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Shanty Creek is your headquarters for the weekend, and this is where the action is: Skiers are checking in, sipping Irish coffee in the lounges, talking about … what else? Snow, temperatures and past races.
After checking in, slip out just down the road to Alden. Many shops are snow-covered and closed for the season, but the Alden Bar keeps its light on.
Inside, you’ll find a typical Up North bar, with locals shooting the breeze, a retro shuffleboard table, knotty pine and booths with Formica tables. Behind the bar an assortment of fish—actually, they’re pillows and hotpads—are a reminder of nearby Torch Lake, which now wears its winter coat. Weekends, a local couple croons your favorite singable songs. On this weekend, you’ll find other White Pine stragglers, lots of juicy cheeseburgers and a rowdy ski vibe.
One caution: The roads out here can be slicker than a downhill run, so designate a driver and be careful. If it’s too slick out, stay back at Shanty and do a pasta power-up pre-race at the new Italian restaurant, La Vina.
White Pine revelry begins at sunup, with a pancake breakfast at the high school in Mancelona, a rugged working-class town Ernest Hemingway noted in his early short stories. You’ll need carbohydrates to fuel you through those white pines, so load up on flapjacks, then skate off with the pack. Undecided about skiing? Don’t be. The 10K ski is merciful and gratifying—you WILL get a medal—and if you haven’t already signed up, you can do so at the start gate.
Competitive distances include the 20K and 40K, and all routes take you through some of Antrim County’s starkest winter landscapes: Hardwood forests of maple and ash, open fields, low cedar swamps where the cold gets even colder. In addition to all the medals, a slew of people wins titles: Rankings are by distance, age, gender and style, whether kick-and-glide or skate.
Well-wishers along the way will be your personal-best cheerleaders, and you’ll end up back at Shanty Creek, where you do what everyone instinctively does post-race to boost that core temperature: sip mulled wine or step into the steam room.
Just don’t relax too much, because the night lies ahead. It’s time to explore the area, and the closest hamlet is Bellaire, which at this time of year resembles a snowglobe village: Drifts burying rooftops, smoke creeping out of chimneys and lighted windows promising asylum from the cold, dark night. The Bellaire Theatre, 214 N. Bridge Street, is open for show time, and here, you can kick back and let those legs rest.
The Victorian one-screen movie theater stays open 364 days a year—Christmas Eve is the exception—and since owner Elaine Dawson bought the place in 1979, there’s never been a no-show, even during a blizzard. Which says a lot about the locals here: Undeterred, even by nor’easters. The popcorn draws raves—something about a secret recipe—and unlike at the mega-mall cineplexes, there are more than 60 candy choices. Call 231-533-8725 to see what’s playing.
After the show, head across the street to Lulu’s Bistro. Yes, Virginia, you’re still Up North, even though it feels like you’ve just walked into one of Chicago’s most chic restaurants. It’s wide open and très civilized here, with a pewter tin ceiling, a mirror-chip mosaic behind the bar and a wait staff that can street-talk vintage and vinifera, providing credible tips on which local wine goes with the fondue, the braised lamb shank or baby spinach salad with Port-soaked cherries and chevre. Call 231-533-5252 for details and reservations.
Back at Shanty Creek, the post-ski party is carrying on in three lounges. Take your pick.
Start your day as the locals do, with a straight-up cup of joe, nothing fancy, and an omelet at Cafe Bellaire, 730 E. Cayuga. The omelets come in 14 flavors, anything from vegetarian with Béarnaise sauce to Polish (sausage, mushrooms, Swiss topped with sour cream) to Greek (lamb, olives and feta with tzatziki, a cucumber-yogurt-garlic sauce).
Locals gather daily at a long pine Community Table. Someone gets up, someone sits down, and Marge may just as easily be talking about foreign policy as today’s weather or Jim’s son’s upcoming wedding. Have a seat—you’re just as welcome as the next fellow. And order one of the cafe’s Goliath cinnamon rolls. They’re as big as a plate.
Eat enough to stay warm, because you’re headed for the Grass River Natural Area, a 1,143-acre park that’s as serene and wonderlandlike as winter gets in these parts (bring your skis or stop back by Shanty Creek and rent some snowshoes first: $16 a day from the Nordic Center). The park is open year round, dusk till dawn, and contains miles of trails, including a cross-country ski loop that connects to Shanty Creek’s trails.
Before heading back home, expect to see frosted meadows, bare-boned trees and icy creeks. Expect to hear winter’s vibrant silence. Expect to hear quiet in the pines.
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine.