Downhill ski business booming in Michigan

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View from a chairlift at Mount Bohemia in Lac La Belle on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Image: Brad Glasser

By Lindsay M. McCoy

Capital News Service

Last year, the U.S. ski industry had its fifth-busiest season, according to the National Ski Areas Association, and interest in the slopes shows no signs of slowing down in Michigan for the 2021-22 season.

The state sees up to 2.4 million skiers and snowboarders annually, and with 50 ski hills, it is tied for the most hills in the country, according to the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association.

Mickey MacWilliams, who works for the association, said the accessibility of skiing contributes to its popularity.

“No matter where someone lives in the state, they’re only about two hours or so from a ski hill,” she said.

Ben Doornbos, the general manager of Nubs Nob in Harbor Springs, said the resort is still seeing an increase in visits this year.

“It’s a noticeable increase, both in terms of season-pass holders and ticket sales,” said Doornbos. “I’d say maybe up 20% from a normal year.”

While many industries were hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic, outdoor industries like skiing thrived with people looking to get outside.

“We saw a lot of older equipment back on the hills and heard from a lot of folks that hadn’t skied in years but are giving it another shot because they have time now,” Doornbos said.

Many skiers who picked up the sport again last winter seemed to have stuck with it and returned to the slopes this season with new equipment, he said. That’s kept the number of passes and ticket sales high this year, he said.

Doornbos said Nubs Nob had one of its busiest days of the season over the Presidents Day weekend but that the resort was able to maintain quick and efficient chair lift lines for skiers.

Stories about lengthy wait times at a lot of Western resorts haven’t been the case in Michigan, he said.

Holidays and weekends aren’t the only days growing in ticket sales though, Doornbos said. Weekdays are becoming more popular for many skiers who now have more flexible work schedules due to the pandemic and can take advantage of lower ticket prices on those days.

Jim Arlen of Walled Lake works as a volunteer ski patroller at Nubs Nob and Pine Knob in Clarkston, and said this season shows no signs of slowing down in terms of activity.

“All resorts in Michigan were selling out of rental skis, a phenomenon we haven’t seen before,” Arlen said. “Resorts are continuing to sell out of rentals and the crowds are just as big as last season.”

Ski patrollers are volunteers who are first responders to accidents or injuries on ski hills. They get basic EMT training and provide first aid.

Despite the increase in the number of entry-level skiers, Arlen said there haven’t been any major problems with accidents or injuries at the hills where he volunteers.

“The new skiers have adapted well. There are hill markings for green, blue and black runs that are easy to understand and mostly followed,” he said.

Doornbos said that many new skiers are families picking up the sport as an activity to do together, and that’s the demographic where the resort has seen the most growth.

“They’re saying ‘it’s something we can all do together,’” said Doornbos. “Usually, one kid has basketball and everyone else gets to watch, but here everyone can participate.”

Jason Bristow, a father of two from Holt, said cancellation of his sons’ basketball program motivated his family of four to sign up for ski lessons.

“My wife and I had always talked about wanting to go skiing,” Bristow said. “When the pandemic hit and there wasn’t much to do, it became a real option.”

Bristow said his family got their first lessons at Mount Holly in Oakland County’s Groveland Township and they’ve all been hooked ever since.

“Having more activities that we could do as a family that we could continue forever, that was the goal from the beginning,” he said.

When Bristow asked his sons, 14 and 11, what they liked best about skiing, both answered with a resounding: “Going fast!”

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