Minocqua (not just) Winter Park
BY BRUCE STEINBERG
In arranging an interview with Christie Terkelson, I found out quickly she is a busy woman. In her office inside the Minocqua Winter Park Chalet, located in central Wisconsin, she’s on her phone, interrupted by a worker or volunteer with a question or report, putting on hold a caller to take another call she then has to put on hold. Later on, talking with Christie on the phone, I hear the chatter of hurried voices, an “Excuse me” to take a call, to answer a staffer’s question, then back to me.
That’s how it goes for Christie, Executive Director of Winter Park, now in her fifth year on staff (the first as the Events Director), and co-owner of the popular Bitters + Bull Restaurant, in downtown Lake Tomahawk. One title would be work enough for any mortal. But for Christie, her broad smile framed by flowing dark curls, and her warm demeanor, reveal an important truth: She truly enjoys it all. And there is so much in the word “all” when it comes to Winter Park ̶ all year long.
The interview was to be about summertime activities in Winter Park, and there is plenty to that. However, a winter story Christie told me best exemplified her dedication to silent-sporters and Winter Park. “In 2017, the Birkie was cancelled due to very poor conditions,” Christie said with concern in her voice even in 2020. “We felt so bad for all the racers who had trained and looked forward to the race. So, we decided to have a half-off trail pass offer to all those who showed up to ski at Winter Park with a 2017 Birkie race bib.”
Although located a 90-minute drive south of the Hayward area, Minocqua Winter Park had great ski conditions. “At least 300 skiers showed up with their Birkie bibs throughout the weekend,” Christie said happily. “So many with Birkie bibs said we were the best kept secret, and ‘Why haven’t I heard of Winter Park before, it’s even closer to where I live than the Birkie trail?!’”
That’s a bewildering question, I immediately thought. In Illinois, since the early 90s, my group of cross-country skiers looked at Winter Park as the dream mecca for skating and striding. I mean, just look at the facts: Winter Park, set on over 6,500 acres, has more than 100 groomed kilometers of cross-country skiing, 80K groomed for classic and skating, and another 20 or more known as the Wilderness Trails, which offer narrow, personal-feeling ski trails with incredible views. The 80K, wide enough but narrower than the Birkie trail, also offer personal-feeling trails with great views, challenging runs like Nutcracker and VO2 Max, and cruisers like Wolf Tracks and Nepco’s Cruise, and over another 20, individual, interconnected and meandering trails through mature pine and wetland vistas. The land, a combination of private and nature conservancies, is managed by the not-for-profit Lakeland Ski Touring Foundation.
In its fortieth year, Minocqua Winter Park has a sizeable, inviting and heated chalet with bathrooms, and a well-stocked café and retail sports store and rental shop, expansive shelving for gear, benches and tables in a gathering area, large-screen TV displaying great ski races, ski lessons taught by Dan Clausen and staff, all accredited by the Professional Ski Instructor Association, and ̶ take a deep breath for this continuing list: Snow-shoeing over extensive snow-shoe-only trails, hiking, snow-tubing down the 600-foot-elevation Squirrel Hill with lift and enjoyable run-out, CXC adaptive center to enable the handicapped to enjoy winter sports, skijoring, free Wi-Fi, and the unique Chip Wulff Memorial ice-skating pond that is a rink and an adventure, waxing room with three benches, irons, and ventilation, and all sorts of kids programs. And I’m sure I’ve missed something!
“We just don’t have a large budget for promotion,” Christie explained, and rather than sound upset at that, she talked about the off-season, which begins anywhere from mid-March to early April, to brag on her staff and volunteers. “We all do what we can”, Christie said. “But it’s all about the help from our Board, supportive area businesses, and the people here donating their time, talent, and energy.”
“We hold the Muggy Buggy Race on the Saturday usually closest to July 4th,” Christie said. “It’s a 2.5K mud run and a 5K trail run. The mud run takes the runners through natural hazards such as ponds, creeks, and other obstacles, including a run up and down Squirrel Hill. But the course is adjustable according to conditions. It was super-dry two summers ago with no mud to speak of. So, we worked with Bob from the Rynders Company here in Minocqua, and they were, and are, great. They actually donated dirt (for a soft, 12-foot dirt hill runners had to tackle) as well as the use of two culverts, which Rynders also provided and installed, that the runners had to run through, with a rush of soapy water we supplied from the Chalet. After the race, Rynders donated the dirt which we used to fill ruts along the Red Pine Trail, thank you very much!”
With awe and appreciation, Christie describes groups and individuals who give so much of their time and materials to keep Winter Park in mecca-shape. “There are so many hours involved in cutting fallen trees, taking away branches, removing encroaching brush, people just don’t know the hours and effort involved. Throughout the year, crews are out there to keep the trails clear and the grass trimmed so we can open with minimal snow, and avoid pop-up weeds and grass as spring encroaches. These folks fill in ruts and holes with dirt, and spread seed that will sprout to hold the dirt in place. They widen where needed, and level trails to avoid washout.”
Christie names more names of the incredibly helpful, and their tasks.
“Our head groomer is Eric Twito. He splits his time between ensuring our unique trail system is impeccable and making sure our fleet of machinery stays in operation. He’s also a skier but he’s our groomer whose favorite trail to groom is River Run. He’s fantastic and I cannot say enough good things about him. Volunteers Pete Entringer and his wife Sandy walk the trails in summer to clear brush and branches. In winter, Pete skis with small loppers in a pack, to trim trails as he skis, and will go out with a chain saw in summer for bigger jobs.”
