Happiness and bravery on skis


This winter is a happy one in the U.P. The area, which has an annual average snowfall almost four times what we get in the Twin Cities, depends on great snow for winter tourism. Unfortunately, there have been some warm winters lately. The snowfall this year is generous, as we discovered last weekend.

We skiers and riders come for the slopes of ancient mountains ground down by glaciers and winter’s thick layer of lake effect snow. During this year’s trip to the Wisconsin-Michigan border area of Hurley-Ironwood, we were welcomed by two-foot snow pack on the slopes softened by fresh, falling flakes. Good news too for the Birkebeiner racers down the road near Hayward, Wisconsin.

Our group is made up of Mount Como ski and board instructors. Every February after the teaching season, a caravan of about twenty of us head for the western edge of UP Michigan. We share a couple of condos in Hurley and put in two full days of skiing. This year, our first day was spent at Blackjack ski resort near Bessemer. It has plenty of terrain, over 20 runs with gorgeous views from the top. The kids love the glades where they can dodge through the trees. There are a few terrain park options and a some black diamond steeps with nice long drops.

I love the hilltop views and I like the long runs so I can work on my form. I am still learning to unlearn what I taught myself when I first strapped on skis. I have a tendency to lean back as if that would put the brakes on a wild out-of-control run. My friend and ski mentor Paul has been patiently teaching me to stay forward on my skis, relax, turn with rhythm and ride the snow with joy (not fear).

A brave and happy lion

It’s not all about the snow at Blackjack. Every year I visit a tiny art gallery at the top of lift one. Before a run down Shanty Girl (left) or Shanty Boy (right), I step out of my skis and visit ski lift operator Mike “Woody” Salli in his hut. He has a sign out and samples of the small wooden charms he carves out of pine. Between pushing buttons to slow or stop the lift, he carves his bibelots, tiny birds and black bears with his puukko. He is always happy and delights in playing the role of classic Yooper, thumbs up and grinning, “Oh yah!”

Woody’s workspace with puukko

This year I bought a yellow lion he carved. It sat on the hut’s outdoor window ledge watching, with bright painted eyes, the skiers and perhaps beyond to the sweeping view of forest, hills and pearly gray ski swirling with snowflakes. Woody told me that it was the first lion he ever carved. It looks a lot like the black bear I bought from him a few years ago except for the addition of lines for his mane and long tail and his yellow color.

Mike “Woody” Salli

Woody posed for a few photos in his trademark hat decorated with wooden charms: hearts, fish, crescent moons, etc. and laughed when I admired his work space with his knife and curled wood shavings. He told me that he is featured on a recent episode of American Pickers, a History Channel show about two junk dealers, Frank and Mike, who roam the country looking for “rusty gold” in a van that says Antique Archaeology.

I watched the episode “Woody Wood Picker” (Season 5, episode 7) yesterday and it was fun. Woody lives outside of Wakefield on the family property deep in the woods. Frank and Mike are shown driving forever down a tree-lined road wondering if they are lost and worrying about the loss of cell phone service. When they find Woody, he shows them around the out buildings: an old barn, a trailer, even an old outhouse packed with stuff and junk. The pickers came away with a couple of leather jackets, old lamps and car parts. I loved it when Woody took them into the family sauna. He showed them how the Finns bathe there by heating up and dumping tin buckets of water over themselves.

My friend Gen wearing a heart necklace carved by Woody

The lesson in skiing for me is about finding more joy and happiness even when the prospect of a steep slope scares me, even in the long days of winter. I have Woody’s brave lion with the bright eyes and smile to remind me.

At top: My girls at Blackjack.