How to Survive (and Ski) a Midwest Winter

One man's ode to Upper Center U.S.A.

Lutsen Resort is Midwest Nirvana.
Where the woods meet the lakes meet the sun—this is Midwest Nirvana. PHOTO: Hansi Johnson

WORDS: Paddy O’Connell

Two years ago I descended the vaulted fins of the San Juans and headed back to the rolling hills and thick forests of the Midwest. Though familiar, my birthplace presented a curious unknown. I had never skied in the core of the country. And as it is a passion woven into the necessities of my life, skiing in the Midwest was at first about clinging to the waning vestige of that desire. Surprisingly, the Midwest developed into the terrain of my passion’s revival. Here’s my trail map to the Midwest ski experience.

Get your head out of your ass.
Soon after moving to the Midwest, it became clear that I had to point positive and ski toward what I wanted rather than away from what I wanted to avoid. Skiing is fun. Period. No matter where I am or the conditions or the vert or any number of pompous and pretentious excuses.

There is no grand extreme of sprawling mountain ranges in the Midwest. Yet I can still achieve the same smile I did out West by slarving a cut bank on a low angle run in Minnesota. The turn is king here. A shallow radius creates a deep love and deeper smiles with Midwestern skiers. Focusing on the details and intricacies of the turn, the energetic ‘whoomp’ of the edge-to-edge pop overshadowed my memories of Western steeps. Some days may be better than others, but any day on two planks is beautiful.

Connect with your roots.
The Midwest has a grand ski community steeped in heritage. There are more skiers here than you can swing a dead cat at. In some cases they may be thicker around the middle than the grizzled western Rasta but the honey hole pow stash knowledge and pursuit of skiing as the header in their life’s Table of Contents is just the same. The gray smiles and chuckles are as deep as their Western counterparts and the stories I’ve heard here are touching and awe-inspiring.

The terrain park and urban skiers exemplify Midwestern work ethic—tacticians who endlessly loop runs, mastering the layout on revolving park setups. Parks in the heartland are littered with hot laps, swiss cheese gloves, and battered choppers (leather mittens not sideburns). Holes in gloves are merit badges, earned through extensive service. I do my best to stay away from metal when skiing, but creativity and the acknowledgment of style is a shared enterprise.

This is Ma and Pa country.
There is something heartwarming about the no frills approach to the skiing experience in the Midwest. Many of the hills here are family owned and have been that way for generations. There exists a simultaneous sense of familial duty and palpable passion for the skiing lifestyle. This is the sturdy bedrock from which all things are built and leads to an authentic bond between consumer and owner. No one is trying to squeeze dollars out of your wallet, people here just want to help you smile and smile big. There is truth to the sense of community and care in the Midwest ski culture. It is all a joint experience here.

Explore the BohPow White Room…often.
Midwestern powder skiing is alive and real. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is the home of the greatest grassroots ski resort in North America, Mount Bohemia. Storms swell over Lake Superior and slam their leeward winds on to the UP all winter long. Endless exploration is waiting up north through the treed ruggedness of Haunted Valley and the triple black Extreme Backcountry. The resort prides itself on being almost 100 percent unmarked and nearly devoid of ropes. The terrain is fun and adventurous and the bounty of snow is remarkable. Keweenaw County uses a 30-foot snow stake to measure season totals, and is currently measuring just under 25 feet. While my friends out West have been mountain biking and crack climbing, I have been slashing creek beds and frozen waterfalls, chomping on frosty Midwestern face shots. Yes, they exist here and in abundance in Michigan. The folklore is factual—all true skiers need to ski Mount Bohemia.

Take a new approach
As my locale changed so has my approach to my passion. While my external Western environment was incredible and dramatic, I think I was spoiled and took it for granted. I drifted in the numbness until my Midwest Ski Life sparked change. The deepest meaning is found in the simple details—slinging up my pack filled with layers, the brain freeze from 10-below temperatures on 200-foot carver runs, wind-burned cheeks, the wicket, the clomp of hand-me-down boots, the thick bellowing laughter, the frozen, nasally long vowels—it is all warmly familiar and excitingly new.

The trails here are crooked, winding, and lonesome in their own Abbey-esque manner. They too lead to the most amazing view, but offer it in an ever so Midwestern way. Hard work and a determined stride combine with heart and humor, all trails burn with our necessity of wilderness and adventure. A skier is a skier no matter the haunt of his or her skis. The Midwest winter has revived and inspired me, the center of the country now the center of my being.