Northern Michigan Skiing: Twenty years of racing and our intrepid author remains one of the slowest skiers on the hill. Would somebody please buy him some new gear?
When I moved to Harbor Springs over 20 years ago, one of my co-workers told me that I had better get on a race league ski team. When I asked why, he simply said that the winters are long. Having skied all my life, but having never raced (that was just for the good skiers), I was a bit hesitant. He assured me that with my lack of skill I could still contribute to the team, as the scoring was based on a skier’s handicap. And besides, if I was really bad, I might be able to win the coveted High Handicap trophy awarded each year to the slowest skier.
The snow was perfect and everyone was out for the first night of racing. Craig fell of course. I think he’s gunning for a repeat of the Bamboo Eater Award, but everyone else kept the flat side down. Mike, in his ever-colorful race announcing, threatened to start a collection in the Nub’s Pub so I could get some real skis. The Pub was like a carnival after the racing, and the Squirrels were sitting in 3rd place. Another great start to a great race season!
Going into my 20th year of race league (I missed one year due to knee surgery and another when I took a short-term job in Lansing), I’m still one of the slowest skiers (though I haven’t won the High Handicap trophy since my first year), but I’m more convinced than ever that this is the absolute best antidote to cabin fever. To survive Northern Michigan’s winters without the expense of seeing a therapist, you need to find something to get you out of the house on those long winter nights. Race league is like bowling league, but way cooler—in my not so humble opinion—and on some nights, really cold. Race league is also one heck of a deal. Your $25 racer’s registration fee (yes, for the whole season) gets you nine nights of racing, a commemorative T-shirt, delicious food after each race, and an extravagant awards banquet
Merde! Platte busted up two of his fingers hitting a gate. He tries to kiss each bamboo gate when he goes by on his board. The kid doesn’t have health insurance, and he’ll definitely need to have his hand worked on. He’s a carpenter, for heaven’s sake; his hands are his bread and butter. We passed around an empty pitcher and made a collection to help pay for the emergency room visit. $237 by the time the pitcher got back to our table. Race leaguers are awesome.
The beauty of Nub’s Nob race league is that even if you ski as slowly as I do, you can still contribute to your team’s standing. In addition to one point for showing up each night, each racer can earn another point in each of the two race runs. The scoring is based on individual handicaps (like a golf or bowling handicap) compared to the time set by a pacesetter. To score points each week, you just have to beat your handicapped time compared to how the pacesetter does against his handicapped time on the two courses. In fact, because those who’ve never raced before are more likely to improve their time each week as their race skill rapidly develops, they can actually be some of the top point-getters on a team. Racers who are truly speedy can earn “bonus points” for their team based on times alone. Regardless of skill level, the key is to be on the edge of your ability … pushing to go as fast as you can without losing control. For some of us, this optimal speed is just slower than others.
Race league? What race league? Tonight was all about powder turns in the trees during times between race runs. The Little Traverse Bay lake-effect snow gods dumped a nice stash of powder in the bowl next to the race arena, and there was plenty of light to ski by. I tried to keep up with the younger Squirrels skiing the deep stuff. My legs were like Jell-O going through the gates, but who cares about the times when you have snow like that? Who needs to take a trip to Utah when you live downwind of the Lake Michigan snow machine!
Many of us on the slopes really have no idea of the work that goes into maintaining quality skiing conditions. A lot of sweat happens behind the scenes to make our weekly fun possible. The secret to Nub’s’ success involves a huge investment of time and equipment. Nub’s Nob invents, patents, and builds its own snowmaking equipment. So, if Mother Nature is stingy with the white stuff, Nub’s snowmakers can make it happen so long as the temps and humidity are right. Although it all starts with snow, how the white stuff is managed once it’s on the ground is critical. Nub’s Nob’s crew spends two hours grooming the slopes for every hour that they are open. This meticulous care with snowmaking and grooming is why Nub’s Nob is consistently rated #1 for best snow in the Midwest.
