Harbor Springs’ annual Outfitter-Crow’s Nest Loppet takes place on Sunday, February 2nd. This year’s event marks the 31st edition of the cross-country ski trek.
In the chill morning of Super Bowl Sunday, about 100 people set out on cross-country skis to trace a 15-mile trail from Harbor Springs north to the Crow’s Nest. At trail’s end, they find a hearty meal and a table of door prizes, but more important, they find community on skinny skis in this 31-year rite.
There’s a knock on the door as I cut the last bagel in half. My daughter Kate yells from the living room that Mo and Rick are here—the first guests to arrive this morning—signaling the start of the annual bash we hold on the first Sunday in February. Instead of celebrating the Super Bowl, ours is a breakfast potluck pre-party for the community cross-country skiing event known as the Outfitter-Crow’s Nest Loppet.
As I meet my guests at the door, I’m greeted by a gust of wind and snowflakes. Mo takes her wonderful black bean salsa eggbake to the kitchen, and Rick and I lean out the door to assess the weather. Sure, skiing 15 miles in the biggest snowstorm of the season might not make sense. But this is Loppet Day, and the only thing that could stop us is a lack of snow—not too much of it.
“Loppet” means “long ski” in Swedish. The Outfitter-Crow’s Nest Loppet is not a race. To envision the quintessential loppet, imagine a hundred folks striding along a 15-mile ski trail that traverses fields, forests, and swamps. Their destination is a party featuring hearty food, drink, and great door prizes. Thanks to Molly and Josh Baker, owners of The Outfitter, and Bob and Ann Vala, owners of the Crow’s Nest, as well as dozens of volunteers and landowners that allow the trail to cross their property, the Outfitter-Crow’s Nest Loppet is an annual tradition that celebrates the wonder of winter and the elegance of cross-country skiing.
Our little house fills with friends catching up on the latest news and loading up on carbs before the time arrives to click into skis. The chatter about snow temperature, type of wax to apply, how many layers to wear, who has left cars at various trail waypoints for those who don’t want to ski the whole way, and where the trail might go this year, captures the sense of camaraderie that defines cross-country skiing. A few of the Loppeteers are bona-fide competitive athletes, the rest of us ski for the love of being outside in the winter and a bit of exercise. Cross-country skiing is a full-body workout that doesn’t pulverize your joints. Given the aches and pains that I’ve acquired in my middle-agedness, it’s the only exercise that doesn’t hurt!
As we are basking in the warmth of conversation and noshing on tasty breakfast fare, Andy Bowman and John Baker, the two Loppet Trail Masters, are leaving Vern Kors’ place on their snowmobiles to set the track for this year’s loppet. Depending on the weather, snow conditions, logging activity that would necessitate a route change, or the whim of the trail masters, the experience is different each year. This variation adds an element of mystery: Will the trail be 13 miles or 16 miles? Will we cut through the swamp or around it? Will it stop snowing before we hit the big hill south of Island View Road so we can see Waugoshance Point?
Preparing the trail for this day involves more than waking up early, revving up the sleds, and laying down the track ahead of the first skier. John and Andy (and they are quick to point out many volunteers as well) begin clearing the trail right after deer season. As you might imagine, a year of Northern Michigan weather can bring down a lot of trees along a 15-mile trail. From December on, they walk every foot of the trail with pruners and chainsaws, being careful to clear only enough so the track-setter can get through, while still preserving the wilderness aspect of the trail and respecting the land over which it crisscrosses. Andy and John spend countless hours preparing and grooming the trail so that we may enjoy the three or four hours it takes to ski it.
Over the years, I’ve had the chance to join both Andy and John as one of the volunteer trail helpers. Stories told on these forays bring the tradition of the loppet to life. They credit the origins of the event to Ned Keyes, who was working at The Bahnhof in the late ’70s. When Ned left the Bahnhof to work for the Outfitter (which was owned by Andy Bowman and Jim Ford at the time), he brought the loppet with him. Tragically, Ned died of cancer long before his skiing days were up. Those of us who knew his kind heart and infectious smile think of him as we ski portions of the trail that he originally set.
