I don’t recall exactly when I realized that we were, in fact, screwed. A little niggling doubt started creeping in as I attached an avalanche beacon to my seven year old. (The guide assured me that it was just ‘for the lawyers’ but still.) Or perhaps when we boarded the shuttle, in full gear, and I realized that the only people coming on this all-day ski adventure were….adult men. But I think we knew it for sure, Mike and I, after we had actually boarded the cat, and were being transported the 30-40 minutes off of the remote highway even deeper into the wilderness. It was -16F, the back of the cat felt more like a military troop transport, and the guy sitting next to us leaned over and gave Mike a friendly punch on the arm. “GOOD for you,” he said. “I’ve got kids too, they can rip it up, but I didn’t feel like taking them here. GOOD FOR YOU.” Mike and I locked eyes. Yup, we said, silently. We’re screwed.
Over the holidays, Mike and I had surprised the kids with a few days of skiing at Mount Bohemia. Mount Bohemia is located at the very tip of the Keewenaw Peninsula, and boasts some of the best powder in the US, as well as (mostly) extreme skiing. It’s a little hidden gem. You can read more about our Mount Bohemia experience here. In addition to skiing Mount Bohemia, you can also book a day of Snowcat skiing at nearby Voodoo Mountain.
Voodoo Mountain has no chairlifts, and is inaccessable by car. Your only option is to book a ride on the Snowcat, capping the total number of skiiers on any given day to a max of 20. It’s just you, 19 others, and miles and miles of pristine wilderness and powder. The Snowcat takes you up the mountain, and you ski down. Repeat. Voodoo Mountain is less steep and technical than Mount Bohemia, so (the theory goes) a “solid intermediate” skiier or rider will have fun.
Perfect. I signed us all up.
We had to meet our group at the Mount Bohemia lodge at 8:30AM for breakfast and trip prep. We had rented powder skis the night before (for Mike and I, anyway – the kids, due to their size, were stuck with their skinnier all-mountain skis), and suddenly I was nervous.
It was the avalanche beacons, I think, that caused me to look around and see who was actually coming on this trip. Grown. Men. That’s who I’d be skiing with. Grown men, as well as my seven year old and nine year old in the middle of Upper Peninsula wilderness, in below zero temps, with no lodge in which to warm up.
Despite the chill, I started to sweat. If we got on that shuttle, we’d be trapped for the next nine hours (seven of which would be spent skiing). I tried to remember if my kids had ever skied for seven hours straight. Had I? My stomach churned. The shuttle arrived. I finished tightening up Pax’s avalanche beacon, zipped up his coat, fixed Raines’ helmet strap and got on the shuttle. The shuttle drove for a while down deserted little highways until we pulled up to the Snowcat. From there, the cat would take us another 30-40 minutes deeper into the wilderness, following snowmobile trails until we reached Voodoo Mountain.
So there we all were, hip to hip and knee to knee, in that damn snowcat. “Anyone get motion sickness?” our guide, Vern, joked. We started off, bumping up and down rollers until we started to climb. The kids and I were facing backwards and suddenly found ourselves in the laps of the guys in front of us. We clambered back into our seats, and Mike and I braced the kids, grim expressions on our faces. At one point, Mike broke into a chuckle, shaking his head. He caught my eye and winked. I KNOW. How do I always get us into these predicaments?? I CHOSE THIS CRAZY TRIP. “We’re here, Mom!!!” Raines said excitedly. “I think we’re at the top!!!!” Everyone piled off.
The comforting part of this entire trip, for me at least, is that Voodoo Mountain looks like home. I recognized the gray, stormy sky, I recognized the trees and the slope and the glimpses of Lake Superior. I would know the Upper Pennisula wilderness anywhere. So I stepped out of that cat, clicked on my skis and turned to the mountain.
Vern was right. The first run was all pristine white powder, wide open, no tracks, and, happily, no cliffs. I breathed a sigh of relief and got to work. It turns out, however, that trailblazing through powder is really hard work. At one point Raines zoomed ahead, picked up speed, and fell down a sudden drop. It took us 15 minutes to find that ski, which was stuck – vertically – in the snow. We all arrived at the bottom huffing and puffing. Vern was grinning. “You needed the real Voodoo experience!” he said. “Now…..let’s go have some fun.”
The next run was steeper, so easier to get through the powder. Both of my kids were off instantly, and completely out of sight within seconds. I’m a pretty slow skiier, so I tended to wait until the entire pack had taken off, then made my way down. Mike, who was skiing injured (yes, again) was content to stay back with me, thank goodness. Because powder….is hard skiing. We’re so used to East Coast ice that I couldn’t even begin to understand how to carve through powder.
“You won’t be able to carve like you’re used to,” Vern coached. “Try leaning back, keep your legs together, and pedal your feet – almost like you’re riding a bicycle.” I was getting frustrated. My legs were burning, my back hurt, and it was so bitter cold – my feet were in agony. But I did as he directed. Years of dance means that I’m pretty good at following directions, so I was able to do a close approximation of what Vern was describing. I shot down the next hill, faster than I think I’ve ever skied in my life, pedaling my feet to go around that rock that suddenly popped up, that small group of trees. Left, right, left, right I zoomed down, frantically looking for a place to stop. Voodoo has a bunch of rollercoaster-like runs. They drop, flatten out, drop again, flatten out, drop again. Raines, my oldest, was ecstatic. I? Well…..as the adrenaline filled my veins, I was struck by a bone-deep truth:
Turns out, I’m no extreme skier.
How disappointing. But here we were, surrounded by snow and trees and mountain, and only six or….maybe seven hours left to ski!!! At least it had warmed up to -10F. I mean OMG kill me now.
