How could anyone find skiing or snowshoeing across the frozen ice of Lake Superior at night to be enticing? Apparently, a lot of people do!
Imagine yourself at the start line. You are surrounded by throngs of people on skis and snowshoes, some in silly costumes. You see people of all ages, many of them families with youngsters. Clearly this is not a highly competitive ski race, although those at the front might think otherwise. The sun has set, darkness is descending as well as the temperature, and there is a palpable energy in the crowd. Following the national anthem, and an energetic “Go!” you set off.
Where are you? It’s Book Across the Bay, an annual cross-country ski and snowshoe race on a 10k trail groomed across Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior. What started as just a crazy idea in 1996 with 350 participants has grown into an annual event that drew nearly 4,000 people this year. The hallmark of this race is that it is lit by about 1,000 ice luminaries, with bonfires every kilometer.
We were part of the excitement last Saturday night for our third year in a row. We started off by skiing to the starting line, as the sun was setting. Preparations were in full swing, with luminaries being lit, wood for the bonfires in piles, and pine trees marking the 1k intervals. Hearty volunteers were cheerfully setting up tents and doing some last minute snow shoveling out on the ice.
We arrived at the starting point in Ashland just 10 minutes before the start of the race – perfect timing, as the temperature was dipping into the single digits under a clear sky. Dusk quickly transformed into darkness as we set off with all the other skiers. Once the crowds thinned out, silence reigned with only the swish of our skis or the flop of snowshoes to alert us of other people nearby. Skiing under brilliant stars with the string of candlelight stretching across the bay was intoxicating. The snow cover was excellent and the groomers had done a marvelous job of preparing the trail. Still, in the dim light one had to take the surface on faith and navigate carefully over the few inevitable rough icy spots along the way.
We could see each kilometer mark off in the distance, lit by a blazing bonfire. Some sponsors created a theme, including trees with Christmas lights. My favorite is always the one by the huge offshore rock at 8k, lit with flaming tiki lamps alongside the cliffs at the shoreline. This year there was an added feature – a fire-breathing dragon carved out of snow, belching real fireballs!
The finale in Washburn includes fireworks, and this year they began before we reached the finish line. What a festive atmosphere, to ski the final kilometer punctuated by brilliant bursts of light and color high in the sky! From there it was a quick jaunt up the landing to shed our skis and warm ourselves by the enormous bonfire on shore. A huge warm tent awaited us with bowls of hot chili and a band providing music for the after-party.
Who could resist such ambiance? Not us – we can’t wait to do it again next year.
Many thanks to my husband, Rich (aka the NorthStar Nerd), for the photos.