A few red-winged blackbirds and a flock or two of sandhill cranes arrived over the weekend. Maple sap was running. Like usual for the start of March.
But it still isn’t a usual winter for ski resorts. If it were, the downhill season at Swiss Valley Ski & Snowboard Area in Jones would toast its finale this Sunday — typically a week into March. Instead, spokesman Mike Panich says the resort has booked its “Slush Cup” contest (a sort of farewell party) for March 14 with the option of staying open even longer if the weather permits and visitors keep coming.
Snowmelt or not, the resort recently looked more like it was ramping up operations, not chilling out, stoked by the momentum from a super-busy season when weekend ski rentals often ran out. Jamie Stafne, who oversees operations, says this season’s attendance will surely “blow the record for the past two decades.”
“We’re feeling very fortunate that we’ve had such a great season,” she says, grateful to loyal customers after a handful of years of weak, limited winters. “It’s such a relief. We’re taking this good fortune, and we want to do everything we can to benefit the skiers and snowboarders.”
The snow base, now an average of 25 inches, should last well through the month, says Panich, who helps with management. In fact, Swiss Valley was making snow almost a week ago — far, far later than usual — to both ensure there’s adequate snow through March and to test out a brand-new portable snow gun, he says. Not to forget a newly reconditioned snow groomer that arrived two weeks ago, which Panich notes has more tools and stronger blades that can dig deeper into the snow, till it up and create a more consistent surface.
Moguls have grown on the advanced slope for the first time in several years, those naturally formed series of mounds that some hard-core skiers helped to carve repeatedly into the surface. Stafne says these knee-bending “bumps,” as they’re often called, rival the moguls that Swiss Valley offered in the 1990s.
It took a good part of the season, but the terrain park has gained two large jumps, too.
“We’re doing everything possible to bring skiers and boarders back to the ski area,” Stafne says.
There will be a pig roast from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Saturday, plus live music by guitarist, singer and Swiss Valley crewman Phil Strauss from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. A costume contest and parade on the ski lift will start at noon March 13 with judging at 1 p.m. The Spring Fling on March 14 will feature the Slush Cup contest of skiing over a pool of water, along with a cookout and beer garden; also, the finalists for the slope naming contest will be announced that day on Facebook, where followers can vote for their favorite names.
The mask and distancing requirements and indoor dining limits at all resorts didn’t keep visitors away.
Mickey MacWilliams, executive director of the Michigan Snowsports Industry Association, says several Michigan ski resorts are planning to stay open longer this season, too, as weather and conditions permit, adding, “There is still a need to safely recreate and ski areas are filling that need.”
Near Kalamazoo, Bittersweet Resort typically stays open through mid-March as long as customers keep coming, though a return to sports and school will likely limit families’ time now, office manager Cindy Gayheart says. It has enough snow to push around if melting causes thin spots. No end date has been set.
When Swiss Valley closes, there’s often lots of snow to keep skiing for a couple of weeks. But it’s the lack of visitors that triggers the close-up decision.
Panich believes there’s interest now based on phone calls during last week’s melt, as people asked: Are you open? Do you have snow?
He says, “We’re hoping it (the interest) overflows into the next several seasons.”
• Howard Park ice trail and pond: South Bend tentatively aims to keep this open through March 17 but could go later if the weather is ideal for it, Director of Recreation Jonathan Jones says.
• Merrifield Ice Rink: Sunday was the Mishawaka rink’s final day, as this older facility won’t be able to keep ice through the forecast warmth and sun, Aquatics/Ice Director Marissa Gruler says.
• NIBCO Water & Ice Park: This ice ribbon in Elkhart also closed for the season Sunday because of the weather.
Your own maple sugar
Last week’s freeze-thaw cycles meant that maple sap started to run. Below are several ways that local parks will help you tap your own trees and make syrup. Did you know that you can make a spile (the little device that drains the sap) from a staghorn sumac branch? Or buy one locally for a buck?
The popular Sugar Camp Days at Bendix Woods County Park in New Carlisle isn’t happening this year, as officials say the pandemic didn’t allow the months of planning that it needed. But next week I’ll share some of the limited events and tours that are going on in the area.
• Making syrup: Learn to make maple syrup at home from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Bonneyville Mill County Park in Bristol. It’s free, but registration is required at elkhartcountyparks.org.
• Supplies: Elkhart County Parks sells spiles and three feet of tubing for $1 each at its office in Goshen or by appointment at Bonneyville Mill (call 574-825-9324).
• Walk and talk: Walk through the woods and learn to tap a maple tree and turn the sap into syrup at 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. Saturday or at 1:30 or 3 p.m. March 14 at Sarett Nature Center in Benton Harbor. Cost is $5 for nonmembers. Registration is required at 269-927-4832.
• Virtual lesson: Learn to identify maple trees, tap them and turn the syrup into candy in a 22-minute video from Sarett Nature Center. Link to it in this column online.
• Tapping at Home: Find this how-to brochure from St. Joseph County Parks linked to this column online.
• Bendix DIY tour: A handful of interpretive signs explain the science of maple tree sap and syrup in the sugar bush at Bendix Woods County Park in New Carlisle. Found just beyond the Glenn Bauer Shelter, they’re up each year through the sugar season, typically until the end of March. Although volunteers may be inside the sugar house cooking sap, that building isn’t open to the public unless it’s one of the few prearranged tours.
• Bendix syrup: You can buy syrup made at Bendix Woods at the park’s nature center or, on weekends, at the gate. Or buy it at the white barn at St. Patrick’s County Park in South Bend. Cost is $10 per pint, $6 per half pint.
• Sap donations: Don’t like cooking the sap you’ve collected? Bendix Woods is again taking sap donations this season. Call 574-654-3155 and ask for Amal Farrough to arrange a drop off.
• Virtual tour: Take a virtual tour of the sugar bush at Chellberg Farm at the Facebook page of the Indiana Dunes National Park. Find recordings from posts on Tuesday and Feb. 24.
Signs of life
• Bloomer hike: Harbor Country Hikers set out at 2 p.m. Sunday at Robinson Woods Preserve, north of Three Oaks, to look for winter greenery and plants that are about to bloom, covering 1.5 miles in two hours. Robinson Woods is at 8016 East Road, just east of Red Arrow Highway and the community of Lakeside.
• Spring Birding Challenge: Elkhart County Parks invites you to a friendly competition now through May 31 to make a team (two to four adults and any number of children) and identify as many birds as you can within Elkhart County. There are beginner, experienced and advanced levels. Cost is $10 per team. Register by March 31 at elkhartcountyparks.org.
• Wednesday bird walks: Join a guided hike with Elkhart County Parks to identify birds at 8 a.m. on the first Wednesday of the month: today at Ox Bow County Park, April 7 at Boot Lake Nature Preserve and May 5 at River Preserve County Park. Free and open to ages 8 and older. No registration required. Details at elkhartcountyparks.org.