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The Sudden, Tragic Death of A Midwestern Oasis

What exactly happened to Sugar Loaf, Michigan?

All photos by David Reddick

1.

The mountain was quiet except for the wind. It spun the turbines in long-defunct snowmaking fans, swayed idle chairlifts and haul cables. The scene was apocalyptic. Or at least Post-Skiing. While bullwheels rusted and paint peeled, T-bars deteriorated into new letters—L's and I's, depending on how much wood rotted away. The undergrowth was flourishing, overtaking buildings and trails. A small wooden lodge on the summit had become a local hang, with a fire pit, broken bottles, collapsing deck, and juvenile graffiti: "Street Sharks!"

The silence and emptiness of the northern Michigan wilderness was serene. Golden light broke through the clouds and illuminated the shores of steely blue Lake Michigan. Fresh snow drifted between conifers. Photographer David Reddick and I had the entire ski area to ourselves.

That would have been an impossibility at Sugar Loaf Ski Area during the second half of the 20th century. In the mid-1970s, it attracted 3,000 to 4,000 skiers a day—numbers that compete with all but the biggest ski areas. "The Loaf" was once the largest employer in Leelanau County. It wasn't just the best place to ski in the state, it was the gem of the entire Midwest. Known for its steeps and après parties, the area was a sizeable blip on the national skiing radar. Wayne Wong and the K2 Performers showed up, and the resort hosted a FIS-sanctioned slalom. The ski school attracted top-tier talent; the ski shop made a killing; and the hotel, lodge, and condos that line the base area were regularly at capacity. One run in particular captured the imaginations of the brave and adventurous skiers who visited. Those who tamed it became legends.

But in March 2000, the lifts stopped spinning. Sixteen years later, I peered through the windows. Beds were still made in the hotel—TVs and refrigerators still in the rooms. Squatters and wildlife poached the remains. A ski school bib sat on the floor of the cafeteria, along with coffee mugs and turned over chairs. In the day care, toys covered the cold, carpeted floor. At first glance, it looked like someone simply needed to turn the place on, or at least return from a long vacation, during which the house-sitter threw a rager.

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What happened to Sugar Loaf could happen to any ski area. Its demise is a story of poor management. After a couple of bad winters, it defaulted on loans and the bank took over, eventually selling to John Sills in 1981. In 1997, the bank reacquired Sugar Loaf and sold it to hotelier Remo Polselli. Polselli ran Sugar Loaf until it closed. Since then, the story of the mountain turned into a bizarre and dramatic tale that left a community crushed and a county unsure not only of what exactly happened, but who was responsible for the mess.

"That's the quagmire," said local skier Dan Mathias of the ski area. "Nobody really knew who owned it."

2.

Sugar Loaf is situated on a hill between Little Traverse Lake and Lime Lake. It is 30 minutes from Traverse City, a summer tourist destination on Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay. It looks like little Portlandia. Its quaint downtown has a three-story bookstore, a local radio station, a theater with marquee lights, a number of microbreweries, and not a whole lot of cultural diversity. Not far from the main streets is the town's most popular attraction: a grand, palace-like former insane asylum converted into high-ceilinged condos, art studios, and white tablecloth farm-to-table restaurants. The town of 15,000 is reminiscent of Oregon's bucolic Willamette Valley—lots of flannel, farms, and green rolling hills. It's similarly located on the 45th parallel, giving it a mild climate ideal for viticulture. Traverse City is also the largest tart cherry producer in the U.S.

Even in the early part of the 20th century, the area was a Midwestern summer destination. In 1940, locals sought to expand into winter tourism to attract visitors to the hills surrounding town. Purchased by the county in 1940, Sugar Loaf was originally a nonprofit run by 119 "Life Members." Progress on the ski area came to a standstill during World War II, but in the spring of 1946, they hired Hans "Peppi" Teichner, a Sun Valley instructor who trained ski troops at Camp Hale, Colorado, during the war, to coordinate the development. That winter, they cleared one slope and installed one rope tow.

