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January 1, 2012
Escape to...Stokely
Peggy Herron
North of Sault Saint Marie, amid the rocks and pines of the Algoma Highlands, lies a lodge and some cabins and some of the best cross country skiing you'll find.  You could call the place many things-pure, focused, dedicated or beautiful.  Stokely Creek is all of those things, but it is something more.  Stokely is a love affair.
In the mid-1970s Chuck Petersen scoured the area looking for the ideal location for a cross country ski resort.  It was the sport he loved, and his dedication paid off.  Over time he assembled over 8,000 acres of land perfect for the Nordic pursuits.  The resort quotes Peterson as saying, "You need a tremendous variety of terrain and very skillfully designed trails to bring Nordic skiing into its own."
The terrain worked, and skillful trail design is still underway as the resort has opened new snowshoe trails over the last two seasons.
Of course, you need snow.  Lake Superior's eastern shore is edged by the rugged cliffs of the Canadian Shield that rise almost 1,200 feet above the lake.  During the winter months, prevailing northwest winds collect moisture over the lake and dump over 17 feet of fresh powder snow near the highland cliffs.  You can think of it as nature's snow gun, but in most winters you don't have to think of it at all.  There are plenty of other things to occupy your mind.
The trails are the main attraction-miles of trails are well-marked, frequently groomed, and offer short outings and full day adventures for all skill levels.  Frozen lakes, fast running streams and frozen waterfalls are just some of the beauty to be found in the twelve square miles of trails.
Trails are groomed for classic and freestyle skiing.  And rentals and lessons are readily available.  Michigan's most experienced cross country skiers know about Stokely, but it would be a mistake to think that only expert skiers ski there.  Beginners are welcome, and immersing yourself for a long weekend in all that Stokely has to offer is the perfect way to improve your technique.
Ski and snowshoe trails lead to the summit of King Mountain-its elevation of nearly 1,200 feet above the lake offers a panorama unmatched in the Great Lakes region.  Getting there is worth the effort, and warming huts along the way allow for rest stops and lunches that add comfort to the adventure.
Adding comfort to the adventure is what the resort does best.  Ann Arbor architect, David Osler, designed a modern back-country lodge near the tumbling waterfalls on Stokely Creek.  Chalets and cabins surround the lodge.  On a winter's night their cozy warmth and quiet stillness offer the perfect environment to relax after a day of activity.  There are few places I've slept more soundly, or been less interested in my iPhone.
The lodge houses the dining facilities, featuring gourmet meals and family- style dining.  You may leave Stokely tired, but you never have to leave hungry.  The staff is welcoming and friendly, and invested in making your stay enjoyable.  If you prefer lunch on the trail they'll prepare yours to go.
There are quirks that come with a Nordic-only resort.  The event schedule is a bit quirky-in January there's a paintball biathlon, and in March, the famous Wabos Loppet-a cross country tour that begins with a train ride to the logging town of Wabos followed by a cross country ski back to the lodge.
Another quirk happens in the parking lot: you're met by a snowmobile to move your bags and gear to the lodge.  From the moment you leave your car you leave behind the city and enter a world where nature and human energy are the key ingredients.
That human energy comes in two forms-the energy guests spend on the trails and the energy the community spends making Stokely available.  Petersen's death in 2000 caused some uncertainty about the future of Stokely Creek Lodge.  Ownership and sale of 8,000 acres is never simple-especially when all of that land is dedicated to serving a relatively small group of users.
The Petersen estate sold the land to the Astina Forest AG-a European land management company that owned 40,000 acres to Stokely's north.  While that might sound like the death knell for the trail system, that's not what happened.  Enter the Byker family-longtime guests of Stokely and, like Petersen, cross country enthusiasts.  The family had grown up at Stokely with visits taking place over 30 years.  In 2007 Astina sold the Lodge to Gaylen and Susan Byker and Ian and Tanya Byker Phair.  Their love of the place and the memories they had made were the guiding force behind their purchase of Stokely.
Purchasing the lodge did not answer all the questions Stokely faced.  There was still the question of how to assure access to the trails, carefully crafted on land now owned by a commercial concern.  In partnership with the Algoma Highlands Conservancy, the Bykers negotiated with Astina and, with the Conservancy, obtained the exclusive right to maintain and use the Stokely trail system.  The initial agreement secured management of the trails for a decade, with renewals available.
The Conservancy's role is both strategic and critical, and further evidence of the region's love for Stokely.  Through private donations the Conservancy was able to purchase sensitive areas around King Mountain and ensure that commercial use is never made of those protected lands.  Securing that land is a great source of pride for residents and visitors alike.
Stokely Creek is a treasure.  Easily one of the best cross country ski resorts in North America, it's the product of vision and is perpetuated by its own energy.  The Bykers-like most people who experience Stokely-succumbed to that energy, to the wonderful memories created amid nature and family and friends.  It led to their purchase of the resort.  Call it Newton's Law of Irresistible Memories.
The good news for the rest of us is that we don't have to purchase the resort to join in the love affair.  We need only visit, grab some skis or snowshoes and expend some energy.  The memories, like some law of physics, will surely follow.
Things to know before you go:
Travel Time: The resort is approximately 45 minutes by car once you enter Ontario.
Passport/Enhanced License: You'll need one.
Rates: Include meals, ski trail pass, access to waxing room and more. $145-$195/person double occupancy, discount periods and group rates available.
Skiers taking in the sights and sounds at Stokely.
Photo by: Scott Adam
Next Winter Sports Article: December 31, 2011
Next Article: January 1, 2012