would be making on it for the next two days.
Amanda took me through the universal footwork basics: 1) Pull the skis parallel to go fast. 2) Push your heels out to form a wedge with the skis to slow down. “I’ll just go ahead and use the kids’ terms for it: French fries and pizza,” Amanda added helpfully. When you turn and brake in wedge/pizza mode, that’s a “snowplow.”
Wedge, pizza, snowplow: Whatever you want to call it, it was the formation I’d be holding onto for dear life.
As we rode the “magic carpet” (a conveyor belt) to the top of Flapjack, I asked Amanda if you’re better off learning to ski as a kid — you know, to gain that muscle memory and all.
“I moved here from overseas in the sixth grade,” Amanda replied. “Ski day with the other kids was not a good first experience. That day ended with a ski to the shin for me.
“I didn’t try again until a year ago,” she continued. “And now a year later, I’m skiing black diamonds … and teaching lessons.” She conceded that living by a ski resort probably helps.
Amanda led me through a zigzag down Flapjack, turning by varying the left-right pressure on my wedge. I took my first few runs with no problem, suddenly grateful for all those squats at the Y. “Are you sure you’ve never skied before?” Amanda said.
I quickly graduated to the Big Bunny, and my first chairlift ride was a relaxing break for my already-aching calves. But that’s where the trouble began.
On the slightly steeper Big Bunny, I realized I was getting spooked by my downhill speed while turning, and forcing myself to fall out instead of go. This is apparently normal. Plus, my legs were getting tired from my constant snowplowing.
With some trial and error, we finally made it all the way down. My one-hour lesson was over and I was on my own for the day. After an all-carb lunch at the chalet, and 20 more solo test runs on Flapjack, I rode back up to the Big Bunny alone.
I fell only three times, and made it down much faster. But time flies on the slopes, and it was time to call it a day.
Lutsen by night
Skiing is exhausting, so it’s a good thing that Lutsen is also a great place to unwind.
On the web, the area offers a confusing array of lodging options. Eagle Ridge Resort and Caribou Highlands Lodge offer a “ski-in/ski-out” experience, and might be the more social and economical option. But I was seduced by pictures of the “Sea Villas” at the unrelated Lutsen Resort, two miles down the hill. I booked a 1.5-story sea villa, a Scandinavian-style modernist townhouse that virtually touches the icy water. With a three-bed loft included, the place is perfect for a family of five or a bunch of ski buddies, notwithstanding the tiny bathroom. I slept on a twin mattress in the loft, where crashing waves lulled me to sleep and daily sunrises over the lake woke me up. Note to self: Bring friends back here next year.
Skiing shuts down around 4 p.m. daily, but activities don’t necessarily. In February, there was enough daylight left for a side trip to nearby Grand Marais, “America’s Coolest Small Town.” But Lutsen has its own nightlife: Papa Charlie’s restaurant and bar brings in a few big regional acts a year such as Cloud Cult and members of the hip-hop collective Doomtree, in addition to a weekly songwriter series. On my first night I noshed on chèvre prosciutto chicken with an Edmund Fitzgerald Porter from Great Lakes Brewery, while a Duluth-based singer-songwriter named Superior Siren played to an attentive crowd.
Even if you’re not skiing the black-diamond runs at Lutsen, the gondola ride to the top of Moose Mountain is essential. The sleek, silent new gondolas look like something out of “Star Wars,” right down to the Jedi orange, as they careen across the canyon. Moose Mountain also boasts a deluxe chalet with soaring views of Superior (I could just make out Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands, some 40 miles away) and much better lunch options than the fast-food fare in the main ski village.
Back to the Bunny
I signed up for a $69 private lesson on Thursday morning, where I learned a few new fundamental moves including parallel turning (if wedging is all in the heels, parallel turns are all in the knees) and hockey stops (those bad-ass stops where you abruptly cut to the side). Since parallel turns are quicker than wedging, I was slowly getting more comfortable with downhill speed.
I was getting tired, though. Learning to ski might be way more exhausting than actually skiing because it’s all snowplowing and turning. My Achilles tendons and calves were aching after a day, partly because the constricting rental boots really do a number on my big cyclist’s calves. Another lesson: Consider purchasing a more premium, fitted ski boot.
Lutsen is definitely worth the trip, but learning to ski there may have been overkill. Before returning, I plan to conquer my fear reflex by applying what I’ve learned on longer, gentler slopes closer to home.
Before I left Lutsen, I did return to the Big Bunny. Again, I fell and fell, and fell. Finally on the third attempt, I made it all the way down the Big Bunny without falling. Sure, I may have snowplowed for most of the steep parts, but for once I didn’t fall. At one point I even felt that sense of freedom that skiers must get from a rapid descent.
I had conquered the Big Bunny.
More or less.