It’s an early Saturday morning in January. Tom Lakenen (pronounced lay-kin-en) is getting ready for another busy day at Lakenenland, his popular roadside attraction in Michigan’s Central Upper Peninsula.
Using a gas-powered leaf blower, the pipe-fitter-turned-sculptor sends puffs of lake-effect snow billowing from around the 50-plus metal sculptures that populate this stop 15 miles east of Marquette on Highway M-28 and along snowmobile Trail 417.
“This one’s my favorite,” Lakenen says with a grin as we come to a sculpture of seven stars in the form of the Big Dipper. “It collects the least snow.”
Besides snow, Lakenenland has been collecting curiosity and praise from snowmobilers on the major east-west route in Alger and Marquette counties. Lakenenland’s 37 acres of pinewoods are bisected by the trail and feature a loop through the park for visitors.
Six months of winter and more than 300 inches of snow can make people do strange things. Bizarre. Unique. Call it what you will, but it’s 100 percent “Yooper.” (For the uninitiated, that’s someone from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — the U.P.) The one thing in common among all the pieces is that they’re created from scrap from industrial jobs sites.
“I quit drinkin’ nine years ago, then started creating some of the things I saw when I was drinking,” Lakenen jokes.
The “Sculpture Park, Free!” sign along the trail brings in sledders who check out the sculptures and take a break from the trail at the lean-to where Lakenen keeps a campfire ablaze and the coffee and hot cocoa warm.
If that’s not enough excitement for you, nearby, in Trenary, Mich., (population 400) they’re racing outhouses.
Yep, since 1993, thousands of visitors from around the Midwest have converged on the snowed-covered main street of this once-hopping Central U.P. sawmill town on the last Saturday in February to push custom-built privies 500 feet against the clock. The only rules are that you have to have a toilet seat and roll of TP on board. There are kids’ events and a People’s Choice award for best theme, and costumes too, like the “Old No. 2 Poo-Poo Choo-Choo” entry resembling a locomotive that showed up one year.
The 14th Ever Outhouse Classic will take place Saturday, Feb. 24 at 2 p.m. For information, call (906) 446-3471 or visit www.lakenenland.com.
— Aaron Peterson
Pheel the Phun
I’m rousted awake at 2:30 a.m., pull on thermal underwear over my thermal underwear and pile onto a shuttle bus headed for a family-friendly place called Gobbler’s Knob.
With thousands of other revelers, I stand for hours in the cold darkness of rural Pennsylvania on the second day of February. Then, at dawn, a man in a top hat leans down to an oak stump and wakes a big, fat rodent. The man talks to it. The rodent talks back. Everybody waits in anticipation. The people of Punxsutawney, 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh and a three-hour drive from Cleveland, claim that this Feb. 2 will be their 121st Groundhog Day. Records show the party doesn’t go back quite that far, and other towns compete for the claim of oldest. But you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced the original, immortalized over and over in the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day.”
This town, decorated with 32 6-foot-tall Phantastic Phil statues for Groundhog Day, keeps the live groundhog on view year-round in the town square. The slate of activities includes the crowning of the Groundhog Queen and King, wood and ice carving, picnics, a rock concert, fireworks.
Accommodations phil up phast, a year or more in advance, but for $5 you can unroll your sleeping bag in the Punxsutawney Area Community Center Crash Pad. They show the movie at midnight. You can even get married at Phil’s Wedding Chapel. At least three couples have signed up for a ceremony performed by the mayor and witnessed by a member of the Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle — those guys in top hats.
It’s as surreal and silly as it sounds, and yet the spectacle keeps drawing visitors from throughout the world — more than 12,000 in 2006, says Michele Neal, the Groundhog Day events coordinator. www.groundhog.org; 1-800-752-PHIL — Bob Batz Jr.
Adults at Play!
The average snowfall in Zanesfield, Ohio, home to Mad River Mountain ski resort, measures about 50 inches per year. Vail, Colo., gets around 346 inches. Accept this, and keep reading.
I skied Mad River Mountain, near Bellefontaine, for the first time about 10 years ago, not knowing that the trip would turn into one of those stories I still tell at parties. I was just out of college, living in Columbus and still of the mind-set that 11 p.m. wasn’t an unreasonable time to head out for the evening.
My friends had heard that Mad River hosted “midnight madness” on the weekends, where night crawlers can ski, snowboard or tube from 10:30 p.m. until 3 a.m. It was freezing, and I was pretty sure we would be the only ones there.