But I made it down, and climbed back on the cat. To do it all again. Mike was very encouraging. “Babe, you’re doing really good….” he said, trailing off as he saw my face. “You OK?” I think I had my game face on. This cat skiing was serious business. “You don’t look…..like….you’re having any…fun?” I gave him a withering look. How perceptive.
But the problem was, I wanted to be having fun. I wanted to not be scared, I wanted to just be ripping down the mountain all comfortable and carefree – and I knew that while the skiing at Voodoo was decently challenging, it wasn’t that bad. I want to be a mom who can at least keep up with her boys in some small way – I don’t want to be that mom who gets left behind on ski trips!! I don’t want to be that mom!!! So I took a deep breath, and focused on my little guys. Who, incidentally, were either having the time of their life (Raines – allday, Pax – 50% of the time) or raging about faceplanting into powder (Pax – the other 50% of the time).
Poor kid. He’s so small, and his skis are so small that he was like a little bowling ball in that powder. It’s also hard to take him seriously when he has his full ski gear on. He’s so freaking good, but still looks so….little. It’s like watching a small, giant-headed garden gnome tear down a mountain, then hit like a bomb in an explosion of snow. I know he was pissed, but it gave me the giggles.
At one point the boys wanted to “ski all together”. So they made me go first. That was a disaster. I’m doing my pedal-feet-pedal-feet down a slope that is giving me heart palpitations, yelling at them to “get away from Mommy!! Get away from Mommy!!” as they ski wayyyyy too close, trying to high-five me, tap poles, and shout encouragement. UGH. These ski racers. They are like those close-talking people who don’t understand the concept of personal space. I feel like 50 yds is a safe skiing distance, not TWO FEET.
At some point, there was a reprieve from the misery. I mean a lunch break. Vern had started a campfire for us, in the middle of a group of logs, and passed out lunches. By this point, I couldn’t even eat. My stomach was in knots, every part of me ached, and – as I later learned – I actually was coming down with the flu. Good grief. It explains much about this trip.
But it was at this point that Raines, my oldest, started crying. Poor kid. His feet were now so cold they were burning. The back of the cat – where we all sit to get hauled up the mountain – is protected from the elements, but only heated by body heat. It turns out that if they actually heat the back of the cat, everything fogs up like crazy – including goggles – making it hard to see. (And it was so cold outside that the condensation on the goggles would freeze solid in seconds.) But the front of the cat – where Jeff, the driver sits, is nice and warm. And there are two seats up there. After promising not to touch anything, I sat in the driver’s seat, and the boys shared the passenger seat to warm up.
Once lunch was over, everyone started loading themselves back on the cat. I stood over the fire – practically in it – still trying to warm up. Vern wandered over and gave me an appraising look. “You know,” he said, “our next run will end up right back here, if you want to sit one out.” I gave him a grateful smile. I wasn’t quite ready to face my doom just yet. So Mike loaded up the boys and I watched the cat slowly climb out of sight.
I had a good thirty minutes to myself. It was so quiet and beautiful, and I tried to take it in as I rotated my aching body around the fire. Eventually, I could hear the skiiers returning, with whoops of jubilation. Raines was in the first group back, stopping in a big spray of snow. Pax was last. He stormed up to me. “MOM!!! I AM DONE SKIING! I WILL NEVER SKI HERE AGAIN! I FACE-PLANTED FOUR TIMES TODAY! DO YOU KNOW HOW IT FEELS TO FACE-PLANT FOUR TIMES? IT FEELS NOT GOOD, MOM!! I AM NOT SKIING ANYMORE THIS DAY!!”
So there’s that. Thankfully, Jeff offered to have Pax and I sit one out together, riding up in the heated passenger seat of the cab. A front-row seat for the cat making it’s way up the steep slopes was seriously cool. Pax watched the first trip up with wide eyes. By the time we started back down the hill to pick up the skiiers, Pax was fast asleep. The kid – my savior – slept in my arms, in the cab next to Jeff, in full ski gear (helmet and goggles included) for almost two hours. Saved. I was saved!!
While Pax slept, Mike and Raines proceeded to have the most epic ski day ever. I watched, in awe, as my nine year came ripping down the mountain only to board the cat again and again without complaint (despite the bitter cold). There was only one time that my mama-bear instincts got the better of me – it involved a cliff and trees – but I was happy to see Vern direct Mike and Raines down a less harrowing way.
Pax eventually woke up, and we got a couple of final runs in before it was time to head back. I’m happy to report that I did OK. I was able to hang, at least.
In hindsight, Pax was probably too young for the trip. And while everyone was so incredibly gracious and understanding…the front seat of the cab is usually rotated between all of the skiiers so everyone gets a few minutes to warm up. Because Pax was so little, everyone else missed out. Raines, on the other hand, is ready to do it again. His only request is boot warmers – Vern , our guide, had them, and they would totally change the whole experience.
As we all climbed into the back of the cat for the final trip out of the wilderness, Vern poked his head in. “Hey Pax,” he said. “I’m leading the cat out on a snowmobile. Wanna drive with me?” Without hesitation, Pax jumped out and disappeared into the snow with Vern. The guy sitting next to us, a dad from Detroit (the same guy with the ‘good for you’ comment at the beginning of the trip) looked at me incredulously. “Is this normal for up here?? I mean…your kid just rides off on a snowmobile with a guy named Vern?” He turned to the larger group, calling out, jokingly, “Does anyone here know Vern’s last name??”
Mike and I grinned at each other. Mike’s been around long enough to know. “Listen up, Detroit” I said. “It’s Vern. Somebody around here will know Vern’s last name.”
And days later, after our epic ski trip was all over and we had driven back to Marquette in the driving snow…we walked in the door of my parents’ apartment. “How was the trip?” My mom asked. “Did you happen to run into a very nice man named Vern?”
Hey Detroit: told ya.