Here's what you need to know about cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in Macomb County

Dennis Damaske of Harrison Township has a passion for cross-country skiing that stretches back decades. 

The retired food logistics manager bought his first pair of cross-country skis more than 50 years ago, after being introduced to the pastime by a friend from Northern Michigan University. And the years since have only increased his appreciation forDennis Damaske (Dennis Damaske photo) it.

"If I could cross-country ski 350 days a year, I would do it," says Damaske. "It's great exercise. It's incredibly peaceful. I just love being outside."

Cross-country skiing, also known as nordic skiing, is a form of skiing that involves traveling around on relatively flat, snow-covered terrain. Unlike downhill skiing, which makes use of gravity, cross-country skiers rely on their own movement aided by ski poles to get around. 

There are two main styles of cross-country skiing. The classic form makes use of a striding motion to get around and depends on a special "fish-scale" texture on the skis to do so. Skate skiing relies on a side-to-side gliding motion, similar to ice-skating,and makes use of specialized skis that tend to be shorter and smoother. 

Damaske is a skate skier. He enjoys skiing on frozen lakes and marshland when he gets the opportunity. But he cautions that the ice needs to be thick enough to do that safely. He also feels it's important to wait for a substantial amount of snow to cover the ground before setting out on a cross-country ski excursion.

"You need to have enough to cover the sticks and the rocks and have an inch or two of snow over the top of it," says Damaske. "Otherwise you do damage to your skis."

Weather permitting, the 69-year-old likes going for a ski whenever he can. And while he enjoys going up north, he also likes taking his skis out closer to home. Some of his favorite Macomb County spots include W.C. Wetzel State Recreation Area, which is out in the New Haven Area, and the local Metroparks.

Damaske is especially fond of a practice called skijoring that involves being pulled by an animal or motor vehicle. In his case, he goes out with a canine companion.

"The dog runs in front of me while I ski," he says. "We'll go out for an hour-and-a-half, two hours. The dog loves it. If you have the right dog, it's such a great way to ski."

Stony Creek Metropark has special groomed trails for cross-country skiing. (Huron-Clinton Metroparks photo)

Cross-country skiing at the Metroparks

When winter is generous with its snowfall, Macomb County is a great place for activities like cross-country skiing. Some of the best opportunities are at the county's Metroparks, particularly Stony Creek, which offers special trails for enthusiasts, as well as spaces for other winter fun like sledding and ice skating.

"Our cross-country ski trails at Stony Creek are groomed, meaning that they have grooves for traditional style cross-country skiing and then a smooth surface for skate-style skiing as well. So you don't necessarily have to blaze your own trail down at Stony Creek, they are groomed for you." 

Stony Creek has over 13 miles of trail for cross-country skiers, which are spread out into multiple trails of varying levels of difficulty; some are relatively flat whileWolcott Mill Metropark (Huron-Clinton Metroparks photo) others are hilly enough to be more of a challenge for experienced skiers. The trails are marked and mapped and can be viewed online. In addition to the trails themselves, Stony Creek also features a rental center where visitors can rent ski equipment. So it's a great place for people to get acquainted with the pastime. Interested park-goers, however, should be sure to check Stony Creek's website, to check whether conditions are right for skiing and see if the rental center is open. It's also worth noting that  

Stony Creek also features single-track mountain bike trails, which can be used for fat-tire bikes in the winter, as well as hiking trails, which can be used by hikers and snowshoers. That said, these users are asked to stay on their appropriate trails, so as not to ruin the groomed trail experience for other park-goers. 

Lake St. Clair Metropark also has specialized cross-country ski trails, though they are less extensive than Stony Creek, only 2.5 miles in total. Although Wolcott Mill doesn't have any designated cross country ski trails, skiing there is permitted as long as there is adequate snowfall.

For those interested in cross-country skiing for the first time, Mauter heartily recommends renting equipment from Stony Creek, but she also has some safety tips.  

"You may underestimate how much physical activity cross-country skiing actually takes," she says. "It is a workout, because you are doing a trail experience where you are engaging multiple muscles in your body. So dress in layers, and remember to put on hats and gloves and bring a water bottle."

A wintry day at River Bends Park in Shelby Township. (David Lewinski photo)Snow-shoeing at River Bends Park

River Bends Park in Shelby Township is another excellent place to engage in winter fun activities. While there aren't any groomed cross-country ski trails there, Elizabeth Schultz, nature center coordinator for Shelby Township, has found the 850-acre park still attracts enthusiasts.
"It's a pretty popular activity," she says. "There are paved areas and hills. And natural glacial eskers that create the beautiful ups and downs on our trails."

Perhaps more than cross-country skiing, though, visitors are big fans of snowshoeing at the park. Schultz says snowshoe rentals were added to the park's nature center last year.

"They were a huge hit," she says. "We've actually expanded the program now where schools can start booking them and doing field trips. focused on snowshoeing."

While Schultz does want people to enjoy themselves at River Bends and other Shelby Township parks this season, she does have a few tips visitors should keep in mind. 

"We want to respect the trails this time of year. It may look like plants are dead, but they're just resting. Also let people know where you are when you're out, especially in case you get injured while you're hiking or cross country skiing."

The Macomb Parks & Trails series seeks to capture the story of the outdoor recreation, greenspace, placemaking, and emerging outdoor assets that are shaping Macomb County's future. It's made possible with funding from Macomb County.
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Read more articles by David Sands.