On a Friday morning in early February, following a fresh snowfall, I met my friend Jeff at his family’s cabin in the woods between Crystal and Platte Lakes. It was a day of firsts for me—mainly my first time going backcountry skiing.
“Backcountry skiing? You mean cross-country skiing, right?” Throughout the preceding months, as I mentioned to friends and family here in Northern Michigan that I was learning to backcountry ski, that was typically the response. While there are some similarities, backcountry and cross-country skiing are not the same. Backcountry skiing is done outside controlled areas and uses equipment that allows the skier to move uphill and downhill on the same set of skis.
At the start of the winter season, as I realized I wouldn’t be able to return to my home base in Argentina in those months due to the pandemic, I made a promise to myself to create my own outdoor adventures here and challenge my- self in new ways. For me, that came in the form of investing in backcountry ski gear and learning the ins and outs with Jeff, a family friend who is not only an expert skier but also a professional ski instructor.
I grew up learning to ski at Crystal Mountain. Our family skied a decent amount throughout my childhood, but I’d only skied a handful of times in the past 15 years. Last winter, while we waited to get out in the backcountry, Jeff and I skied at Crystal Mountain, where he helped me improve my form and technique.
Then, in early February outside Jeff’s cabin, with enough snow on the ground, I unloaded my ski gear from my car and organized everything with Jeff on the driveway. After sliding into our ski boots, I watched as Jeff adhered his skins to the bottom of his backcountry skis and I did the same.
Photo by Beth Price
Related Read: Searching for more winter activities? Visit our Northern Michigan Downhill Skiing and Snowboarding or Cross-Country Skiing pages.
Skins, as well as special bindings and boots, enable you to switch between “walk” and “ski” modes. These strips of synthetic material attach to the underside of skis and give traction, allowing you to move uphill without backsliding. When your bindings are set to “walk,” only the toe of your boot is locked into the binding, similar to a cross-country ski, allowing your heel to lift as you step and glide forward on your ski.
As the sun shone through the trees, casting tall shadows across the wintry landscape, Jeff and I “skinned” along a road near his cabin. We traversed through a meadow and zigzagged up a small hill. It took a few climbs for me to get used to the unnatural sensation of hiking uphill on skis. I kept thinking I’d slide backward with every step—I even braced for it at times—though my skins kept that from happening, even in the slightest.
At the top of that hill, Jeff and I packed the snow down with our skis and stepped out of the bindings. We removed the skins and switched our bindings from “walk” to “ski.” I slid my toes into the bindings, one at a time, and clicked my heels into position.
I was a bit nervous about the downhill run as there were different variables and obstacles out there compared to a ski resort run—mostly trees, shrubs and natural debris hidden beneath the snow—but I was also incredibly excited. We had gotten to this spot on our own, and we were the only ones there. There’s something to the peace and silence of skiing in this way, of “working for your turns” among the calm, natural beauty of a winter landscape.
Jeff gave me some pointers before skiing down the short-and-sweet run. I followed, feeling a bit wobbly as I focused on what he’d told me and felt the connection between my body, the skis and the snow. Yet I also felt so free. A friend once told me that skiing makes her feel as though she has superpowers, as though she can fly, and that day, those words made sense to me. Though focused, I felt alive.
At the bottom of the run, Jeff and I stepped out of our skis, re-adhered our skins, changed the settings on our bindings and headed for another hill. The second run was a fun one that swept through a mix of terrain with little hills and some even ground. Once you get the hang of it, there’s a soothing rhythm to these climbs, runs and moments in the backcountry.
Related Read: Go Cross-Country Skiing at Forbush Corner Near Gaylord.
Photo by Beth Price
A New Perspective
Aside from that day, we only got to backcountry ski one other time last winter. The second day, we met up at a space above Crystal Lake. The snow was deeper than our first time out, and man, skiing deep powder is different and challenging, but also such a blast.
In deeper snow, it felt as though I was learning to downhill ski again for the first time, since I’d only ever skied on groomed resort runs. I somehow managed to not wipe out on my first and second runs. However, on the third, with my backpack changing my center of balance, I fell a handful of times, slowly collapsing into the deep snow, which swiftly engulfed me.
After a few times skinning up the hill and skiing down, Jeff and I decided to explore more of the area. We skied down a road in the woods, popped out in a clearing and encountered sweeping views of hills, fields and forests down to the shores of Lake Michigan.
We could see Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Manitou Islands. I was in awe of the quiet; the still and calm; the untouched terrain, blanketed in snow. The experience and the environment that surrounded us reminded me just how special Northern Michigan is and what a treat it is to enjoy it in this way.
While the pandemic meant I did not return to Argentina last year, I’m grateful for the natural beauty that surrounds me here, the relative peace of our winters and the opportunity to learn something new alongside a kind, patient and talented friend while exploring and appreciating this space I love so much in a completely new-to-me way.
Photo by Beth Price
Related Read: Where to Find Sleeping Bear Dunes Groomed Trails this Winter.
Emily Hopcian is a writer, editor and content producer based in Bariloche, Argentina.