It’s the week before the first big snowfall of the season, and while many downhill ski resorts across Michigan struggle to open, the cross-country ski trails at Forbush Corner outside Frederic are rife with activity.
Instructors run clinics as part of the Midwest Rendezvous Ski, polished Nordic skiers skate along packed swaths of snow, and a host of newcomers and others slide and glide gingerly along groomed trails through the woods.
Despite the lack of powder in northern Michigan’s snowbelt, Forbush Corner has been up and running, thanks to a state-of-the-art snowmaking system that can pump out enough snow to create a 2 km, figure-eight loop at the 200-acre destination just north of Grayling.
“We don’t need precipitation. We don’t need snow. We just need the cold temperatures so we can make snow,” says Todd Hubbard, a Farmington resident who is secretary of the board that runs the non-profit ski center. Hubbard spends most winter weekends at Forbush, helping with grooming and other tasks.
Forbush Corner is one of just three cross-country ski areas in Michigan with some snow-making ability and among a growing number across the country. Forbush makes its snow trail side, with snow sticks planted along the trail to disperse the white stuff. The other Michigan destinations are Cross-Country Ski Headquarters in Roscommon and Huron Meadows Metropark near Brighton. Forbush also boasts the largest fleet of Nordic-only grooming equipment in the Midwest.
Making snow is becoming more common at cross-country ski areas across the country, driven, in part, by changing weather patterns.
“It’s not so unique anymore. It’s becoming more common to have snowmaking,” says Reese Brown of the Vermont-based Cross Country Ski Areas Association. “It’s becoming increasingly important. As climate change becomes more prevalent, the number of days with natural snow is dwindling.”
Setting up a snowmaking operation is an expensive endeavor. Many ski areas rely primarily on revenue from ticket sales (the average ticket price is $25-$30) to cover costs. It helps if ski centers have other revenue streams, such as lessons, food and retail. Many ski areas have small snow-making systems, enough to create a 1 km loop.
“If you can get people out there skiing in circles, that’s a great thing,” Brown says.
Forbush Corner’s snow-making system came not from necessity but from the generosity of a long-time visitor. Frank Nizio, an avid cross-country skier from southeast Michigan, gifted Forbush Corner $1.3 million for the system.
“He had been up in Munising and was stuck in a Holiday Inn because he couldn’t go out and ski,” recalls Ann Wagar, who is treasurer of the Forbush board and handles a host of duties that include shop management and off-season trail work. “He said, ‘If I give you this money, will you put in snow-making equipment? He wanted to be able to ski.”
Forbush Corner is unique in other ways as well. It’s believed to be the only non-profit cross-country ski center in Michigan. Other destinations are either part of commercially owned resorts, privately held or part of a public park system.
Just east of Interstate 75 in Crawford County, Forbush Corner is home to more than 25 km of trails, ranging from beginner to advanced, traversing the entire property. Trails feature both deep tracks and skating lanes. The network connects to the trails at Hartwick Pines State Park, enabling skiers to trek through old white pines.
Forbush also has snowshoe trails. The touring center includes a ski shop and warming areas and offers lessons and rentals.
“A lot of people don’t know we exist,” says Wagar, who is one of the original directors. She has been skiing at Forbush since 1995. “People are always surprised by the amount and quality of trails we have.”
Forbush Corner was privately owned until after the passing of its founder, Dr. David Forbush, a pioneer in the cross-country ski industry. Forbush developed the center on a farmstead that once belonged to his great-grandparents and that was once part of one of the largest orchards east of the Mississippi, one that stretched beyond I-75 to the west. Old apple trees still stand at Forbush.
Dr. Forbush, known for developing innovative grooming techniques and specialized equipment for the new skating style of skiing, designed the network of trails, did the labor-intensive work to build the trails, and converted the old farmhouse into a ski shop. He maintained and groomed the trails.
“He ran Forbush by himself – he had some volunteers,” Hubbard says. “It was pretty amazing what he was able to get done. We’re pretty busy and have a lot of volunteers to help out. He designed and built the trails and planted lots of jack pine and white pine. It’s amazing what he accomplished.”
Before his passing, Forbush had made plans for the future of the cross-country destination. The property was turned over to a trust overseen by five friends – the directors – all of whom had worked with him at the center and would keep his vision intact. Forbush Corner became a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2019.
The snow-making equipment was purchased that same year from Snow Machines Inc. in Midland. The digging of a pond and installation of the equipment was done over the summer and the system was up and running in time for the winter season.
Alan Hough is one of the certified instructors at Forbush. He travels regularly to Forbush from Grove City, Pa., throughout the winter, so impressed is he with the facility and its operations.
"I'm here just about every weekend," says Hough, a retired industrial arts and computer teacher. "It's a beautiful area. There's the niceness of having snow. The trails are consistently groomed and it's really second to none. There are times other places are just as nice, but you can count on conditions here."
Recently, the touring center was expanded by 80 acres, thanks to the success of a capital campaign. Forbush resurrected some of the old trails that were on that tract, which had been leased by Forbush at one time and hadn’t been used in a couple of decades. The campaign also helped pay off the purchase of a second groomer.
What’s ahead? Forbush Corner has big projects on the drawing board.
They include creating a biathlon practice range for the Olympic winter sport, which combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. It would be the only range of its type in Michigan; Forbush would build a shooting range, expand snow-making abilities and create an asphalt pathway for summer ski training.
Alan Hough is one of the certified ski instructors at Forbush.
Forbush also is working on a partnership with a local nonprofit mountain bike association to create several miles of mountain bike trails, which would be separate from cross-country ski paths. The hope is project funding will come through matching grants.
“All of our profits are going to make Forbush better,” Hubbard says. “We really just like to ski and we’re happy to host other people and make everyone’s enjoyment level at a high level.”
That groundwork for that, he notes, was established by Dr. Forbush.
“He was always very friendly, very welcoming and I think a lot of people were attracted to that. People came back to ski every year and Dave would remember them, talk to them. He was super welcoming … that’s kind of the vibe that started it. Our mantra is, ‘What would Dave do here?’ We’re continuing his legacy here and we’re building up what he established.”