There are storms throughout the year that bring challenges, where one storm can easily knock down fifty trees throughout the trail system. “One storm in particular, on December 31, 2019,” Christie said, “we had ice and heavy snow, and it took fifteen hours to clear Wolf Tracks alone.” Wolf Tracks is an 8.7-kilometer trail that is the namesake trail of the Wolf Tracks Rendezvous Classic and Skate Ski Race, 24K and 42K, held the first Saturday in February. “Only after that fifteen hours of work could the groomer pass through Wolf Tracks. With every grooming machine, we stock a chain saw just in case, especially since the groomer can be miles away where a downed tree is discovered. It was Dave Paton that day, the groomer, who worked fifteen hours straight to clear Wolf Tracks after the storm. Dave’s wife even had to bring him a change of clothing and dry boots mid-day as he was out in deep snow cutting the trees.”
Retired board member Bill Horton stepped into a massive project this season to evaluate the status of grooming operations in the attempt to define an efficient grooming plan for the next generation to follow. “Traditionally, grooming is one of the most time-consuming and costly facets of this organization,” Christie said. “In an effort to create efficiencies, Bill spends more than fifty hours per week volunteering to schedule, groom, organize trail improvements, and explore grooming options to make our 100K trail system the best it can be. Our flexible team of groomers (Eric, Brian, Nate, Dennis, Barb, Frank, Dave, Bob, Jon, and Andy) truly appreciate Bill’s assistance to maximize their efforts.”
It’s at this point that I admit to being among the masses of the ignorant, people who enjoy the trails unaware of the real extent of the work that goes into making 100 kilometers appear so consistently pristine.
“There’s another family,” Christie said, “Barb and Dennis Blow, and their daughter Erin. They volunteer in the off-season to do a lot of work on our snow-shoe trails and also groom in the winter. Area high school and middle school ski teams come out and show their pride in the trails to volunteer in spreading seed, trim brush, and every sort of trail maintenance there is. They definitely show their pride in the park and we’re so grateful.”
Along the trails, there are benches set, shelters, and fire pits. “Many of these have been placed by our volunteers, who get so caught up in the vistas, that they figure there has to be a resting area at these locations for skiers and others to enjoy, to better appreciate the view. Then we have Eagle Scout Aiden Jones who (along with the help of his father), for his volunteer project, built a ski shelter along the Yukon trail. That’s the sort of great volunteer we just seem to get.”
Lakeland Ski Touring Foundation board members (active and retired) also volunteer in a big way. “There’s Jon Hollander,” Christie said, “a retired board member who provides many pieces of heavy equipment for trail improvements including: leveling, grinding stumps, and moving boulders. Jon picks the worst sections to level and widen, and, before you know it, the worst become the best. Then, in return, they become the easiest areas to groom in the winter. He’s amazing!
“And there’s John Wrobel, a current board member who also organizes work crews to make sure the mechanics are in place for the tubing hill. Also, Ted Ashby, who does all the maintenance for the pond we use for the ice-skating, often working forty hours per week, all volunteer, to keep that unique pond in ice-skating shape. Former board member and President Bill Kopanda serves as a park Ambassador and is a true whenever-and-wherever-you-need-me kind of guy.
“We’re also fortunate enough to have the help of a work crew from McNaughton Correctional Center in Lake Tomahawk. Workers help brush trails, chip downed trees, and put up and take down snow fencing for tubing operations. In 2019, they built the new ski racks you see outside the Chalet.”
With importance, Christie emphasized the rescue aspect at Winter Park. “With our expansive trail system and varied levels of terrain, we always have to be on our toes to assist with skier rescues, as well as partnering with both Oneida County and regional rescue teams.”
It took some time and effort, but I finally got Christie to talk about herself. “So much work goes into the off season, and my being in the service industry with Bitters + Bull has trained me to keep on my toes. If someone doesn’t show up, I’m there to fill in, whether at the ticket window or elsewhere. I’m always campaigning for the park and, as Executive Director, I find every day is different. I’m the only full-time Chalet person, and Eric Twito is the only full-time trails person. I use my experience and relationships to barter, to trade, for material and services, even sponsorships. For example, every year we need banners, updated trail maps, trail tickets, and race event registration. As the head of the non-profit, I’m always trying to leverage relationships to trade services, to do what needs to get done while staying within my budget. Ticket sales all go into trail maintenance; what we bring in from daily ticket sales oftentimes begs to be supplemented with generous donations from varied friends of Minocqua Winter Park.”
With deserved pride, Christie described one other, non-ski event that occurs in October. “We have an event that offers hayrides (tractor-pulled), bluegrass music, and incredible food. We use four to five tractors and different trails depending on conditions. This is for everyone but it is especially gratifying to see people who used to hike, snowshoe, or ski the trails but who, for one reason or another, can no longer do so. This event puts them back on the trails again, at a time when the fall colors are peaking and amazing, so they can appreciate all of it again. Especially when the hayride goes to the top of Squirrel Hill. With its 600-foot elevation, the view of the fall colors at Winter Park is breathtaking! And then, the food and music!”
It’s impossible for me to understand why Minocqua Winter Park is not as widely known as it should be. With its 100 kilometers of trails, plus snowshoeing, hiking, and, and . . . so many more can come and use the trails and the kilometers would still be well-accommodating. “We’re not just a Nordic Center,” Christie said, and she leaves me with a quotation from skier and Illinois resident Rebecca DiDomenico that sums things up on the Mecca that is Minocqua Winter Park: “My husband is Nordic and we come to support him, but we’re not Nordic. Still, we love Winter Park because we can ice skate, snow-tube, hike to the nature center, and be here as a family and enjoy Winter Park as a family.”
Another call comes in, some more chatter requesting Christie’s attention, and she has to go. “Thank you,” I of course say before the interview ends. And I hope she fully knows “thank you” is for our conversation, and so much more.
Check out the MWP web site: www.Minocquawinterpark.org
Questions? Email Christie at: [email protected]