A day down the tubes (all in fun)



January 19, 2003|By CANDUS THOMSON

McHENRY - Wisp is such a dainty name for a ski area that can plumb tucker you out.

The vertical drop from summit to base at the Garrett County resort is just 610 feet - a mere dip in the terrain if you're used to the Adirondack's Whiteface Mountain or the slopes of the Rockies.

But that's not the point. Wisp lets a weekend warrior sample downhill and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snow biking, tubing and snowboarding without wasting time in the family Suburban Assault Vehicle driving from place to place.

If you're really intense, you can throw in a little ice fishing on Deep Creek Lake, too.

Wisp was born in 1955 as a simple ski area. As outdoor activities have grown, so has the resort.

The four local folks who bought Wisp Ski and Golf Resort in June 2001 have invested $5 million in better snowmaking and grooming machines for the 22 trails, a bigger lodge and a larger equipment rental department. It has Willy Wisp, a day-care center run by Garrett College students that offers skiing lessons, meals and naps. A heated "magic carpet" tow gives younger kids a lift to their ski area.

The 160 snowmaking machines kick on every night, pumping out 2,857 cubic feet of fluffy flakes a minute. How much snow is that?

"Enough to call off school," says Wisp's master snowman, Bob Yaste, who monitors the action on a bank of touch screen computers.

Wisp will never compete for the gold medal in nightlife with the Sundance crowd in Park City, Utah, and it's not meant to, says Paula Yudelevit, Wisp marketing director.

"This is a family destination, where you come to learn and then, hopefully stay," she says. "Nationally, 85 percent of first-time skiers never repeat. We're trying to get that number down by taking away the surprises and the anxieties."

Wisp's Web site - www.skiwisp.com - answers a gazillion questions. And don't worry about gear because Wisp rents just about everything, from snowshoes for $16 a day to a helmet for $5.

Here's an atypical day - the proverbial six-pack of fun - as performed by an outdoors professional. (Do not try this at home. Performed on a closed course. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.):

Squeeze into college-era ski pants that have assumed the characteristics of a blood pressure cuff wielded by Nurse Ratched. Make mental note at how much your eyes resemble Marty Feldman's.

Go to buy a $35 midweek lift ticket and remember that your money is tucked in a change purse inside those ski pants. Retire to the ladies room for a session with the Jaws of Life.

Emerge triumphant with extricated money held high and circulation briefly restored.

Sidestep the lift called Squirrel Cage because you wouldn't want it to live up to its name. Sidle over to the nearby Peak Chair and ride to the top of Bear Paw run, chosen because it sounds so cute and cuddly.

Begin the first descent of the day and remember the old saying, "Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you." Then recall that you haven't skied in more than 15 years. Vow to be a better person if you live.

Pinwheel from Bear Paw onto the easier Wisp Trail and pray like you've never prayed before. Abandon all hope of looking dignified.

Reach the bottom in one piece. Grin.

Onto snow tubing, a short walk from the bottom of the ski run. Whip out the $14 adult ticket purchased in advance for a two-hour session at Bear Claw Snow Tubing Park. Uh-oh. There's that bear thing again.

But wait, this is easy. And fun. And other geezers are doing it, too.

Hold onto the tow rope for a pull to the top. Choose one of the nine groomed shoots. Grab the handles on the red-and-black inner tube and push off.

Scream and marvel at how fast you're cruising. Notice the grandmother and her two grandkids nearby with the same looks of glee.

Do it some more. Reluctantly move on.

Snow bikes look like fun. Whip down the slope on a mountain bike on skis. But the instructor isn't around to check out this first-time EZ Rider. Thoughts of sitting down for a while vanish. Oh, well.

Go back to the car for snowshoes. Slip them on and head over to the golf course just behind the ski village for a little pre-lunch workout.

Scout out the afternoon cross-country run while puffing along like the Little Engine That Might. Head back for lunch at the food court.

Have argument with self while eating a slice of pizza. Self: "A three-pack of fun gets the point across, don't you think?" Self: "Stop being a weenie. You came up with that six-pack thing. Finish the job." Self: "But I'm already a throbbing pile of goo." Self: "That which does not kill you hurts like hell."

Throw out paper plate. Go back to car for cross-country skis. Set watch for 20 minutes.

Stay out on golf course for 30, a triumph for suburban matrons everywhere.

Four down, two to go.

Watch teen-aged boys carve turns on the "Super Pipe" snowboard run. Hear one boy mock a grown man struggling against gravity on his snowboard as a "gray on a tray."

Check out the prices of a snowboarding lesson ($40 for two hours). Promise to take one "some day." Watch the boys of winter some more.

Pop back into the lodge and notice the "Alpine Racer" machine in the video arcade. Reconfigure the six-pack as the money slides into the slot and the "run" begins on the screen. Careen down the video mountain and arrive at the bottom in an upright position. Game over.

Time for one more activity. Walk out onto Deep Creek Lake, jigging rods, tip-ups and a plastic tub of fat-head minnows in the one hand, rented auger in the other. Maybe a walleye? A perch or two before the drive back to the city?

The sun is low, the temperature dropping as the auger bites into the ice and drills the hole. Bait the tip up, set the flag and wait. Listen to the moaning of leg muscles and the groaning of the ice as back on shore the lights blink on for night skiing.

You got me this time, Wisp. But there will be other days. Just you wait.

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