"The Sugar Loaf ski slope No. 1, which was cleared during the fall of 1946 under the direction of Mr. Teichner, is one of the finest, if not the finest natural slopes in the Middle West," wrote Karl Detzer in Volume 1, Issue 1 of the Sugar Loaf Bulletin, published in June 1947. "The slope is about three-quarters of a mile in length and has a drop of a little over 700 feet, by vertical measurement… The slope can be utilized for almost any kind of skiing one may care to do."

As far as Michigan ski areas go, Boyne has more acreage and fancier lifts. Bohemia is snowier and more adventurous. But nothing compares to Sugar Loaf. It had it all—nearly 200 inches of annual snowfall, six lifts, 600 acres of terrain, night skiing, great parties. With 700 vertical feet of steep skiing, it was the proving ground for the region. During that first winter, Sugar Loaf hosted the 1946 Midwestern Ski Championships, a skier's ball, and busses full of students new to the sport.

"Once a boy or girl has learned of the great fun skiing provides for everyone, they will come back skiing every winter for the rest of their lives. It will keep them away from bars and nightlife, for they prefer a weekend of skiing to almost any other kind of entertainment. And with this entertainment comes the inspiring feeling of being always in good physical condition," wrote Detzer. "Yes, it was quite a winter in the North… But last year was only a beginning…"

Detzer was right. By 1962, Sugar Loaf, under the ownership of Jim and Pat Ganter, added a hotel, tennis courts, 72 townhouses, a wastewater treatment plant, five chairlifts, and a 3,500-foot paved airstrip. It's likely that not even Detzer could have expected the success the ski area would achieve in the '70s and '80s.

With minimal effort, one can still ski this Midwestern gem. Watch out for collapsing infrastructure.

3.

Ski areas close all the time. In Michigan alone, the state's Lost Ski Areas Project, run by Bob Knox, counts 138 shuttered resorts. "Glad to hear that someone is paying some attention to Michigan's skiing history," Knox wrote in an email when I reached out. "I have heard that Michigan may have more lost ski areas than any state except New York." But Sugar Loaf wasn't like the rest. It was the best resort for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. This wasn't the place you learned to ski, this was the place you got good at skiing—where you really fell in love with the sport.

It didn't take Reddick and me long to skin to Sugar Loaf's 1,100-foot summit. At the top, we marveled at the views, the 360-degree fall line skiing—the steep runs off each side of the hill. The only sign of life was a dog barking in the distance. We traversed into a stand of trees on the backside. The snow was smooth and the trees tight. We made quick, narrow turns between them before emerging with speed onto a snowy road.

On our way back to Traverse City that afternoon, we visited Mathias at his winery. A bored, old English setter slumbered on a loveseat. Mathias has a long face, and slow, deliberate speech. He was emotional as he reflected on his days at Sugar Loaf. It was the best time of his life, he said.

"See boys, I can't do what you guys just did," he said of our ski run. "I can't go up on that hill. Because I lose it. That's how much I've been in love with that mountain. To see one of the greatest ski hills in the state of Michigan lie dormant, and watching it just deteriorate, which it's done for the last 16 years, is really, really hard to do."

In 2003, Polselli, the hotelier who owned the ski area when it closed, served more than a year in prison for tax evasion. He has continued to have trouble with the government. In 2014, the feds sued him for $5.1 million in unpaid taxes. In 2005, Kate Wickstrom bought the remaining property (the wastewater facility and the golf courses were sold off separately) for $5.7 million. In 2013, she transferred the deed back to Polselli, but nobody seemed to have a record of that transaction.

Polselli never registered the deed with the county. In November 2015, when Steve Haugen, with the County Construction Code Authority, posted notices that the building could be demolished for violating codes, he addressed them to Wickstrom, who denied that she owned the property. "We still have no evidence whatsoever that anyone other than Kate Wickstrom is the owner of Sugar Loaf," Chet Janik, a county administrator, told the Leelanau Enterprise, at the time.

