Heather Farley had never been cross-country on skis, but when a friend suggested she give it a try at a recent Department of Natural Resources’ candlelight skiing event at Metamora-Hadley Recreation Area, she was all about it.
“By candlelight at night?” said Farley, a medical assistant from Grand Blanc. “How awesome is that? What better way to enjoy the winter?”
Farley said she was excited when she arrived at the park. Two hours later – after a couple loops around the campgrounds – she was convinced.
“It was awesome,” she said. “I’m hooked. I’m going to master this sport. I’ll have my whole family come out next year.”
Farley was one of about 40 people, of all ages and sizes, who showed up for the recent event. It’s the second year in a row that Metamora-Hadley, in Lapeer County, offered candlelight cross-country skiing, one of a number of winter programs offered at Michigan state parks and recreation areas.
What made this year’s event particularly special is that staff secured about 30 pairs of skis, poles and ski boots that were donated for the night by Shumaker’s Ski and Snowboard in Flint. That allowed folks who registered in advance the opportunity to reserve gear. There was no fee to participate beyond the Recreation Passport, which grants vehicle entry into Michigan’s 102 state parks statewide.
Cross-county skiing by candlelight has been a popular winter event at state parks and recreation areas across the state for more than a decade.
“We’ve seen a spike in popularity in recent years,” said Maia Turek, a recreation programmer with the DNR Parks and Recreation Division. “We’ve had a lot of people say they heard about it from a friend and decided to check it out.”
Not all of these night events are actually by candlelight. Some are lantern-lit. Turek recommends programs at the Porcupine Mountains (Ontonagon County), Ludington (Mason County), Fayette (Delta County) and Muskegon (Muskegon County) state parks as particularly noteworthy.
The program at Metamora-Hadley was started by area manager Todd Farrell, who had been involved with similar events at other parks before he accepted the managing job at Metamora-Hadley.
“We weren’t doing a lot of winter recreation programming so I thought we’d try it,” Farrell said. He wanted to schedule an event in 2013, but a lack of snowfall that winter interfered. But last winter – remember last winter? – snowfall was not a problem.
“We borrowed a groomer from Bald Mountain Recreation Area and we were real pleased, more than happy with the turnout for the event,” Farrell said. “So we’re going to try to do this every year as long as the weather cooperates and we can access equipment.”
Metamora-Hadley Recreation Area encompasses 723 acres in southwestern Lapeer County, including a no-wake lake with a beach and two fishing piers, and six miles of hiking trails. It’s open to hunting and fishing, and boasts 214 campsites with electric hook-ups (reservations are recommended for weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day) and also features a cabin and a mini-cabin, available for rent from April through the beginning of firearms deer season.
The staff spent time grooming two loops (lighted by votive candles inside opaque plastic jugs) through the campground for skiers.
We didn’t have enough snow to go through the woods this year,” said Stephanie Francis, the lead worker at Metamora-Hadley. “The groomer kept hitting stumps and things so we decided to play it safe. Last year we had no problem going through the woods.”
The event attracted a lot of first-timers, thanks to the donated equipment.
“We weren’t giving lessons, but we were offering the opportunity for people to try it if they wanted to,” Farrell said. “We were really pleased by the turnout.”
But it wasn’t just beginners. Many participants – a number of whom are regulars at the recreation area, brought their own gear.
Chuck and Nancy Sizeland, who are frequent visitors to the recreation area and veteran cross-country skiers, said the candlelight aspect of the program was the attraction.
“It’s the fun,” said Nancy. “Last year we sat around the bonfire and met all kinds of people from all over. It’s such a nice event.
“We appreciate the effort. The staff works hard for this, they really do.”
Julie Springsteen from Lapeer, who is an experienced skier but had never gone at night before, said the candlelight aspect was a big draw. “It’ll be interesting,” she said when she started. And afterward? “It was awesome.”
Not everyone came to ski. The park staff had secured a couple dozen pairs of snowshoes from the DNR Parks and Recreation Division for the event and some folks came to ’shoe. Don Carlson, a retired Detroit people sitting around a bonfire in winterfirefighter from Columbus, brought his daughter Erika with him so he could turn her on to snowshoeing.
“This is an awesome thing,” said Carlson, a veteran snowshoer. “It was well organized and well thought through. It’s a great thing.”
Some skiers even returned after a couple of loops and swapped their skis for shoes to give that a try.
The staff used space heaters to take the chill out of a barn on the premises for a warm-up area and served light refreshments – coffee, hot chocolate and cookies – to participants, all of whom enjoyed the event.
Linda Koledo, a veteran cross-country skier and a regular at the recreation area, came with her husband Dave. The pair took to the track before dark, to get familiar with it, and then stayed to ski by candlelight.
“The candlelight added to it,” she said. “We’ll be back tomorrow after it snows.”
Indeed, a huge snowfall the following day made for outstanding skiing conditions.
“Funny, but that’s how it goes, I guess,” Farrell said, though it’s hard to imagine the event could have gone much better.
“It’s a lot of work but it’s well worth it,” added Francis, “especially when you see people enjoying it so much.”
For more information on winter programs at state parks and recreation areas statewide, visit www.michigan.gov/stateparks and check out the Events and Activities section.