The Sudden And Strange Demise of Sugar Loaf, Michigan

A short film about the rise and fall of the most popular ski area in the Midwest

Video filmed and edited by David Reddick

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 sizable 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.

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.”

Read the full feature in the February 2017 issue of POWDER. Get yours here.