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Skiing Corsair: Perpetual Motion
We’re in the heart of winter with lots snow and cold temperatures. Really cold temperatures. You can sit inside and wonder if spring will ever come or head outdoors and go skiing. We say go skiing. And to help with that this Trail Mix newsletter focuses on one of Michigan’s best Nordic ski destinations; the Corsair Trail System near Tawas City. Enjoy the feature and then download our newest trail map and go skiing.
If you are pondering summer and what to do, Jim DuFresne can help. The well-traveled travel guidebook author will be speaking at the Grand Rapids Camper, Travel & RV show Saturday, Jan. 25 and Sunday, Jan. 26 about exploring Alaska. For more details and times see the show web site. On Saturday, March 1, DuFresne will be appearing at the annual Quiet Water Symposium at Michigan State University with a presentation about hiking and paddling Isle Royale National Park.
Corsair Trail System: Nordic Skiing At Its Best
By Jim DuFresne
The first hill was a gentle slope, the second hill long and twisty. Before we had a chance to catch our breath we were speeding down a third hill, a short but steep run. Wham! Bam! Thank you Ma'am!
No time to stop and chat. On the backside of Corsair Ski Trail we were flying through the woods, using the momentum from one hill to climb the next, expending little or no effort. This wasn't skiing, it was a roller coaster ride. "We got rhythm now," said Gary Nelkie as we flew past another yellow caution sign and braced ourselves for the downhill run that followed.
Some people ski Corsair Trails because of its location, a mere 90-minute drive from Saginaw, even less from Bay City. Some come because there's snow here and maybe none in Ann Arbor or Jackson. But the best reason to spend a day or even a weekend in this corner of the Huron National Forest is because no other groomed trail system in the Lower Peninsula is as extensive or better laid out than Corsair.
"This section is one third up, one third down and one-third level, which creates perpetual motion for skiing," said Nelkie of Nordic Sports in Tawas City. "You can ski forever here without getting tired." And skiers are trying. This network of trails registers 25,000 users annually.
"If this isn't the most popular Nordic ski area in the state, it's pretty darn close to it," said Gordan Haase of the Huron Shores Ranger District.
It might also be one of the oldest. Skiing in the area dates back to the mid-1930s when Silver Valley Winter Sports Park was built and included a tow-rope for downhill skiing, a toboggan run and a short loop for cross country skiing. The park closed in 1963 but 10 years later Nelkie and a handful of other locals returned to Silver Creek and cut a Nordic trail beginning from a roadside picnic area called "Corsair."
The trail was only two miles long that first winter and not even a loop. You skied out then turned around and skied back. The tracks were set with two-by-fours attached to a sheet of plywood and grooming was a two-person job. Somebody drove the snowmobile and somebody stood on the plywood to add weight. In 1976, Corsair, still grooming with two-by-fours and Nelkie standing on them, staged one of the first Nordic races in Michigan.
Since 1974, the trail system has grown from two miles to a 26-mile network of three interconnected areas, each with its own trailhead and parking lot; the Corsair Trails, Silver Valley Trails and Wright’s Lake Trails, the most challenging segment by far and the only one groomed for skate skiing.
Click on the map to the right to view a larger version or print.
The most popular trails are the original ones, Corsair, now an 8-mile system on the west side of Monument Road. With Silver Creek bisecting the interior, Corsair is also scenic, a trail system that is rated intermediate in difficulty and double-tracked for classic skiing. On a Saturday after a good snowfall it's not unusual to have more than 600 skiers use the trail system, the reason a log cabin warming shelter in the trailhead parking area.
The beauty of the Corsair section are the rolling red and jack pine forests that the trails wind through. The layout were designed as one third uphill, one third level, one third downhill to create a physical balance between exertion and rest. Thus the numerous hills make for almost perfect skiing, when at times it's possible achieve that "perpetual motion." In the world of Nordic skiing, effortless striding is as close to the state of Zen some of us will ever get.
A popular tour is a 5-mile loop that begins from the trailhead by crossing Silver Creek and skiing the gently rolling trail through large pines to post No. 14 and No. 15 and onto post No. 17 reached after a long downhill. You then cross Silver Creek again on log bridge between post No. 17 and No. 18. This is perhaps the most picturesque spot in the entire combined trail system. Silver Creek flows under a canopy of white cedar trees as it gurgles and swirls around snow-covered ice and encrusted fallen trees. It is a tradition for skiers to bring a small pouch of sunflower seeds and scatter them alongside the giant fallen pine tree that lays across the stream, parallel to the bridge. A mixed flock of tame chickadees, nuthatches and titmice will eagerly converge to dine on the treats.
On the east side of Monument Road is Silver Valley, a 9.7-mile, three-loop system designed for beginner skiers and double-tracked for classic skiing. Opened in 1986, this is the newest segment of Corsair Trails but it’s parking lot lies next to the former Silver Valley Winter Sports Park, where some of the earliest skiing in Michigan took place. Buried in the Silver Valley area is Frank Eaton, a Civil War veteran in the Michigan Calvary under General George Armstrong Custer and a son-in-law of the Coursers, who homesteaded at the Corsair trailhead in 1860-70s.
Bordered by Silver Creek to the east and Gordon Creek to the north, Silver Valley trails meander through gently rolling pine forests, offering easy terrain for beginners, older skiers or those looking to enjoy long peaceful strides and carefree skiing. Often echoing thru the valley is the resonant clucking and mysterious vocalizations of a flock of Common Ravens, aka Northern Ravens. The outside perimeter of the system is a 6.1-mile outing that includes a very scenic stretch along the banks of Silver Creek between posts No. 24, No. 25 and No. 26. More elevation with climbs and downhill runs is encountered just before post No. 26 and No. 27 but uphill climbers are rewarded with views of Gordon Creek valley.
Accessed from a trailhead along Tuttle Road is Wright's Lake, an 8.2-mile system with a 6-mile outer loop that winds around two lakes. Groomed with a single track and a skating lane in a hilly hardwood forest, these trails are lightly used section, due to the area’s most challenging runs and steepest hills.
The exception is the 1.5-mile inner loop that follows posts No. 10, No. 11, No. 8 and No. 9 and is rated easy to intermediate. The first mile is essentially level terrain while the last half mile features a succession of long continuous stair-casing downhill runs that cascade back to the trailhead. If you seek black diamond downhill exhilaration, you will find it in the extreme northeast corner, the segments between posts No. 4 and No. 5 and between posts No. 7 and No. 5 and the Lost Lake section on the southern edge of the trail system
A warming hut is open on the weekends in the Corsair trailhead parking area. In the other trailheads there are vault toilets. Offering rental ski equipment and current snow reports is Nordic Sports (989-362-2001; www.n-sport.com) in East Tawas. For a list of area lodging contact the Tawas Area Chamber of Commerce (800-558-2927; tawas.com).
The ski area is 8 miles northwest of Tawas City. Head west of Tawas City on M-55 briefly and then north on Wilber Road. Ski signs will lead you onto Monument Road and to the various trailheads.
For more information on Corsair Trail System contact the Huron Shores Ranger District at (989) 739-0728 or the Corsair Trail Council through Nordic Sports (989-362-2001; www.n-sport.com).