Although I am far from graceful, I love the grace and beauty of cross-country skiing: the flow of arms and legs working in unison, skis sliding silently across the snow, and the magic of ski wax that alternately grips and glides. The temp is actually a bit warmer than the weather report, meaning slicker snow, so as I try to climb the hill south of Radle Road, I’m slipping on the kick. I stop and apply a patch of stickier wax (trusty blue) in the middle of my ski. I click back into the skis and kick to the top and glide down the hill. As the naked trees float by, I particularly appreciate the ash and beech, two species perhaps doomed as a result of imported pests. I love the intricate patterns of driven snow on the diamond furrows of the white ash bark. As I pass a venerable old beech tree, I imagine a gray whale breaching.
I see my wife Gail and her skiing companions on the trail ahead and lengthen my stride. Ah, the exhilaration of fresh air deep in your lungs and the joy of snowflakes on your face! I catch Gail just before the Middle Village aid station. I take a much-needed break to eat some orange slices and a few cookies, drink some water and chat with folks already there. Despite the gusty wind in the open fields, all agree that the snow conditions are fantastic. This is where Gail ends her loppet each year, so I bid adieu as she heads to the car she spotted earlier.
It doesn’t matter if you ski the entire 15 miles or one of the shorter segments between road crossings, everyone feels a sense of accomplishment when they get to the Crow’s Nest for the post-ski party. As skiers enter the warm restaurant tired but triumphant, they are greeted with the aroma of delicious food and high-fives from friends already there. The generous buffet provides the opportunity to restore the calories burned while skiing. Unfortunately, given my love for food and my weakness for the luscious pastas that the Valas serve up, I always take on way more calories than I burn.
Josh (John Baker’s son) and Molly Baker, current owners of the Outfitter, emcee the post-ski party. Between plates of pasta, I check out this year’s door prizes laid out on the front table: water bottles, ski socks, ski gloves, a jacket, hats, T-shirts, and even a massage donated by Nan, one of the aide station operators! After all the thank-yous to the trail masters, the aid station volunteers, the cooks, and the others that help make the loppet a reality, it’s time to draw names to distribute the door prizes provided by the Outfitter and many of their sporting goods representatives. After a day of cross-country ski niceness, now the competitiveness comes out.
Although there is something for everyone, we all want our name to be drawn early so we get the best selection. My daughter Sadie’s name is the fourth one pulled from the hat. I’m trying to convince her to select the gloves as a present for me. Gail’s encouraging her to get the massage as a gift for her. But Sadie smiles and she picks a very nice fleece jacket for herself. Kids these days!
I sit here enjoying the rewarding ache of well-used muscles, the satiation of good food and drink, and the company of those who just shared 15 miles of Emmet County’s beauty. For any tradition to continue, it must be embraced by successive generations. For the loppet to continue we need the people to clear and track the trail and the people to ski it. Andy Bowman’s son Andrew has spent many hours on the loppet tracksetter. Josh and Molly Baker are committed to keeping the tradition alive. When I ask Josh about continuing the tradition, he laughs and says, “Of course we will keep doing the loppet, we’d be strung up if we didn’t.” So, the trail is in good hands.
As for the people to ski it, I’m inspired to see the range of ages present here in the Crow’s Nest. In what other event can you have octogenarians and 8-year-olds participating as colleagues? From the look of triumphant joy on the faces of the children, I’m confident we will have plenty of skiers to make the efforts of the trail masters worthwhile.
About the 2014 Outfitter-Crow’s Nest Loppet
This year’s loppet will take place on February 2rd, 2014
The loppet is an unforgettable event for skiers of all ages and abilities. Held on Super Bowl Sunday every year, this is a marvelous way to get some fresh air before sitting on the couch for the big game! The 15-mile trail is groomed for this event only. The loppet ends at the Crow’s Nest Restaurant, where owners Bob and Anne Vala put on a hearty spread with enough food to feed the entire Tenth Mountain Division. For more loppet information, stop by the event sponsor, The Outfitter, in downtown Harbor Springs or point your browser to outfitterharborsprings.com. For lodging, dining and more check MyNorth.com or Petoskeyarea.com.