Dean Hall/Lakeland Times 
This photo from March 2017 shows a then one-and-a-half-year-old Finn Fashingbauer learning to cross-country ski with his parents Stacey and Zeke Fashingbauer at Minocqua Winter Park. Zeke Fashingbauer works at the Minocqua Winter Park ski shop and is the youngest person to sit on the Lakeland Ski Touring Foundation Board.
Dean Hall/Lakeland Times
This photo from March 2017 shows a then one-and-a-half-year-old Finn Fashingbauer learning to cross-country ski with his parents Stacey and Zeke Fashingbauer at Minocqua Winter Park. Zeke Fashingbauer works at the Minocqua Winter Park ski shop and is the youngest person to sit on the Lakeland Ski Touring Foundation Board.
If you live in the north you better find some way to enjoy the winter season,” said Dr. David Kozeluh, a Lakeland Ski Touring Foundation (LSTF) board member and avid cross-country skier. “I think that if you combine the beauty of the trails, the joy and the rhythm of cross-country skiing — it’s kind of hard to describe, but it’s special.”

From the beginning, LSTF sought to promote the passion for this special sport through Nordic picnics and races, first at what is now the Madeline and Raven ski trails and Camp Kawaga, before moving them to Minocqua Winter Park (MWP).  

“We’ve held a race every year,” said Wes Doak, one of the founding members of Lakeland Ski Touring Club. “Its name has changed, but it has remained the same adventure.”

Eric Wuennenberg, the manager of the park from 1979 to 1984, remembers one such adventure that took place during his last season working at the park. 

“We landed this big race, the USSA Central Division Championships (and) I was starting to get sick,” he recalled.

Wuennenberg went home and Dave Skonzert, one of the original groomers of MWP, went out to groom the racecourse. 

“It was one of those nights where it had been warm so you knew you had to wait a certain amount of time,” Wuennenberg said. “Poor Dave hit it wrong and before he could get the track set, the now flat groomed surface froze up so he couldn’t get a track in. So everybody showed up the next morning (and) there was no track in this championship course. So it became the first freestyle race, I think, in the Midwest by necessity.”

That evening Wuennenberg was still sick and a snowstorm was in the forecast for the second day of the race. 

“We were again trying to think ahead … it (didn’t) make sense to do grooming because it’s going to get covered by snow, (but) the guys said, ‘We don’t believe you, you screwed it up yesterday so you’re going to do it,’” Wuennenberg said. “So Dave went out and groomed a beautiful set of tracks and the next morning there was eight inches of snow on it.”

To make matters worse, Wuennenberg said, overnight someone had broken into the pop machine they had been using as a safe and stole around $1,000.

“That was an interesting weekend,” Wuennenberg remembered. “Races were always a point of stress, but at the same time we did make a reputation of usually being able to put together a really great racecourse there.”

Land acquisitions

Perhaps one of the biggest people to thank in the success of MWP isn’t a person at all, but, oddly enough, a company. It was Nekoosa Paper Company that initially gave Squirrel Hill Corporation permission to run a ski hill on 40 acres of its land back in 1956, eventually donating that property to the town. It was also Nekoosa that hired a forest supervisor, John Baer, whose wife just happened to love cross-country skiing.   

“He was really behind cross-country skiing,” Doak said. “He even loaned us heavy equipment to bulldoze parts of the ski trails out there ... plus an operator. They installed gates to keep out cars in the summertime. They just went overboard to help. If it had been some other paper company to start with we would’ve probably been dead in the water.”

After Nekoosa was bought, parts of the land were sold off in chunks to developers and private individuals.

“Minocqua Winter Park over the years has done a fantastic job of getting trail easements and permissions to establish trails,” Doak said. 

One of the key players in communicating with area landowners has been Kozeluh. 

“It’s always been my passion to try and figure out ways to protect that land, because really the town owns 40 acres around the chalet, and then all the land around it is owned by corporate individuals and government entities … and we always feared that some land owner some day would say, ‘Gee, I really don’t want a ski trail on this property,’ and if it was in a particularly critical area, it could really disrupt the trail system,” Kozeluh said. 

Kozeluh and other members of the foundation have worked for years to maintain relations with the landowners in order to keep the trail system intact. 

“We’ve never lost a trail because of a landowner conflict,” Kozeluh said. 

A major boon came to the park in 2010, when Ken and Carolyn Aldridge, an Illinois-based couple and devoted cross-country enthusiasts, bought 3,195 acres of land slated for golf course development and donated it to the park. 

Additionally, last year, with the help of a stewardship grant from the state, LSTF bought 133 acres, along with another 88 acres that LSTF owns outright. 

Zeke Fashingbauer, who grew up skiing at MWP and now works at the ski shop, and is the youngest person to sit on the LSTF board, said “that was kind of the first step in ... a new era of Winter Park.” 