My daughter Sadie joined us for free skiing between race runs. Fellow Squirrel Mary Bea is doing illustrations for a kid’s book when she’s not teaching ski lessons. I can’t wait to see it published. Funny how conversation’s a bit different on the chairlift … and how you see things differently with a kid in tow. The blowing snow was herds of caribou running along the tundra forming little rivulets of movement. Beautiful white-on-white ever-moving designs. Snowflakes have shadow sides when backlit by the lights. Sadie had homework so had to go after last race run. George—leagueres opt for the Spanish pronunciation, Hor-hay—promised to have a beer for me.
Nub’s Nob has race league on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. As the week progresses, the atmosphere seems to change. Monday racers are perhaps a bit more serious. Wednesday’s racers tend to be a bit more competitive … but something in their spirit suggests they’ve made it past “hump day.” Thursday night racers are still interested in their team standings, but free skiing with teammates between race runs or sharing a beer in Nub’s Pub après skiing is just as important.
It was colder than heck this week, with the wind-blown snow stinging any exposed skin. Nobody was interested in extra free-skiing after the race runs, and leaguers packed the Nub’s Pub. Sean had a hard time keeping the pitchers filled, and Jason treated us all to buffalo hot wings. Jess told me the story of his heart surgery. Geeze, the guy’s only a few years older than I am. Squirrels slipped to 11th place. We were a bit bummed, but all feelings of desperation disappeared when Kenzie’s new girlfriend stopped by to meet the team. There were sparks flying between those two. Looks like his single life is about to come to an end.
The Thursday night league fields 14 teams, many of which are sponsored by local businesses, such as the Irish Boat Shop or the Harbor Springs Outfitter. Others, such as the Witt Happens, Thundercats, Barely Liegl, and the Flying Squirrels give a hint at the whimsical camaraderie to be had on the slopes. As a member of the Flying Squirrels, I can tell you that our team focus is enjoying each other’s company. Of our 12 teammates, only three ski on standard alpine gear (and one of them skis the course backward on twin tip skis). The rest of us are racing on either telemark skis (essentially beefed-up cross-country skis) or on snowboards. The dual course is set up so that two teams can race simultaneously. Not only do the two courses keep things moving (a good thing on cold nights), but it’s just more fun to be racing head to head against the person in the adjacent course. Though in reality you are racing with your handicap against the pacesetter and their handicap based on some logarithm that the Nub’s racing gurus have developed.
Race league cancelled tonight due to the weather—fog, rain, and record high temps. Fifty flipping degrees! Global warming sucks. We went to Teddy’s instead of the slopes and reminisced about Squirrels past. Mitchell’s in D.C. doing something important. Grubb finally quit his job in Chicago and is in law school. Marci’s decided she’s had enough of the guy in Canada and will be back to ski with us next year. Too bad Grubb won’t be here to wear Marci’s zebra-striped speed suit!
Each week after the race runs are finished, leaguers retire to Nub’s Pub to share liquid refreshments, enjoy some fine fare, catch up on the week’s news, and await the race results. For many of us, the après-ski festivities are the evening’s highlights. Though you can chat while riding the lifts, the Pub creates the opportunity to have a conversation lasting more than three minutes. Sean, the Nub’s Pub Thursday night bartender, keeps the pitchers flowing (Labatt has been a sponsor of the race league for over two decades), and Jason, Nub’s chef extraordinaire, always creates some sort of hearty and delicious finger-food that serves as dinner for most of us. The din of conversation hushes when Mike comes into the Pub with the night’s results and weekly standings. Starting with the team in last place, Mike works his way to the top. Groans or cheers emanate from the crowd as each team name is written on the board.
What is it about this almost-actual-serious-rivalry between the Squirrels and the Thundercats? So what if the Cats are in third and we are in 12th. I wonder if it has to do with some spurned advance by one of my teammates? But really, you can’t complain about 12th place if half your team hunts powder in the trees between race runs. Wait, is this an olive branch? Stephanie asked me if she could volunteer at the Middle School—where I’m principal—tutoring some of our struggling students. Bless her Thundercat heart. Witt Happens! is sitting in first—good for Green’s sister who started the team this year. New teams with lots of new handicaps always have an advantage. Bearcub Outfitters is in the top 10 this year—hurray for my old teammates—I’m loving their sweet new helmet covers—beary cute!