Adding to the byzantine mess was a man named Liko Smith. Smith, a convicted felon for embezzlement, claimed he owned Sugar Loaf, though he had little evidence to support that theory. In 2010, Smith, a former Samoan Olympic boxer, told the Glen Harbor Sun, "I'm the last shot this place has of staying open. I care about Leelanau County. This is my opus." Three years later, he announced plans for a snowboarding resort called "The RoK at Sugar Loaf," but nothing came of it. Later that year, El Dorado County, in California, issued a warrant for his arrest. He was on the run after violating his parole.

Eventually, Haugen, who made it his mission to investigate the ordeal in order to get the buildings up to code, came into regular contact with Polselli and determined he was the owner. Because there was no clear title, though, Polselli essentially had to sue himself in order to get his name on the official document. In November 2016, the title finally cleared. After years of confusion, Polselli, officially, was the owner. But that wouldn't last long.

Once home to a lively community, Sugar Loaf is now eerie, cold, and desolate.

4.

Mogul skiing was skiing in the 1970s, and Sugar Loaf had the perfect run for it, right underneath Chair 5, in front of the base. It was called Awful, Awful—known as "The Awful." Locals still speak of it like a favorite son.

"That's the steepest run in the state of Michigan. And it is steep," says Mathias. "I've had many people show up and maybe they're ski bumming out of Aspen or Vail and go, 'You named a run Awful, Awful?' And I say, 'Well, yeah, let's ski it, OK?' And we come off the top and I look back and see a guy laying all over the hill and he goes, 'That's a little steeper than what I thought.' Some of the top racers in the world came in and said, 'Oh my god, what a hill to race on.' It was incredible."

It's possible that no one skied "The Awful" better than a fifth-generation cherry farmer named Jerry Stanek. Stanek was an amateur skier who was also once the largest cherry producer in the country. Reddick and I shared a coffee with him at his home and, though clearly not one to boast, it was obvious that Stanek was the man at Sugar Loaf. Legends abound of his skiing prowess—tales of holding his own when European racers or the K2 Performers came to town. "I've got a picture of Jerry Stanek doing a Wong-banger that will blow your mind," says Mathias.

In 1970, Stanek was the assistant ski school director at Sugar Loaf. Jean-Claude Killy had just cleaned up at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics while skiing with his feet apart—a departure from a more rigid Austrian technique widely taught at the time. The Sugar Loaf Ski School decided to embrace the new method. "We had 20-some instructors that were the best in the state of Michigan," says Mathias. "We were teaching something different, and that's why they came to Sugar Loaf."

The success of the ski area propped up Leelanau County, a rural farming community. At its peak, it employed 300 people. Surrounding businesses thrived. Many closed when the ski area went down.

Like Stanek, a Traverse City Central High classmate, Denny Hoxsie is a fifth-generation area farmer and a skier who came of age during Sugar Loaf's glory days. On our first day in town, we met Hoxsie in the Don Orr Ski n' Beach Haus, an old A-frame building between Mount Holiday and downtown Traverse City. Built in 1959 out of salvaged materials from a schoolhouse, Don Orr's is the oldest ski shop in Michigan, if not the entire Midwest. Hoxsie has been tuning skis there for 50 years.

He says without Sugar Loaf the ski shop isn't nearly as busy. He has turned much of his attention to supporting Mount Holiday, the local hill just outside of town (another hill with a rope tow, called Hickory Hill, is owned by the city, on the other side of Traverse City). Originally founded in 1949, Holiday was purchased by Warren and Sue Brosch in 1985. When Warren died in 1999 in an accident on the mountain, the family was forced to sell. After Sugar Loaf's demise, Hoxsie helped raise the $1.5 million needed to purchase Holiday, turn it into a nonprofit, and protect its fate. It's a hustle to keep the lights on, but it's a stark contrast to the reality of Sugar Loaf, down the road.

