WRITER | RACHEL WHITE
Mr. Ski – Founder of Michigan’s Cross Country Sports
As a young man growing up on a farm in Calumet in the 1930s, Leonard Oikarinen would strap on a pair of skis to get into town during the long Upper Peninsula winters. Back in those days, cross-country skiing was not the popular pastime it is now. While the U.P.’s Finnish population like Oikarinen were skiers, there was nowhere to get new skis and no trails were available. As he got older, Oikarinen set out to change that.
Oikarinen started out in the television business –– he had a store that sold and serviced TVs. But in 1962, he found a cross-country ski distributor in Ontario, drove up there, and bought some skis to sell in his television shop. “The first year he probably sold about seven pairs of skis,” says his son Rick Oikarinen, who took over the business with his wife Lorri in 1979. “It just grew from there.” Thus began the oldest cross-
country ski shop in the Midwest, and from what Rick can gather, the second oldest in the United States.
Cross-country skiing has caught on in a big way. It’s a great workout, using almost every muscle group in your body. There’s a low risk of injury so people of all ages can join the fun, and while it’s easy to learn, it takes a lifetime to master, so there’s always something new around every bend on the trail. Not to mention the beautiful scenery along the way.
They called Leonard “Mr. Ski,” and it’s easy to see why. In 1964 his passion led him to create the first ski club in the area. In a town with a population of 776, that club now has over 500 members. In 1976 at age 59, Leonard skied 315 miles –– not on trails –– from Ironwood to Sault Ste. Marie to spread the word about cross-country skiing. He was thrilled when his story was picked up by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. “Just think how many more people will start skiing,” Rick recalls him saying.
Rick and Lorri have continued Leonard’s legacy. They expanded into bicycles so the people of Calumet can stay active and hit the trails in the summer as well. “I just enjoy being a part of this community,” Rick says. “Talking to the customers is my favorite. I’m known for telling stories, but if my dad was around I wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise.” Cross Country Sports is the largest ski shop and the largest bike shop in the Keweenaw Peninsula.
There’s nothing more peaceful than gliding silently through the woods, snowflakes falling softly, dappled sunlight on the fresh snow and crisp air, with the only sounds coming from wildlife crossing your path. If you’d like to get in on the action, head up to Calumet. Swedetown trails are one mile from the store and Cross Country Sports rents anything you could ever need to hit the trail: classic skis, skate skis, hok skis, fat bikes, and snowshoes during winter and mountain bikes and road bikes in the summer. Mr. Ski would be thrilled. To learn more, visit CrossCountrySports.com.
Cross Country Sports
507 Oak Street Calumet, MI
Cross-Country Trails in Michigan
With all of the snow we get here in MIchigan, along with the multitudes of forests, breathtaking vistas and some magnificent trail systems, it makes sense that we have some great cross-country ski trails. It’s one of the best ways to enjoy the serene beauty of Michigan in the winter. Here are some of our favorites:
- • If you think the fun ends when the snow flies on Mackinac Island, think again. The east side of the island is full of lakeside cross-country trails through historic and natural monuments, with monthly lantern-lit night skis through the winter.
- • With more than 200 inches of snow each year, Porcupine Mountains State Park has trails offering views of Lake Superior and abundant wildlife. All 90 miles of trails are available for Nordic skiing.
- • Crystal Mountain in Benzie County is a favorite cross-country ski trail system, with well-groomed trails, lessons available and four kilometers of trail lit for night skiing.
- • Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids offers a wildlife care program on its 143 acres of nature areas.
- • Ironwood, in the Keweenaw Peninsula, has one of the best trails in the state. ABR Trails has over 40 miles of trails for you to enjoy, and Men’s Journal rated it one of the best in the country.
- • Of course, we can’t forget “Mr. Ski’s” own trail, the Swedetown trail system, with 16 miles of groomed trails over rolling woods for cross-country fun.
Check out Michigan.org for more ideas.