We weren’t. In my retellings, I tend to repeat highlights such as the guys skiing in Carhartt jackets and orange hats, but there were teens, businesspeople and families taking advantage of the cheaper rates and smaller crowds, too.
Last summer, the resort poured $2.5 million into two intermediate runs, a beginner terrain park for snowboarders and a 900-foot-long tubing hill for those who just want an easy ride down. In total, that adds up to 23 different routes to the bottom; pretty impressive in a state not exactly known for its snow sports. 1000 Snow Valley Road, Zanesfield; (937) 599-1015 or 1-800-231-7669; www.skimadriver.com
— Jenny Pavlasek
A Walk to Remember
There’s a moment each winter when the mystique of candy sugarplums, all glittery and luminescent, magically coalesces with the frost, ice and snow outdoors. On that winter’s day, I feel called to strap on some grippy boots and head for the hills.
Hocking Hills, precisely, that geologic anomaly in the deep hollers of Southeast Ohio, where caves aren’t truly caves and the legends are tall tales, too. But what is a hard fact in winter — especially hard if you take the icy stone steps on your keister as I did my first year out — is the cut-glass beauty of waterfalls crystalized into chandeliers, streams rimmed with diamond ice, the Devil’s Bathtub frothy with a bubble bath of snow.
I like this wild old landscape in every season: spring, when the violets, orchids and trilliums turn their dainty faces to the sun; summer, when it feels as if I’m sharing the trails with all 3 million of the park’s visitors; fall, when squealing children kick the leaves and hikers moan that it can’t be that far to Ash Cave.
But the best? Winter. Sound itself is frozen save the bite of boot on frost. This is the secret season, when the hills take their jewels from the vault: Crystal on every branch, diamonds along every stream, platinum in every waterfall. We’re a secret society, too, the few who brave these iced trails and bob our caps at one another in passing, sharing the privilege of seeing these trees, rocks and streams in a whole new way. www.hockinghills.com— Betsa Marsh
A Tried and True Tradition
We were tired of being tired of winter. My husband and I were convinced that if we continued to live in Michigan, we needed to find a cold-weather pastime beyond waiting for winter to go away.
So our whole family — Mom, Dad and elementary-age kids — took skiing lessons. None of us had ever been on the slopes before, but that was the beauty of it. We were all equals, content to spend our days on the beginner and intermediate courses.
That was 10 years ago. Our family still loves to ski, and our favorite resort is the one we enjoyed that first winter, Crystal Mountain, ranked by SKI Magazine as the No. 1 Resort in the Midwest in 2005. The instructors teach kids as skillfully as they do grown-ups. Slope-side ski condos allow us to ski in and out of our accommodations all day long, stopping to eat, warm up or rest as we please. Forty-five downhill slopes and snowboarding runs offer lots of variety, while nine lifts eliminate long, cold wait times. And with cross-country trails and an indoor pool, there’s always something to do.
This winter marks Crystal Mountain’s 50th anniversary, and the resort is celebrating. Crystal’s 50th Anniversary Ski Package includes lodging, lift tickets, cross-country trail passes and a vintage poster commemorating the event. The package ranges from $69 to $359 per adult per night. In keeping with tradition, the resort is still friendly to families: Children 8 and younger sleep and ski free anytime, while children 17 and younger sleep and ski free midweek when sharing accommodations with two paying adults. 1-800-YOUR-MTN; www.crystalmountain.com
— Amy S. Eckert
It’s a Date
Get Out and Play!
Jan. 21, 9-11 a.m.
41st annual Winter Hike, Hocking Hills State Park Campground, Hocking Hills, Ohio
Feb. 1-3, all day
Groundhog Day celebrations abound all weekend, with the main event beginning at 3 a.m. Feb. 2. The official prediction is delivered at daybreak. Punxsutawney, Pa.
Feb. 3, 5 p.m.
Annual fund-raiser for Griffis Sculpture Park, Ashford Hollow, N.Y.
Feb. 16, 10:30 p.m. - 3 a.m.
Midnight Madness happens every Friday and Saturday at Mad River. But Feb. 16 will feature even more excitement, when the resort hosts the Scion Midnight Madness Party. Mad River Mountain, Zanesfield, Ohio
Feb. 24, all day
Crystal Mountain has tons of family-friendly events going on all year. The resort goes all-out for Mardi Gras, though, with a daylong festival that includes a scavenger hunt, races, the cardboard classic (where competitors vie for best homemade cardboard sled) and a costume contest. Crystal Mountain, Thompsonville, Mich.
Feb. 24, 2 p.m.
14th Ever Outhouse Classic, Trenary, Mich.