The race league culminates at the annual awards banquet. Teams from all three nights gather to celebrate fellowship, enjoy the best that chef Jason has to offer at this all-you-can-eat extravaganza, and cheer the winning teams and racers. Awards are provided for the top three teams, fastest man and woman, high handicaps (slowest man and woman), team spirit, most improved, and the painful, but nonetheless coveted, Bamboo Eaters’ Award (bamboo here referring to the old race gate poles … and the award being for most spectacular crash, also known as “eating bamboo”). Since we founded the Flying Squirrels team a decade ago, we’ve been fortunate to have our team called up to the podium for each of these awards. In addition to bestowing “hardware” in the form of plaques and trophies for the individual winners, Nub’s honors top teams with a pennant hung in the Pub for posterity.
Costume night for the Squirrels. Since getting in the top three is mathematically impossible for the team at this stage in the game, all effort is now devoted toward winning the Team Spirit Award. After our show tonight, it’s gotta be in the bag—everybody pulled out their Halloween party togs, and Schultz went all out with his Beaker costume. Good night for it too … wind was at our back, so the poodle skirts and gorilla suit didn’t slow us down much. Lots of no-shows on the other teams, so we clawed our way from 12th to 10th.
From my perspective, the most coveted award is the Team Spirit award. Given the zaniness of our competition, this award takes a lot of work. Winning requires more than making noise for your teammates; it requires being creative and capturing the spirit of race league. Team-inspired swag is an important step in being a competitor for the award. Although those teams sponsored by sporting goods stores are at a distinct advantage (for example, last year the Irish Boat Shop team sported Patagonia down-filled sweaters emblazoned with the team’s logo), creativity earns bonus points. Past Flying Squirrel swag includes hats, bandannas, basketball shirts and Lycra racing tops. Beyond the cheering and the swag, each team has its own way of showing spirit (costume night, banners, bringing family members along to serve as cheerleaders, etc.), but it’s all in fun and helps beat the wintertime blues.
Season’s final race night … and though we pretend to care more about the joy of skiing than the standings, there was crazy pressure to at least stay in the top ten (out of 14 teams—ha!). It was another great night for skiing. We all skied well (I picked up my three points for the team), but Green was the hero tonight. He laid down two beautiful runs and snagged the fastest combined time for the men. Thanks to his bonus point we held on to 10th place. Ten is a nice round number.
Although I’m sure that Nub’s Nob started the night leagues (now in their 31st year) to help sell night lift tickets or entice folks to purchase season tickets, it’s obvious that the tradition means a lot more to the enterprise. When you stack up the costs associated with the staff it takes to coordinate each night’s racing, as well as the T-shirts, dinners, and the awards banquet against the revenue generated by the racers’ registrations and sponsors, race league can’t be a big profit center for Nub’s Nob. By doing such a wonderful job of hosting the night race leagues, the folks at Nub’s Nob have created an integral element of Harbor Springs culture. They’ve created a great excuse for us to get out of the house during the week in the winter, get a bit of exercise and fresh air, and get together with our friends. They’ve helped to make this a wonderful place to live.
The Nub’s chef troika—Ralph, John, and Jason—outdid themselves again: candied bacon, prime rib, salmon, whitefish, seafood pasta made to order and desserts galore. Crazy good! And hardware for Squirrels too … Green repeated the low handicap for Thursday night (a k a fastest man alive two years in a row) but everyone improved too much to snag the high handicap. The Squirrels would have taken the Team Spirit Award too, but Mike said they discontinued the award because we raised the bar too high last year. Jelly Roll was great … lots of dancing after the awards ceremony. Best part was seeing Moria, who’s due in another two weeks. Schultz is going to be a papa!