Northern Michigan Skiing: Leelanau County locals organize a proposal to reopen the idle but much beloved Sugar Loaf Mountain.
Leelanau County locals who couldn’t bear to see Sugarloaf Mountain ski resort, near Cedar, sit idle an 11th consecutive winter approached owner Kate Wickstrom with a proposal: Let volunteers cut brush on the slopes and groom cross-country trails and allow people to ski. Probably no chair lifts. Maybe have a tow rope. Maybe not. No building access. We checked in with one of the organizers of the effort, Erik Zehender, to get an update.
So where did the idea come from?
The basic idea was from backcountry skiing experience. I knew I could enjoy Sugar Loaf on skis by skinning up [putting removable traction strips on the skis and going uphill] and skiing down. I could do what I wanted all over that mountain, especially after a good snow. That type of activity should be allowed and encouraged. And cross-country. There’s no reason you can’t have skate skiing there. We’re looking into a groomer right now that could lay both a skate and classic track.
We’ve heard mention of trying to get an ice climbing area out there.
Since I’m an ice climber, that idea appeals to me. If we had water trickle down the mountain—one of the steep slopes like beside Awful Awful or something—it would freeze into an ice face and you could do ice climbing on it. An old mining town in Colorado did this. They didn’t have skiing, so they trickled water over the face of a gorge, and now it’s the No. 1 ice climbing destination in the country. But I might be pushing the team on that a bit, since I’m the only one familiar with ice climbing.
How does the snow-making equipment look?
All of the snow-making equipment is still there, but we are not sure of the condition of it and are still looking into that. I don’t think you should expect manmade snow there this year.
How much will you charge to ski?
We are still working on that, but it would be affordable. We also intend to have an affordable annual pass.
Any lodging in the works?
Well, people pay $300 a night to stay in ice hotels in Sweden. Maybe something like that could work. There’s a lot of ice on the inland lakes nearby. We could start with a small structure out on the parking lot.
I see. So how official is all of this—leases and insurance, those sorts of things?
We are working on a very simple lease agreement for one year. There’s no acquisition provisions, no obligation to buy. That would get very complicated, obviously. We have been with lawyers about the insurance, and we are all set there. We are helped by Michigan law, which prevents people from suing a ski resort if they are injured while skiing there.
What are your thoughts about a way to get a more permanent solution for Sugar Loaf?
Sugar Loaf is the elephant in the room that needs to be solved. But it is very complicated. I don’t see why we can’t do a significant capital campaign through a nonprofit organization experienced in capital campaigns and land ownership. I mean, the amount being raised for the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is more than double what I’ve seen for the purchase price for Sugar Loaf. Out West, the ski resorts operate on land they lease very cheaply so they are not saddled with that real estate cost. Maybe something like that could work here if a nonprofit purchased the land through a capital campaign that had federal matching grants and that sort of thing.
Our thought is that if there’s something going on out there, some activity, it will help the community reconnect to it and get some momentum going, and that might make a solution come about more quickly.