On an icy Wednesday night in mid-February, Holiday was thriving. The rope tow whipped skiers to the top in less than 90 seconds. There, skiers lined up for the nine-gate, 500-vertical-foot GS course in the competitive adult race league. At the start gate, the banter was heavy. The winning time: 18:39. Inside, the bar was packed. It felt like we were outsiders at a family reunion. The bartender was married to our server. Their two kids were crying when they came inside, upset they had to stop skiing.

Though everyone was enjoying the rich community at Holiday that evening, John Lynch, a young Traverse City lawyer who grew up in the area and went on to race at Michigan State before living in Aspen, sat down with us and lamented the loss of Sugar Loaf. His dad was a bartender there in the '70s, and it was the mountain where the younger Lynch tested his mettle.

"It was the place to ski," says Lynch. "You tested your guts down at Sugar Loaf. It was straight down and ice."

After 50 years, the Don Orr Ski’n Beach Haus is staying strong, but business has slowed since Sugar Loaf closed.

5.

After 16 years of closure, most doubt Sugar Loaf will ever be back. "If you were in one of the small towns, like Lake Leelanau, and just going up to people and asking them what they would do if they won the lottery, and in this county, you will hear people go: 'We'd buy Sugar Loaf. We'd put everybody back to work,'" says Mathias. "That was the biggest resort to keep everyone working. And everybody loved it. And so it was a staple. It was the largest taxpayer on record in this county. It did a lot of good for this county."

A Facebook group called "Friends of Sugar Loaf" has 2,600 passionate members who frequently post photos and news updates. In October 2016, the group had renewed hope. A fellow developer based in Southern California named Jeff Katofsky sued Remo Polselli. "We felt that he did some things he shouldn't have done," Katofsky told me. The two settled out of court. Katofsky, the owner of the Los Angeles Angels minor league baseball team—a man who has never skied or owned a resort—ended up with three of Polselli's properties, including Sugar Loaf, a place Katofsky has never been.

Katofsky approached the matter purely in business terms and said if the existing structure cannot be saved, he's out. As of November 2016, he still had consultants evaluating the property.

"If I can do it, I'll do it," he said. "We have to make it a year-round resort, otherwise it won't work. That property is going to need tens of millions of dollars to put back together. It's a long-term investment and you have to be able to make a profit and make money back."

Not just awful. Awful, Awful.

6.

The cold in this part of the country is unshakeable. It gets in your head and lingers. The lake effect here means storms hover. The snow comes and goes. The wind abates but is never far from returning. When the two conspire, the results are disorienting. They create mini vortexes of snow that cover everything—like a blender set too high that sends snow splattering across the flat city. The visibility can be so bad you can't see the truck in front of you. Vapors swirl above the highway. I barely missed a wild turkey sprinting across the road our last day in town.

During a break from the wind, we walked down Pine Street, a quiet one-way road lined with snowbanks and brick homes not far from downtown. The snow fell silently and perfectly—a sea of fresh white cascading from the skies—the most beautiful thing in the world. On the sidewalk, we met Lois, a 94-year-old who has lived in Traverse City her entire life. She wore makeup, and a bonnet covered her styled hair. She refused help shoveling. She said her family had all died off. She stared blankly for a moment at the snow, before continuing to clear her walkway.

"But time just marches on," she said.

Before I left Sugar Loaf, I stood atop Awful, Awful. Sure enough, it looked awful. Chunks of ice and overgrown brush made the lower section seem unskiable. Still, I felt compelled to try, just like so many before me.

To my left, a red double chair swayed. Below us was the empty hotel with furnished rooms. The eerie daycare and swimming pool full of snow. The once bustling condos behind that, and the parking lot with one car in it.

I dropped in with speed. The trail was too steep and too icy to hold an edge and make a proper turn. I immediately got bucked. I barely held on, flailing as I tried to avoid trees and ice bulges. I was self-conscious about how disastrous I looked, but as had become the norm at Sugar Loaf, nobody was there to see it.

This story originally published in the December 2016 issue of POWDER (45.4). Subscribe to the magazine here.