Leeper, who spends his summer hawking t-shirts, rubber tomahawks, and postcards at Mackinac Islands Big Store, believes Mackinac Islands summers are bested by its winters, and what Leeper likes best about Mackinac Islands winters is the nordic skiing.
In fact, Leeper, long and lean and blond, believes Mackinac Islands best kept secret is its skiing. I guarantee that we have better groomed trails than anywhere else in Michigan, Leeper says with his trademark face-wide grin.
Leeper and others attribute much of the credit for keeping the trails in top shape, from first snow to last melt, to the Mackinac Island Ski Club. The club uses a layer of volunteers, according to Leeper, to maintain the labyrinth of trails with a state-of-the-art Tidd-Tech groomer pulled behind a snowmobile. The Mackinac Island State Park provides the club with gas and oil to operate the grooming equipment.
The ski club, loosely organized but singly devoted, boasts between 12 and 15 members and charges no dues or fees. The grooming equipment was purchased as a result of early fundraising efforts by the group. Leeper and others claim the club has only one rulethat the last member to show up for the seasons first meeting becomes president.
Mackinac Island is home to more than 30 miles of groomed trails. According to Eric McLaurin, a former resident and volunteer with the club, most of the trails are rated for intermediate skiers, with only a few expert runs. McLaurin, who recently took a job with the United States Ski Hall of Fame in Ishpeming, believes what makes Mackinac Island skiing great is that most days you can ski and not really run into anybody else out there.
Mark Crossley of Petoskey spent several summers working on Mackinac Island in the mid 1970s and 1980s. Now he returns to ski every winter I can, he says. Crossley, who likes to attend during the Islands Winter Carnival in February, believes the skiing is best because its an adventure.
Its the Island itself and getting there, he says, referring to snowmobiling across the ice bridge from St. Ignace, or flying over the frozen Straits of Mackinac. Crossley also appreciates that you can pretty much walk out your door and ski. You cant really do that anywhere else. He wistfully adds, Id like to have something like that in my backyard.
Shane Boland-Harrison, who teaches science at Traverse Citys Interlochen Pathfinder School, also has a history of time on Mackinac Island, having worked summers there in the 1970s. She too regularly returns to enjoy the skiing. For Boland-Harrison the allure continues to be a combination of the Islands special landscapes and storied history. I always feel there is a magic about the Island, she says. When I ski there I feel a deep peaceful happiness. You are surrounded by beauty, amazing vistas, and a sense of place in history, she adds.
Leeper, who knows Mackinacs vistas and history well, and spends summers mountain biking the Islands trails, says single tracks are available for classic skiing, with corduroy track able to accommodate skate ski enthusiasts. The single track horse trails are set for classic striding, while the two lane bicycle trails and interior roads are groomed for both classic skiing as well as skating.
Winter visitors may also be treated to the possibility of wildlife viewing. Bald eagles are periodically spotted, as are red fox and even coyotes. Several hawks are possible visitors, including the sharp shined, Coopers, and northern goshawk. Lucky skiers might spot a long eared owl, or barred owl hunting rodents.
Mackinac Island is of course noted for its tourism during the summer months, and the accommodations that accompany large crowds. Winter visitors will find that while the gift shops have put away the rubber tomahawks, and the large hotels have all drained their pools, the welcoming atmosphere is still clearly evident.
Ron and Mary Dufina and their
crew provide a nearly one-stop shopping experience for winter guests. The Dufinas Balsam Shop, located on Huron Street across from the Shepler ferry boat dock, offers ski and snowshoe rentals. Around the corner on Hoban Street, The Pontiac Lodge rents comfortable rooms, and next door The Village Inn serves warm food and cold drinks.
Other accommodations can also still be found through the winter season. The Mustang, famous for its burgers and cozy surroundings, is open, as is Patrick Sinclairs Irish Pub, which serves local whitefish and imported beer. Rooms can also be found at Bogan Lane Inn downtown and Sunset Condominiums located near Stonecliffe Resort, adjacent the Islands airport.
Mackinac Island travel in winter is more challenging, but only slightly less certain. The Arnold Line ferry boats generally run from St. Ignace until just after the first of the year, or longer if there is no ice in the Straits of Mackinac. Great Lakes Air flies from the St. Ignace airport throughout the winter. Captain Paul Fuller and his crew are capable of making the brief but scenic flight in most any conditions.
For more intrepid travelers, the ice bridge that extends from St. Ignace to the Island is an alternative, both by snowmobile or skis, if the ice is solid and the Christmas trees, which mark the trail. are visible.
Tim Leeper is getting ready to enjoy another Mackinac Island winter of skiing. He is looking forward to the solace, snow, and sunshine. He believes that those who visit to ski will find that Mackinac Island in winter is precisely what a true vacation is supposed to be.
Its Leepers secret, but hes willing