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Winter 2002: North Dakota's Winter Playground

Posted by Candi Helseth 10/20/2016 11:23:27 AM

Tired of burying yourself in a good book for your winter adventure? Then head to north central North Dakota where winter recreational opportunities abound.

Whether your desire is to reflectively enjoy the crisp outdoors with a quiet cross-country ski trip across a pristine landscape, or to stretch your physical abilities taking wild snowmobile rides or doing tricky snowboarding jumps, you’ll find the glistening snow, towering trees and abundance of wildlife in the greater Bottineau area the perfect backdrop.

Age and expertise are irrelevant to having a good experience. We’ve had people from three years old up into their senior years take our beginners skiing lessons says Bottineau Winter Park general manager Brad Knudson. We have people in their 80s who are still skiing here.

Recreational choices are numerous. Downhill and cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, sledding, skating and primitive camping beckon visitors. In addition to the communities of Bottineau and Dunseith, the area includes the Turtle Mountains, International Peace Garden, Lake Metigoshe State Park and several surrounding lakes as well as recreational sites on the Canadian side of the border.

When brothers Steve and Mike Fogarty, Minot, took 16 high school students on a weekend trip last winter, several of the students had never even been on skis.

We cross-country skied into one of the cabins up there and stayed overnight said Mike. Most of them picked up skiing very quickly. Winter camping was also new to most of these kids. It was a memorable experience and we all had a really good time.

The area boasts the most naturally wooded terrain in North Dakota, according to Dean Ihla, director of the Greater Bottineau Area Chamber of Commerce Ð the group that markets the region as The state’s only four seasons recreational area.

We have an ideal location for winter recreation Ihla said. Our elevation and northern location make snow last longer here than elsewhere in the state. One of our biggest challenges is getting people to use us when there is no snow in their area because they assume there’s none here. Our winter recreation is obviously dependent on what kind of winter we’re having. Two years ago when we hardly had any snow our numbers were really down. Last year was a very good year for us.

Although no official statistics exist, Ihla estimates snowmobiling draws the most winter tourists.

About 250 miles of groomed snowmobile trails exist in the Turtle Mountain area, according to Loren Johnson, president of the Roaring ‘20s Snowmobile Club and the Peace Garden Trail Association. These trails link to other groomed sites and altogether there’s about 1,000 miles of trails. There’s no charge to use the North Dakota trails, but there is a small charge in Canada.

A Bottineau native who began snowmobiling 30 years ago, Johnson asserts that snowmobiling in the Turtle Mountains is a unique experience.

Families enjoy it because it’s a lot warmer to ride in the hills than on the prairie he elaborated. We have more snow here, and the snow stays softer so you can ride nice, smooth trails instead of getting beat to death. We have the only heavily wooded trails in the state. You’d have to have your eyes closed not to see wildlife.

Warming huts provide a respite. Many families make a day of it, cooking campfire meals on wood stoves in the huts.

The Peace Garden Trail Association maintains the trails and provides trail maps marked with sites of interest. Trails run through the International Peace Garden, by Lake Metigoshe and near other points of interest. Snowmobilers mix with downhill skiers when they stop at the Bottineau Winter Park Chalet to sip hot chocolate and watch the skiers in action.

Bottineau Winter Park, which entertained about 10,000 downhill skiers and snowboarders last year, has nine slopes and a terrain park. A triple chair lift was added in the winter 1999 season and the number of season ticket holders doubled, said Knudson.

This year a groomed hill with chair lift for tubing and a web site that lists daily weather conditions has been added.

We were probably one of the first parks to encourage snowboarders said Knudson. We had a small terrain park but as usage grew, we expanded it and both skiers and snowboarders use it a lot now. The terrain park has several jump areas that allow snowboarders and skiers to increase their airtime. I call it a playground for skiers and snowboarders to improve their skills.

Free lessons are offered for beginners and a ski school for novice and advanced skiers. Since we’re a public facility, part of our purpose is to help people learn to ski or snowboard and enjoy it without fear said Knudson, who learned to ski at the Winter Park when he was on a high school field trip.

A modern snowmaking system assures that downhill skiing is possible even when weather conditions don’t cooperate. The Chalet, with restaurant, offers rest and sustenance for the tired and hungry.

Cross-country skiing offers a different type of experience. Candice Getzlaff, who lives year-round at Lake Metigoshe, cross-country skis five-to-six miles every day at Lake Metigoshe State Park. Eleven miles of wooded, groomed ski trails provide a peaceful opportunity to enjoy the park’s natural habitats, among them abundant wildlife and some rare species such as bobcat, lynx, and mountain lion.

I see wildlife pretty regularly when I ski there, mostly rabbits, deer and moose said Getzlaff. I'd just as soon not see anything bigger than moose.

Lake Metigoshe State Park also has groomed hills for tobogganing where sledders can zoom downhill onto the lake. For those who prefer to glide around on skates, there is an outdoor ice skating rink. Again, physical needs are met with strategically placed warming huts.

The Fogarty group isn't alone in enjoying winter camping. Park ranger Bill Demming said the park has three heated cabins for rent. A lot of people enjoy coming in the winter just to get away from it all. It's very quiet and peaceful, and the cabins are equipped with kitchenettes. There’s no TV or telephones, and they can play cards, visit and just clean their minds out.

We are a year-round operation, and that’s a message we need to get out more he added. There’s something to do here all four seasons. We'd like to see even greater usage of our facilities in the fall and winter.

Lake Metigoshe and several other area lakes draw ice fishers, noted Ihla. Northern pike, walleye and perch can be found in the lakes.

Special events also attract many people to the area, Ihla said. For example, Bottineau has been the site of the annual Special Olympics State Winter Games for nearly 20 years. The games include downhill and cross-country skiing, speed and figure skating, snowshoeing, team handball and alpine sports.

Bottineau High School and Minot State University-Bottineau both have ice hockey teams and the ice rinks are open at established times for public skating. Snowmobile races, ski races and other winter activities attract those who like to compete. We have a lot to offer, and a lot of our winter activities are free or have nominal charges Ihla said. We provide a reasonably priced winter vacation opportunity.

Tourism now ranks second to agriculture in the economy, Ihla added, and options for restaurants and accommodations continue to increase. Lodging choices range from full-service hotels to group dormitories to bed and breakfast facilities.

Winter vacationers can bring their own equipment or rent equipment at most facilities. Currently, no facility rents snowmobiles. For more information, contact the Greater Bottineau Area Chamber of Commerce at 800-735-6932.

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