I’ll be candid. This was to be my first time ever cross-country skiing. But I knew exactly where I wanted to go, because it’s where all the cool kids (i.e. my friends, of course) go for X-C skiing (which is what the cool kids call it). Palmer Woods.

By Paul Baumbusch | Trail Genius

I awakened with a childlike feeling of adventure and anticipation. Then I looked out the window. The snow and wind were going absolutely nuts. Drat. I’d been hoping for some crisp blue skies. My roommate loaned me a pair of Patagonia long johns and chuckled as I was suiting up to leave. “Good luck out there in the blizzard, Shackleton!”

“If I’m not back in 3 hours, call the police,” I grumbled, only half-jokingly. I also told him where I was going, so that the rescue crews would know where to search for my frozen remains.

But as I was headed toward Glen Arbor on M-22, something miraculous happened. The snow calmed down…the blustery winds subsided…and slowly the clouds parted, giving way to that most precious of sights for sore eyes: Michigan-blue sky. Just the thought of a sunny day in winter makes me a bit emotional. Winter sunshine is the ultimate relief, and relief is the ultimate pleasure. On such days, you can feel the conviviality and lightheartedness in the air. Everyone is in a better mood.

Gear Up

Linette helps with equipment from Coastal, Glen Arbor   Winter gear available to rent at Coastal 

To gear up, I visited Coastal, a new retail store in Glen Arbor which also rents recreational equipment throughout the winter. I was surprised to see my friend Lynette Rouzer working there. (A peninsula is a small world!) Lynette was very helpful in picking out the right skis, boots, and poles for me, and she taught me some basics, like “When your left ski goes forward, your right pole goes forward.” As I was leaving, she flashed a sunny smile and said “And don’t forget…Just glide.” Glide? Yeah, right. I’ll be lucky if I’m not face-down in the snow every ten seconds, I thought to myself.

Palmer Woods

Palmer Woods Entrance  Forest Scene at Palmer Woods

Palmer Woods Forest Reserve is about a 10-minute drive from Glen Arbor and the Dunes. At 721 acres, it’s the largest natural area belonging to the Leelanau Conservancy, a 501 (c) 3 organization that, per their mission statement, endeavors to conserve the “land, water, and scenic character of Leelanau County.” While many visitors to Leelanau are familiar with the majestic trails of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, fewer may know about the Conservancy’s many serene natural areas – each one unique, each with its own charms, and each free to visit! I always tell people that experiencing a Conservancy property for the first time is like uncorking a special bottle of wine. 

In addition to its trail system for hiking and winter recreation, visitors to Palmer Woods may now also enjoy a brand-new three-mile mountain bike trail, which the conservancy calls the “first public, flow-style mountain bike trail in Leelanau”…as though there weren’t enough ways to have fun in the county already.

Three MusketeersMeeting me in the parking lot was Emily Douglas and her partner, Blaise. Emily is a plant biology expert and the Conservancy’s Land Steward. An ideal Sherpa if ever there was one! Our mutual friend Sara connected us. (I told you…Small world up here.) Before we set off, Emily warned me “Just so you know, it’s not personal, but I always laugh when people fall.” I would laugh at me too, I thought.

We started out on the mile-long Loop Trail. Though Palmer Woods is regularly groomed for X-C skiing by the wonderful volunteer organization Friends of Sleeping Bear, the trails hadn’t yet been groomed following the latest snowfall. But there were fresh skier-set tracks, so we were able to coast along nicely. Somehow, I was keeping my balance! And I even zoomed down the first little hill without falling! This perhaps made me too cocky, for when Emily mentioned that my friend Sara had advised her to keep me on the easy trails, I bristled and insisted we take the intermediate North Loop trail rather than continuing on the easy Loop Trail (so that I could boast to Sara afterward and give her a hard time). 

And…yeah…On that loop, I toppled into deep snow half a dozen times. And yeah, Emily laughed. Heartily.

Along the way, Emily pointed out some trail highlights, including a towering old hemlock and a relatively rare golden birch, the bark of which has a metallic sheen. At one point she stopped and said “Sometimes I like to stand still in the forest and just listen.” Right at that moment, a wind whooshed through the forest, as though summoned by Emily, sending sparkling snow floating down from the tree branches like glitter.

Towering Hemlock - Palmer Woods  Golden Birch - Palmer Woods

Sunshine, streaming through the trees, was interrupted only by passing fluffy clouds. The blazing blue of the sky, the deep greens and browns of the forest, the pure gleaming white of the snow and the clouds, the crunch of poles in the snow and the hypnotic swish-swish sound of the skis…I was starting to understand why the cool kids love this sport. And I was finding my rhythm. And for a few stretches of the trail, I was doing what I never thought possible, awkward clumsy bloke that I am. I was gliding.

"I'm doing it!" Sometimes you fall Sometimes you fall Stopping to listen - Palmer Woods