Mount Bohemia, a hot spot for ski adventurers on Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, dazzles with black diamonds.
Now it's my turn. I'm standing in Murphy's tracks, looking out, mist rising from the forest below. I'm leaning on my ski poles, the plastic handles against my chest, peering over the edge. It's 20 feet to the snow. Twenty feet of free fall to a crater where Murphy touched down, exploded in a ball of white, then skied away like a thief.
A voice yells up: "You gonna huck it?"
It's the third run of the day at Mount Bohemia, a tiny ski area on Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. The theme of the resort, which opened as a rustic ski hill in 2000 with two used chairlifts and no chalet, is adventure. Black diamonds dot the trail map. Tree runs and steep chutes flank the hill. Cliffs are common.
A sign at the entrance to the resort reads "Warning: NO BEGINNERS ALLOWED."
Indeed, Mount Bohemia is an anomaly in the Midwest, where short runs, manmade snow and icy slopes are the norm. There's no bunny hill at Bohemia. And the area eschews grooming machines, keeping its slopes in their natural snowy state. Bohemia is a ski area with no snowmaking equipment. All the white stuff on the ground comes from the sky, sometimes 300 inches per season, the most seen at any Midwest resort. Two intermediate trails wind from the top of the mountain. Otherwise, all runs are black diamond or even more difficult.
My run at the moment -- the triple-black-diamond-rated "Slide Path" -- cuts a white swath through a prow of rock on Bohemia's front face. Murphy -- a skier from Appleton, Wis., whom I'd met on a chairlift ride -- is somewhere below and out of sight.
'All clear?" I yell, tapping a pole on the cliff's edge to check snow depth on the rock. The sky is low, snow swirling in wind. Lake Superior brews fog from its icy plane to the east. "Go!" comes the shout up the cliff, a faint affirmation through wind and snow.
I'd left Minneapolis at 3 a.m., driving north and east for seven hours with T.C. Worley, a friend and photographer. Sunrise arrived on an empty road somewhere in northern Wisconsin. Then it was 150 miles through Michigan's U.P., the land tapering to a point as the Keweenaw Peninsula approached the center of Lake Superior.
Worley and I were up for two days of skiing. Though remote, Bohemia's 1,465-foot peak -- which boasts mile-long runs and 900 feet of vertical drop -- regularly attracts skiers from as far away as Chicago.
Its history as a ski destination began, or tried to begin, in the late 1980s, when the raw hillside of Mount Bohemia was the speculation of a large resort-development firm. Condominiums, chalets and a convention center were part of a planned mega-resort to be called Lac La Belle. "The developers were trying to construct the Vail of the Midwest," said Lonie Glieberman, current president of Mount Bohemia.
But Lac La Belle failed to raise enough funding, Glieberman said. The resort was never built.
In the late 1990s, Glieberman, a businessman from Detroit, purchased the area and began planning a ski resort far removed from the proposed luxury lodges and condos of Lac La Belle. "I wanted to make something that was a first-of-its-kind," Glieberman said. "Bohemia would cater to an underserved market of skiers looking for adventure in the Midwest."
The result was a bare-bones ski hill that opened in 2000. Glieberman cleared a parking area and put up a warming hut. He hired workers to trim underbrush from half-mile-wide hillsides that autumn, then he waited for the snow, which most winters dumps by the foot from clouds off Lake Superior.
Taking the leap
Today, Bohemia's infrastructure is only slightly more complete. Yurts are used in lieu of a chalet at the base of the main lift. There are bunkbed-equipped cabins for rent. The spirit of the terrain -- and Glieberman's vision of an adventure-oriented resort -- remains unchanged since opening day.
From the cliff above "Slide Path," I could see clearly what Glieberman was going for. "Adventure" was in no short supply below. It's now been five minutes. Murphy is yelling for me to jump. Worley is leaning on a tree to my left, a camera lens aimed my way.