“We’ve transitioned now from just being an organization that designs and maintains ski trails to an organization that is preserving lands for public recreation all year, so that’s pretty exciting,” he said.

“Most organizations, especially in Nordic, are so hand to mouth, being able to have control of that kind of property with that kind of certainty is really rare,” Wuennenberg said. 

In 2015 the Town of Minocqua commissioned a study to determine possible year-round purposes for the park.

“We have done some successful summer events,” Fashingbauer said. “We do the Muggy Buggy running race, which is Fourth of July every year. We’ve done bike races out there in the past, we’ve had these competitive events and I think what we’re looking to branch into is more non-competitive events.”

Previously, the land use agreements on private land started Dec. 1 and ran through March 31. 

“We’re moving now into a place where we have control of more of the land and we can say when we want to use it,” Fashingbauer said.

Ability to use the park year-round would also assist in funding to rebuild or renovate the chalet, a development that most agree is sorely needed. 

“There are a lot of log jams like the ticket counter,” Doak said. “The main room and the dining room in the chalet are way too small for the crowds that we normally get … Dan (Clausen, a founding member of the Lakeland Ski Touring Club and owner of the ski shop at MWP) has to operate the ski shop out of probably one-fifth the retail space that a normal retail space would minimally need to conduct a business, so that’s a huge constraint.”

For the meantime, though, MWP will make due with what they have and remain thankful for the crowds. 

A changing climate

When discussing the future of cross-country skiing, it’s hard not to acknowledge climate change. 

“In the ’90s, winter stopped as we knew it,” Wuennenberg said, citing increasingly fewer areas of consistently below-freezing temperatures. “We’re going to have to really rethink how we treat winter and how we play in it.”

Clausen, who has spent a great deal of his career teaching cross-country skiing in Australia and skiing all over the world, concurs. 

“I think we live in a good place for the next decade or so … (but) skiers will have to change their mind set,” he said. “It used to be here that people didn’t ski unless it was (perfect) conditions … people are going to have to change their patterns ... There’s still snow, it’s still white, it’s still slippery. There’s no such thing as bad snow. There’s only bad skiers.”

In terms of snowmaking as a potential solution, Wuennenberg is skeptical. 

“I think we’re seeing advances in snowmaking which are going to make a difference, but you’re still not going to be able to save cross-country skiing with snowmaking,” Clausen said. “It’s never going to be so cheap that it becomes the preferred alternative.”

In order to fund snowmaking at MWP, many look to the popular tubing run. 

“Nordic skiing has a very hard time paying for itself,” Clausen said. 

At the cross-country ski center he worked at in Australia, they would make snow for the tubing run first to jump-start revenue.

“Snow making in Nordic skiing is very, very, expensive, but it could pay off. If we had another six inches of man-made snow under this,” he said, glancing out the window at a late December dusting, “it wouldn’t be so iffy.”

‘A special place’

Despite fears of the shortening of the snow season, members are optimistic about the future of MWP.

“It’s a really exciting time for the park because we have a lot more going on than we ever had in our history,” Fashingbauer said. “We have more participation with local families and local youth and we’re property owners, we have some kind of permanent structure in place for our trail system ... and we’ve got a lot of support from the town of Minocqua.”

Wuennenberg believes that, weather permitting, the sport is poised to see another growth spurt.

“The Boomers are getting older, we can’t downhill anymore,” he said. “I think you’re starting see more kids doing it because their grandparents want to take them out.”

Doak agreed, pointing to the popularity of the Lakeland Nordic Ski Team and the Wolves and Pups Youth Program as promising signs.

“There are some eight-year-old kids that I can’t keep up with,” he said with a laugh.  

Excited about the future, the early members of LSTF remain proud of their past. 

“It’s amazing how many of those original founders are still around and I think that’s been one of things that’s helped keep everything going, especially in the rough parts, either with snow or when the building was falling apart or the water stopped,” Wuennenberg said. “People had enough experience working together and trusting each other that even when things got really weird people were able to figure out a way to keep working together.” 

Kozeluh likens the MWP chalet to the equivalent of the corner bar in the neighborhood, “where you walk in and … any day of the week, any time of the day there’s going to be someone in there that I want to talk to and share a story with.”

“That makes it a very special place,” he said. 

Wuennenberg marvels at the serendipity of it all. 

“To go from a facility that was so run down that nobody thought it was worth anything, ‘so let the skiers have it,’ was probably the smartest thing that could’ve been done, because the skiers made it possible there,” he said.

Doak heads up the Minocqua Winter Park History Committee. They are currently collecting information regarding the development of the ski trails at Minocqua Winter Park from 1978-1989, looking, in particular, for a copy of a trail map from the 1978-1979 season. Those who would like to contribute a piece of history are asked to contact Wes Doak at