‘Cat skiing’ has come to Michigan
Just about every Wednesday and Saturday this winter, skiers and snowboarders have boarded a Valentine-red snow-grooming-like machine — equipped with a heated cabin — for a short ride to a remote wooded peak, eager to break fresh powder in a pristine stretch of wilderness.
This type of backcountry adventure — known as snowcat skiing, after the space-age-like vehicles that run skiers to the top of runs — is one of fastest growing trends in the winter sports industry.
And if you’re thinking that that patch of ideal backcountry mentioned above lies somewhere west of the Rockies, say in Colorado or maybe even British Columbia, think again. That extreme skier’s paradise rests at the tip Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a rugged 100-acre tract slopping toward the shores of Lake Superior.
Cat skiing has arrived in Michigan.
Voodoo Mountain, which opened just last month and is part of the nearby Mount Bohemia, is the first commercial snow cat skiing operation east of the Rockies and among only a handful in the United States. With a vertical drop of nearly 700 feet, Voodoo Mountain boasts 12 runs that wind through hardwood and pine tree forests and open stretches, all with panoramic views of the largest Great Lake.
“We’re taking backcountry skiing in Michigan to a new level,” says Lonie Glieberman, president of Mount Bohemia and Voodoo Mountain, both on the Keweenaw Peninsula near Copper Harbor. “There’s been a lot of excitement among skiers to finally have this kind of skiing in the Midwest. It’s exciting to bring that to Michigan and the Midwest.”
Skiers and snowboarders are transported to the top of isolated peaks by a large snow grooming-style machine called a “cat.” The tracked vehicles can navigate rough roads and terrain to reach remote peaks.
“Snow cat skiing takes you off the grid,” Glieberman says. “It takes a small group of people out skiing in the wilderness for the day. You avoid lines. The biggest advantage is taking skiers out in powder all day, and you can venture onto a mountain and it’s not typical for Michigan.
Part of the appeal for skiers and snowboarders is the sense of camaraderie created by riding in the snow cat together, an experience not replicated on lift-and-ski operations.
“For skiers, it’s the difference between eating at a fancy restaurant and Olive Garden. It’s a unique experience,” Glieberman says.
Commercial snowcat skiing has been around for three or four decades and is believed to have originated at Selkirk Wilderness near Meadow Creek in British Columbia, Canada. In the last 10 years, the sport has exploded, with more than a dozen cat skiing destinations now in British Columbia, a handful in the United States, as well as New Zealand and Chile.
For enthusiasts seeking fresh, ungroomed powder, cat skiing is a less expensive and more accessible alternative than heli-skiing, the fastest-growing niche in the industry (in which skiers are transported to remote sites by helicopter), says Kelly Davis, research director at SnowSports Industries America, a nonprofit group that represents snow sports suppliers.
“The terrain accessed during cat skiing is part of Keystone Resort, so it provides the ultimate backcountry-like adventure without backcountry risks,” says Sara Lococo, a resort spokeswoman. “The experience is very private and guests find plenty of untouched powder.”
The creation of Voodoo Mountain has long been on the mind of Glieberman, who opened the nearby backcountry ski site, Mount Bohemia, in 2000. But in the past four years the resort has moved from the drawing board to reality after working with a Utah consulting group and doing market research. Voodoo Mountain was chosen because of its playful name; trail runs boast names like Zombie, Spellbound, Witch Doctor and Spirit Walker.
“We wanted a name that was easy to spell, fun and talked about adventure. Voodoo has that vibe to it,” Glieberman says. “We didn’t want something boring or generic.”
When completed, Voodoo Mountain and Mount Bohemia will offer more than 2,000 acres of skiable terrain, the largest ski area between the Rocky Mountains and the East Coast. Four of the five peaks along the ridge will be part of the Voodoo experience.
“When fully built out ,Voodoo Mountain will stretch almost 2.5 miles wide and encompass four peaks with skiing on two sides and dramatic views of Lake Superior,” says Vern Barber, Mount Bohemia’s general manager. “It could eventually offer more than 1,400 acres of skiable terrain, making it by far the largest ski area in the Midwest.”
While snowcat skiing is available only Wednesdays and Saturdays this season, the hope is to add a day or two next year, but with an eye on “keeping the powder experience special,” Glieberman says.
Already, most of the dates this season have been sold out through mid-March, attracting skiers from most of the Midwest, including all over Michigan, Minneapolis, Chicago and St. Louis areas, as well as New England, Washington, D.C., and Canada.
For Bill Stanley, a ski instructor at Boyne Mountain who has skied all over the globe, the experience at Voodoo Mountain was exhilarating.
“The views are spectacular. You can see the lake in three different directions,” says Stanley, who has heli-skied in British Columbia. “I was sitting in the cat on the way up and thinking, ‘I’m doing this in Michigan?’ The whole Voodoo Mountain and Mount Bohemia experience has a real out west feel to it. Just to think that we have that kind of skiing east of the Rockies is just phenomenal.”
If you go
Open: Wednesdays and Saturdays