"All clear!" comes the affirmation again. But my legs are jelly. It's a big jump. And the chute drops fast from the base of the cliff, a white ribbon funneling through rock walls. "I'm moving down," I yell, referencing a smaller drop into the same run.
A wave of snow washes over the ledge as I traverse. I see Murphy waiting far downhill. A final pause. Then I let go, gravity tugging me off the cliff -- airborne at last.
A moment later, I land and snow explodes. No time to think, I'm moving fast. I'm in the chute, rock walls whizzing past. I hop-turn to move through the heavy snow. Edge. Lean. Hop. Turn. Stop. Breathe.
"Nice, man!" Murphy shouts. We're standing at the bottom of the chute. My breath comes out in clouds.The snow is knee-high through the trees from here to the bottom of the mountain. Worley catches up. We leave first tracks in the deep white, launching off tree stumps where the terrain mellows out further down.
For skiers used to groomed trails, Mount Bohemia will seem wild and under-maintained. Exposed boulders on trails, trees to weave around, drops, knolls -- all are common terrain features on the peak. Some trails swoop and bank like bobsled tracks.
The sound of ski edges scraping on stone was common during my visit. Branches whipped my face on tree runs. On the backside of the mountain, in an off-trail area called the "Haunted Valley," I twice had to take off my skis and hike through thick brush where forward progress was no longer possible on a pair of planks.
Before Mount Bohemia had lifts, in the 1990s and earlier, local skiers would plod to the top of the undeveloped hill under their own power, striding and poling uphill for an hour or more. The downhill run might then last five or 10 minutes, and three or five runs would make up a good day. This tradition of backcountry skiing, common in the mountains out West but essentially absent from the Midwest, continues on hills surrounding Bohemia and on bluffs and ridgelines throughout the Keweenaw.
With the lifts, skiers and snowboarders at Bohemia now mix cut trails with snippets of backcountry, riding a chairlift to the top and then gliding into terrain like the "Haunted Valley" area. Underbrush is cut out each summer on some runs. Other terrain is left untouched and just as nature made it.
On the front side of the mountain, a wide rocky face called the "Extreme Backcountry" is highlighted on the trail map and is the jurisdiction of Bohemia's ski patrol. But the steep face drops into a forest without trails or a chairlift. It ends at a road a half-mile from the parking lot. From there, you hike or wait for a roving minibus that the resort runs to pick up skiers and snowboarders.
A typical run down the "Extreme Backcountry" includes turns on a trail at the top of the mountain, then a dip into the woods for a quarter-mile of tree skiing to approach chutes with names like "Flying Squirrel," "Shivering Timbers," "Apex Chute" and my cliff-topped favorite, "Slide Path." The meat of the mountain -- a rocky face that tilts to 50 degrees or steeper -- is short. It allows only about 20 solid turns. But linking those steep turns on good snow is akin to skiing something high and wild in the Rockies, if only for a moment.
Late in the day on my visit, as the sun sinks into far hills, Murphy and I join a local group scouting a ridge on the backside of Bohemia. Jeff Wolford, a ski patroller from Oconto Falls, Wis., leads on free-heel telemark skis, striding for forward momentum on a flat approach trail.
"We'll be the first ones back here this year," he says, pointing into a woods of birch and pine. "Hope there's enough snow."
Wolford's tracks cut a half-foot into the fluff, weaving, knee dropped in a turn. He carves giant squiggles through tree trunks, sweeping downhill and out of sight.
"It's good!" he yells.
Murphy is next, skis pointed straight for 40 feet before starting his slalom.
I push off. Snow hisses underfoot, a deep untracked white ahead. The hill is gentle, gravity's tug just enough to keep my skis floating. I drift away from the group, skirting stumps, my shoulders brushing branches. I let the skis run. I cut a blank slate in the best backcountry I've ever skied in the Midwest.
Stephen Regenold writes about the outdoors and adventure travel at www.gearjunkie.com.