US ski touring turns resort winter doldrums toward economic upswing

A mellow new industry has interrupted the winter hibernation of some resort owners across the northy ier of the United States. Once limited to a seasonal clientele of fishermen, hunters, and blueberry pickers, these lodge operators have discovered the economic potential of cross-country skiing.

In the past 12 years, says the US Ski Association, the number of cross-country skiers has risen from an estimated 1,000 in 1970 to more than 4 million today. While many of these skiers are content to limit their kicking and gliding to city parks and golf courses, a growing number spend winter holidays and long weekends at cross-country inns, hostels, and ranches.

For some two dozen resort owners in Minnesota alone, the additional income has come just in time. The faltering national economy and high energy costs have hurt tourism. Many families can no longer afford to pack up the station wagon and spend a week relaxing at the lake or hiking in the woods up north.

Conversely, cross-country skiing tends to interest people who, despite challenging economic times, can still afford to venture out. Says Dave Tuttle, owner of the Bearskin Lodge on Minnesota's Gunflint Trail north of Lake Superior: ''Cross-countray skiers seem to be mostly professional people, a higher-educated group. If you offer them the services they want, they're going to spend money.''

For the really big spenders, there are such big lodges as Telemark at Cable, Wis., which sponsors the annual 34-mile Birkebeiner Race. A record 6,400 skiers participated this year, taking advantage of Telemark's restaurants, ski shops, chalet, indoor pool, indoor tennis courts, saunas, whirlpool, and day-care center. Other winter activities sponsored by the lodge are snowmobiling, tobogganing, downhill skiing, showshoeing, tubing, skating, ice fishing, sledding, sleigh rides, hayrides, and camping.

A large investment lies vulnerable to large losses, though, and Telemark owner Tony Wise speot much of 1981 blaming two snow-free winters for nearly $8 million in debts.

Less lavish and more representative of small-scale family-owned cross-country ski resorts is Maplelag, a maple syrup farm near Callaway, Minn. Here cross-country skiers find old log cabins with outdoor privies and bunkhouses heated with wood stoves. Along with the deal come home-cooked meals.

This winter a group of Nebraska students spent their midterm break at Maplelag. ''They've been going to Colorado for the past 12 years,'' says co-owner Mary Richards. ''But the cost is getting so high in Colorado that it's hard for students on limited budgets.''

A weekend package of two nights and six meals runs $59 per adult. Lodging only is $12 per night. Included in the weekend package are saunas, 18 miles of groomed trails, and ski lessons.

''I do think we're getting more affluent people,'' adds Mrs. Richards. ''There is more status in it now, you can see it in the clothing. Before they could wear blue jeans, now they're coming in knickers.''

A typical group at Maplelag might comprise teachers, a judge, a farmer, a county attorney, and young working singles. ''Lots of times it's couples who get their mothers or mothers-in-law to take care of the kids while they go away for a weekend,'' she says.

The additional investment for resort owners hoping to cash in on cross-country skiing comes primarily in trail groomers (around $3,000 each), winterizing cabins, installing saunas (or showers in rooms, although Mrs. Richards says that saunas are more popular), and higher heating bills.

Many resort owners apparently find the investment worthwhile. ''I would say in the state of Wisconsin there are more and more cross-country ski lodges cropping up each year,'' says Jim Burzette of Telemark Lodge. He adds that this past winter's business was split nearly evenly, for the first time, between downhill and cross-country skiers.

''And another thing that's happening -- a lot of downhill ski areas are offering cross-country, too,'' Mr. Burzette says.

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