A fresh cover of snow is down, the tracks are laid and Crossroads at Big Creek’s Ski for Free program is underway, lending skis and snowshoes free of charge to Door County residents and visitors interested in exploring the 200-acre Big Creek Preserve in true winter style.
Housed in the Crossroads maintenance shed, the thrice-weekly lending program is organized by the Friends of Crossroads and staffed by volunteers with Crossroads and the Door County Silent Sports Alliance.
The process for borrowing equipment is fairly straightforward. Visitors are welcomed into a heated, portioned-off section of the maintenance shed, where a conversion charts translates U.S. boot sizes into European sizes. After choosing from more than 150 pairs of ski boots ranging in size from toddler to adult, volunteers guide guests into the storage room, where ski and pole sizes are determined.
Rows of neatly organized and clearly marked skis, poles and snowshoes stand in the corner, and after a brief rundown of cross-country skiing technique, guests are free to hit the trails that begin just outside the maintenance building. For those who want to pull small children while hiking or snowshoeing, sleds are also available.
Funding for recreation equipment came from the proceeds of the Crossroads Trail Run and grants from the Raibrook Foundation, along with visitor donations. These donations have been used for everything from boots to painting signs.
“The last few years, we’ve spent a few thousand dollars every year just to update our equipment,” said Gretchen Schmelzer, a Friends of Crossroads board member who supervises Ski for Free.
Big Creek Preserve boasts approximately five miles of cross-country ski trails and this year, Land and Facilities Manager Rich Propsom created a five-mile, multi-use trail system for those who hike, run, walk dogs, snowshoe or fat tire bike. Cross-country ski trails are set up with diagonal tracks and, where possible, a flat area for people to skate ski, though skate skiers must bring their own equipment.
By dividing the trails by activities, Propsom hopes to extend the longevity of the cross-country ski trails while also offering new views of the preserve for all users.
“The ski trails tend to be in a little bit more open areas and they’re a little bit wider because we’re trying to do two different things,” Propsom said. “The other trails are more through the woods, and they’re a little more out of the wind and probably a little bit more scenic in some ways. It’s like a rustic road type deal.”
“With snowshoeing and skiing, the whole thing is to give them that first experience which is why it’s really important to have such good, well-groomed trails,” Schmelzer said. “So that those first skiers can get out there and have a smooth sail.”
The purchase of trail maintenance equipment has been underwritten, in part, by the Door County Silent Sports Alliance and Door County Medical Center. Signs and maps are available along the trails, denoting which activities are allowed where. For those interested in a more rugged, backcountry experience, the trails in Ida Bay and The Cove preserves are open but not groomed and the parking areas are not cleared.
Since opening for the season the last week of December, Ski for Free has welcomed more than 200 visitors, including a pair from Sydney, Australia. Propsom credits the program’s success so far this winter to a decent snow cover that has stuck around thanks to cold conditions. Temperatures between five and 25 degrees are best for the trails, as is regular snowfall to reestablish any melting that may occur.
“We got some early snow and it didn’t all melt,” Propsom said of this winter. “That’s what’s going for this year. We don’t have a super abundance of snow but what we do have stayed so that’s the good part.”
When there is adequate snow and the absence of wind chill warnings, the Ski for Free program is offered Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 3:30 pm. Special arrangements for larger groups can also be made by contacting Crossroads at Big Creek.
“It’s really fun to have people who have never skied go out and try it and know that we were able to provide them that opportunity, and then for them to come back and love it, especially if you have young kids,” Schmelzer said. “They can just keep coming back year after year and their family doesn’t have to keep buying skis for them as they grow. They can just use these. It’s really beneficial with the whole wellness, getting kids outdoors and families together.”
Crossroads at Big Creek is located at 2041 Michigan St., just east of the roundabout in Sturgeon Bay. For trail conditions and program updates, visit crossroadsatbigcreek.com.