With lakes freezing a month later than usual and spotty January snow cover from Beloit to Bayfield, Wisconsin winter sports fans could well shake their Manhattan glasses at the weather gods and retire to the couch for a long winter's sulk. Or not.
Look at the guys ice fishing a few feet from open water on Lake Monona. Then there's the fleet of snowmobile-toting vehicles logging in hundreds of round-trip miles for a few hours of fun. And we've all seen desperate cross-country skiers out when they know there's not enough snow. All they need is a little winter. They make do.
Staff at state parks and forests seem to have picked up this embrace-what-mother-nature-throws-at-you spirit. While ample snow for candlelight skiing and snowshoeing at DNR parks and forests used to be a given, recent winters have often come up short on the white stuff. Instead of just canceling these popular seasonal events - which have developed their own following, often up to several hundred guests - DNR folks have adapted. Candlelight skiing/snowshoeing has morphed into candlelight skiing/snowshoeing/hiking, and other activities have been added to the mix.
On Jan. 26, nighttime visitors to Kettle Moraine State Forest's Southern Unit - whether skiers, hikers or snowshoe enthusiasts - will find some 450 candles illuminating the Nordic Trail, located on Highway H between Palmyra and La Grange. This 1.65-mile trail is flat, so there's no need to worry about navigating hills in the dark. Warm food and drink for sale await in the heated shelter. A bonfire at the trailhead and another at the halfway point on the trail will help keep the mood upbeat.
"Candlelight events are a great way for families to enjoy winter, especially in the evenings," says forest superintendent Paul Sandgren. "You can roast marshmallows, cook hot dogs or just warm up at the fire."
A bonus for canine owners at this event: Dogs will be allowed on the trails. It's good to know my 10-month-old chocolate Labrador, Gypsy, is invited, but I'll politely decline. Sixty pounds of barreling, unconditional love isn't everyone's idea of fun.
Plenty of other southern Wisconsin state parks and forests offer candlelight events this winter. Blue Mounds State Park, west of Mount Horeb, hosts one Feb. 2. In addition to getting out on the trails, you can learn about the park's ecology from naturalist Al Swain. Or celebrate the opening of the new shelter with the Blue Mounds State Park friends group.
My first candlelight ski, at Mirror Lake State Park nearly two decades ago, has stayed fresh in my mind. I remember coming down a gentle slope, flanked by snow-covered pine boughs and torches, and thinking it was really great to live in this state. If you've never done it, give state parks by candlelight a try.
There's no shortage of candlelight events "above the map fold" in northern Wisconsin. You probably wouldn't make the drive up north just for a candlelight event. But as tie-ins to a longer ski or snowshoe trip, or if you're already up there, they'd be a nice coda.
What's appealing about the north is its vastness, how it grabs hold of you. As you trek along the torch-lit path, think of the animals that make their homes along these wooded rivers. As you trace the lit-up contours of Lake Michigan, imagine the raft of long-tailed ducks roosting two miles out beyond the breakers.
You'll need a state parks sticker or daily pass to attend candlelight events. There's no extra fee for trail passes, and many parks and forests have snowshoes available for loan. Call ahead to make sure the event is still on.
Snow or no snow, there's something to be said about getting out on a winter night and huddling around a fire with your fellow humans. We're mammals, after all, living in a cold climate, and that should count for something.
- Jan. 26 Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit, Eagle, 6-9 p.m.
- Feb. 2 Blue Mound State Park, Blue Mounds, 6-9 p.m.
- Mirror Lake State Park, Lake Delton, 6-8 p.m.
- Kettle Moraine State Forest Northern Unit, Campbellsport, 5:30-8:30 p.m.
- Feb. 9 Lake Kegonsa State Park, Stoughton, 6-9 p.m.
- Lapham Peak Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, Delafield, 6-9 p.m.
A full list of candlelight events is at dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/getoutdoors/candlelight.html.