Continued from last week.
A sequence of events beginning in the early 1970s led to the creation of Minocqua Winter Park that were first set in motion when four friends discovered their passion for cross country skiing – including two of the driving forces behind the park, Wes Doak and Gordy Brown.
The silent winter sport’s popularity grew steadily through the 1970s, and eventually the Lakeland Ski Touring Club was formed. Paralleling the rapidly-developing enthusiasm for cross country skiing, interest in the Squirrel Hill area again began to bloom.
“My partner in the ski shop, Gordy Brown, was a super expert downhill skier and ... had heard about Squirrel Hill and the fact that it was in disrepair,” Doak said. “I think it was March of ‘73, towards the end of our first year of the ski shop, and he said, ‘I hear there’s some really good terrain towards Squirrel Hill. Why don’t we go out there?’”
After realizing the potential for cross country skiing at Squirrel Hill, the spot was put to good use – and another thread of Minocqua Winter Park’s future was woven.
“I started teaching Nicolet College [skiing] classes in ‘73, ‘74, and Glenn Handrick approved of doing one Nicolet class meeting at the Squirrel Hill chalet,” Doak said.
Though the chalet was in rough shape – “broken glass taped together, the back wall rotted out along the bottom, ferrets living there ... and no bathrooms,” as Doak described – the original propane heater that still had some fuel in it would be fired up for these class meetings.
But as it’s written in history, several more years would pass before Mark Clark, Minocqua town planner, would propose the restoration of Squirrel Hill. Between the Nicolet classes being held in the area and the park’s rebirth in 1978 another ski center would take the limelight – but only for a brief time.
“I discovered the possibility of doing a full ski center at Camp Kawaga. The director had rented skis the year before and he liked the operation, and he said, ‘You know, Wes, I’ve always wanted to use my camp year-round. Do you think it would make a good ski center?’” Doak said. “That was too good to pass up. So that kind of detracted from the interest of Squirrel Hill.”
This venture would prove to be short-lived. Two years later a downhill skiing accident led to a sizeable settlement – large enough to impact the skiing industry across the country as a whole – and liability insurance became an issue at the Camp Kawaga ski center.
At the same time snowmobile clubs began to strongly encourage riders to stay on designated trails. Before that the Squirrel Hill area was a well-used snowmobile area, making the trails all but impassable for cross country skiing.
The closing of the Camp Kawaga ski center and the decrease in snowmobiling at Squirrel Hill were two more stepping stones leading to the creation of Minocqua Winter Park.
MWP a collaborative effort
One of the sparks that finally ignited action can be traced to Dan Clausen, president of the Lakeland Ski Touring Club in 1978, who contacted Clark and recommended that the Squirrel Hill chalet become the clubhouse for the organization.
So it wasn’t a simple cut-and-dried decision made by one individual that led to the founding of Minocqua Winter Park and Nordic Ski Center – many played a valuable role in this endeavor.
“The people that were real instrumental were Mark Clark, the town planner, and Wes Doak, who was the first ski pro in the Lakeland area,” Clausen said.
“Evelyn Hartlep (Minocqua town chairman) was a big promoter of this idea. She started stirring things up in a wonderful way,” Doak said. “The story that I heard was that one of Evelyn’s main goals for her term in office was to spend a great deal of effort in improving the recreational facilities in the Lakeland area beyond just snowmobiling. I think she realized quite properly that if there was a no-snow year, the area just crashed.”
But the fresh enthusiasm for Minocqua Winter Park didn’t deter the vandalism that had been so prevalent at Squirrel Hill in the years prior.
“The Squirrel Hill ski area has again been struck by vandals. It’s becoming a broken record,” The Lakeland Times reported in a Nov. 16, 1978, editorial. “Work has been done at the hill, thanks to the Lakeland Jaycees and other concerned individuals. And then last week vandals broke down the door of the chalet and made a mess of the interior, also causing damage to some of the contents.
“We applaud those who are willing to give of their time to make this a better community ... and deplore those who have nothing better to do than ruin the efforts of others. This latest act of vandalism was completely senseless, as is all vandalism.”
Despite the setback, work continued at Squirrel Hill, and it was announced less than a month later that Squirrel Hill would be “catering to cross country skiers as well as downhillers.”
Once again, a community effort was what made Minocqua Winter Park a reality. Days were set aside for volunteer work at Squirrel Hill to prepare for downhill and cross country skiing – just like they were more than 20 years prior.
“It was a miracle that the chalet was still standing, quite frankly,” Doak said. “There was a lot of work done. The town contributed the money, and the ski club contributed the muscle and the brawn and time and effort.”
MWP’s first season
Minocqua Winter Park’s season proved to be a major success – even with poor water pressure at the chalet and an infestation of beetles.
“The ski shop was good enough to rent skis from. The ski shop had been paneled with red pine slab wood with the bark still on. Well, beetles were infested in them, and when it was real quiet you could hear ‘munch, munch, munch,’ and if you took a pole and tapped these logs – sawdust,” Doak said. “We dealt with that the first year, but we had to completely redo the interior of the ski shop.”
And there were still remnants of the original Squirrel Hill that carried over to the modernized Minocqua Winter Park.
“There used to be an old circular fireplace in the chalet, and all the people that skied at Squirrel Hill remember this: If the damper wasn’t just right, it smoked up the entire building,” Clausen said.
However, downhill skiing at the re-opened Squirrel Hill only lasted about a month, and it was enjoyed primarily by cross country skiers.
“When the ski club first got there, the lifts were still in place. We probably shouldn’t have been doing this, but at night we would fire up the engine and ride the rope tow and ski at night,” Clausen said.
“That was great fun, except one day one of the rope tow towers finally rotted off at the base and fell over,” Doak said. “I heard that it was just a miracle that it didn’t kill this one person who was skiing down the hill. It could have been awful.”
The first season Squirrel Hill was open to the public, it was a Lakeland Ski Touring Club operation.
“I was responsible for the grooming, the ski shop, the rentals and the ski school. We all worked on clearing the trails, and we had a number of artists who painted a beautiful mural around the chalet,” Doak said. “It worked out so well, Evelyn said, ‘This definitely deserves to be a town park.’”
By November 1979, that’s exactly what happened – Minocqua Winter Park was designated as a town park that would become “too popular,” needing more than just volunteer efforts to keep it running.
“What happened was all of a sudden it was an interesting destination and it was beyond the scope of volunteer work,” Clausen said. “Then the foundation was created.”
In order to maintain upkeep of the park, the Lakeland Ski Touring Foundation was created in 1981, ushering in a new era for Minocqua Winter Park.
To be continued...
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.