The 400-or-so-foot-high knolls that dot the northern reaches of Michigan may not do much for farming in the regions, but they are pretty. They are also, it is now becoming abundantly clear, nice hills to ski on. Easterners and Westerners, accustomed to the luxury of thousand-foot drops or more, might laugh at the idea. But in Michigan, skiers have a lot of fun on their little hills, and the sport is booming into big business. Over 60 ski areas have been developed so far in the upper and lower peninsula, and more are on the way.
Two new ones this year, both in the upper peninsula, are Mission Hill (see map below) and Indianhead (see map on next page). They are some distance from the heavily concentrated rope tow centers around Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago. But midwest skiers have shown in the past few years that they will drive half through the night if an area is attractive enough.
Mission Hill, 26 miles from Sault Ste. Marie at the eastern end of the peninsula, may prove to be just that. The larger of the two new places, its proudest feature is a chair lift, the eighth to be built in the whole state of Michigan.
The chair runs 1,360 feet up a 400-foot ridge overlooking Lake Superior, near Iroquois Point. It was here that the Ojibwa Indians once turned back the Iroquois, who came foraging from the east. Until last year the ridge was of interest mostly to arrowhead collectors. Then Dr. Hugh R. Allott of Sault Ste. Marie, a skier in his student days in the east, came along and decided it might be a good place to develop a new ski area.
He had noted that none of the nearby rope tow areas had inclines steep enough to test the skills of the expert skier. Grades on Allott's ridge ran from about 25% to around 40%. Allott thought he saw in his ridge excellent prospects for cutting steep trails fast enough to titillate the imagination of the better skiers.
Dr. Allott got six businessmen together: Hal Smith, a Sault Ste. Marie furniture stores owner; George Kaysner, a contractor; Stewart Moran, a building supplier; Frank Mantello Jr., a realtor; Howard Bros-man, a cocktail lounge owner; and James Schreur, a man connected with Tastee-Freeze. They formed a corporation and bought or leased most of the ridge. Out of $400,000 capital resources, they built a lodge and a Poma double chair lift, as well as the standard rope tows for the beginner slope and the intermediate slope.
But before they were done, Allott and company had to face up to some stiff problems with their ridge. "The hill was so steep," Hal Smith said recently, "that what cost us the money was moving the earth for beginner and intermediate trails to make them gentle enough for the people around here to handle."
Five runs go down from the top of the chair lift. The beginners' trail meanders expansively for a half mile. The expert trail, unlike many so marked in the Midwest, really is expert territory. It swoops for a quarter mile at a 33% grade.
The view from the top of the hill is magnificent. You can see Lake Superior, its many islands and the Canadian shore. Indeed, it was this view that entered into the plans of the corporation when it was formed. Mission Hill will be a year-round operation, Allott's group decided before the first bulldozer ground its way up the ridge. The chair lift will carry summer tourists to the top to view the scenery, at several times the cost per ride for skiers. The tourists shouldn't mind, though. They are only going up once.
Part of the corporation's construction package is an 80-room hotel-motel, with a fireplace in the lounge and a cafeteria downstairs. There is a cocktail lounge upstairs and a dining room that has a wine cellar.
Summer business should be good. At least a million tourists come into the "Soo" region every year to see the big locks at Sault Ste. Marie. Winter business should also be good. The area can draw on a quarter-million Canadians, who live between Sudbury, 187 miles east, and the locks. Americans driving up from the south will have to be lured past Boyne, 105 miles away, and Mission Hill's closest big-time competitor. Air travel is excellent. Capital flies to Sault Ste. Marie from Detroit and Chicago.
Indianhead in Bessemer, the other big new Michigan ski development, is located at the opposite end of the upper peninsula, toward the northern part of Wisconsin and only 100 miles from the eastern border of Minnesota. It is within reasonable driving distance of Duluth (110 miles), Minneapolis (225 miles), Madison, Wis. (268 miles) and Milwaukee (308 miles).
The prime attraction at Indianhead is a 600-foot drop, one of the Midwest's greatest. This, plus the fact that it can be reached fairly easily, should make Indianhead a popular resort.
When Jack English, the president of the Indianhead corporation, first decided to build a ski area, he had no idea where the spot would be. A businessman first (he is a building contractor) and a skier second, he determined to rely on the techniques that had made him successful in contracting. His first step was to pore over midwest snowfall maps. When he had located what he considered to be the most satisfactory snow belt, he drove around until he found a good hill in the region. After English located his spot, a nice hill high on the southwest shore of Lake Superior, he leased it.
COMPTROLLER COMES IN
Then he talked his neighbor, Charles Peters, a $15,000-a-year comptroller for a steel forging company, into managing the place this year for "groceries and 10%."
The two of them have had two T bars erected up Indianhead's north side, one a half mile long and the other a third of a mile. The T bars have interconnecting trail systems with a couple of runs almost a mile long. The beginners' rope tow is well out of the way of the trails. It is an excellent layout, the work of Sel Hannah, the well-known trail architect, who came from Franconia, N.H. to design it.
Indianhead's shelter is located at the top of its lifts and the design is contemporary—two inverted V roofs and a glass wall at the end, overlooking the rolling backs of the Gogebic hills.
There will be accommodations for skiers in Ironwood, nine miles away, at places like St. James Hotel, Indianhead Motel, and Doug's Motel. There are 500 beds within a 12-mile radius. And the ski school has an Austrian head—Willi Angerer of Innsbruck and Grey Rocks—teaching the short-swing technique.
Indianhead's approach to a profit is the opposite of Mission Hill's. Indianhead will keep the investment down ($200,000) and plan a short, strong season. It is partly a gamble on snow, but the gamble looks good (average fall at Indianhead is 160 inches annually). "We'll make out all right," says Peters. "This is a business operation."