by Frieda Waara
Drive seven hours straight north of Chicago and you'll hit Lake Superior. On the south shore of this greatest of the Great Lakes, tucked between ancient ridges of iron ore, nests Marquette, the largest city in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Dubbed the Boulder of the Midwest, Marquette is a town that celebrates an annual 225-inch snowfall with the slogan "Don't hibernate, participate."
True to their Mid- western ethics, folks here practice what they preach. You'll immediately notice this is a true ski town by the number of racks and cargo boxes topping vehicles. Follow those cars south two miles out of town on County Road 553 and they'll take you to Marquette Mountain, the central states' secret ski spot that first opened in 1957.
In a region famous for ski jumping and cross-country, and as the home of the National Ski Hall of Fame, the alpine resort was successful from the start. Operators called it Cliff's Ridge because it was located on land leased from the local mining company, Cleveland Cliffs. The name stuck until 1982 when it publicly changed to Marquette Mountain.
Temperatures drop early in the northern Great Lakes, and what Mother Nature doesn't brew out of Lake Superior-the planet's prime snowmaker-a fleet of the mountains snow guns will blow. Snowmaking covers 100 percent of the terrain and the guns are often on the job by late October. "We usually get the mountain covered and open by mid-November and keep our base through April," says Marquette Mountain Manager Vern Barber.
After nearly two decades of running this 144-acre area, Barber feels that, aside from the long season, its forté is diversity. "Whether you want moguls, trees, long cruisers, a half pipe or a race course, we've got it," Barber says. Some 22 percent of the 25 runs are beginner, 39 percent intermediate and 39 percent advanced.
Diversity matters, not just to serve the weekend visitor, but also to please the hometown crowd, which includes students from Northern Michigan University. "Having Marquette Mountain close by is a big draw," admits NMU Marketing Director Brian Zinser. "After all, how many schools out West allow you to leave class and be on the mountain in 10 minutes or less?"
Families enjoy that convenience too. "We can get from home to the lifts faster than we can drip a pot of coffee," says Ron Thorley. "My son Ian is 14 and, like his friends, most days he goes straight from school to the hill, chalking up as many as 40 hours a week snowboarding."
Night-skiing, Tuesday through Sunday, makes the difference, enticing folks who may only have a few hours after work. "People traveling to Marquette on business often pack their ski equipment and come out after 5 p.m.," says Barber. "Our skier counts on Tuesday or Thursday nights can be as big as a Sunday afternoon."
The practice pays off. Marquette Mountain develops better-than-average skiers, and with 150 youngsters on the Marquette Mountain Racing Team, it's also known for sponsoring one of the largest feeder programs for alpine racers in Michigan. "Slalom gates keep 600 vertical feet challenging," says Brian Kerrigan, director for the Marquette Mountain Racing Program. Seven days a week he sets courses on the three racing hills. "Racing seems a natural progression for Midwestern skiers who might otherwise get bored," Kerrigan adds.
Jeff and Carrie Magowan live 60 miles south of Marquette in Escanaba, but Thursday nights this fit-and-40-something couple come up to launch out of the World Cup class start shacks and race one of Kerrigan's courses with 300 other adults. "My wife and I make a trip or two to the mountains every winter, but racing in Marquette is what really keeps us dialed in to the sport," says Magowan. "You'd be hard pressed to find a more competitive race league anywhere in the country. Yet, because we divide into four groups based on abilities, even the beginner won't feel intimidated. We have folks in our league well into their 70s."
"A lot of people are starting to move here because of ski racing," says Mike Horton. His two children compete at the Junior Olympic level and Nastar ranks him one of Michigan's best 40-year-old males. "When parents race, the desire trickles down to the kids. Plus, interested parents make the best volunteers. And without them you can't have a successful program," Horton says.
Programs and access mean nothing if they aren't affordable. From lift tickets and lessons to rentals and lunch in the lodge, Marquette Mountain's prices, like all of its services, are family-friendly.
The community atmosphere goes a long way to making out-of-towners feel welcome. "It's a great compliment when visitors tell me this place reminds them of what skiing was like when they were a kid," says Sherry Martin, a single mom who makes skiing a priority for her daughters. "Compared to the liftlines at other resorts, it's no wonder we're such a popular refuge for the metro areas."
Just a 55-minute flight from Chicago and a 10-minute drive from the airport, folks from the Windy City can be enjoying Superior's special powder by lunchtime. No on-site lodging is available, but within three miles there is a range of overnight accommodations, from economical double queen rooms to luxurious, full-service king suites.
If you find yourself needing a rest between runs, Marquette has three slopeside shelters. Ski part way down Snowfield and park your skis at the "Back Door" fire pit. Chances are you'll meet the typical Marquette Mountain family who will offer you a bratwurst, then bring you to the top of Rocket for a fabulous view of Lake Superior. Which by the way, of all the reasons to visit Marquette Mountain, the chance to see a sundog over Superior is the best. Just don't forget your camera.