History of the Big M - as told by Dave Yarnell

Dave Yarnell’s history of the Big M Cross Country Ski Area

I moved to Manistee in the spring of 1985, and started hearing about efforts to create a Big M Cross Country
Ski Area as soon as I moved there. I started working at West Shore Community College in the fall of 1984 and
since WSCC President Bill Anderson was very involved with the Manistee Chamber of Commerce, I probably
heard about it then.
I had moved to the area from Northwest Ohio and a few years earlier had bought cross country skis when they
were on sale at a store that couldn’t sell them because there wasn’t much snow that winter. I did try them out a
few times before moving north.
Big M volunteers had opened a few trails for the winter of 1984 and were busy in the fall of 1985 getting more
trails cut for skiers for that winter.

As I understand it, John Capper got the ball rolling on getting the Big M started. 

He was on the Manistee High
School ski team in the mid-1950s that competed at the Big M downhill ski area – which was a community
tourism project that began in the 1950s and from what I understand did pretty well until there was too much
money borrowed to install a chair lift (rope tows were used before that time) and the operator took over from
the community group that had built the area. The U.S. Forest Service leased the land to the community and then
the operator. In the very early 1970s the operator sold to Caberfae Peaks, which closed it down and move the
equipment there. The land was reverted to its original state – which included tearing down an impressive lodge
which with hindsight would have been a great asset to the cross country ski area. But, at that time no one
envisioned that cross country skiing would be a thing.

Caberfae Peaks was also on Forest Service land, but in perhaps the 1980s the operators either purchased the
land from the Forest Service or traded land to the USFS, so it is now privately owned land.

John Capper had been away from the Manistee area for many years, I believe working in land use in
Washington, D.C., but I’m not sure. He returned to pursue two dreams – re-establish the Big M now that cross
country skiing was gaining popularity and operate a small company to build fiberglass rowing skuls. John was
interested in doing the technical work to establish the trail system, but wanted to leave the fundraising and
administrative work to others.

Two other members of John Capper’s Manistee High School ski team I know of were Jack Batdorf, former
owner of the Manistee News Advocate, and Vickers Hansen, a prominent Manistee surgeon who died in a
sailboat accident on Portage Lake.

John spent countless hours at the Big M mapping the trail system – traipsing through the woods and marking
where trails should go with flagging tape. Volunteers followed with chainsaws clearing the way – making the
trails barely wide enough for the grooming equipment but also with an eye for safety – so downhills were
straight down and trees cut back as far as possible and uphills winding through the trees with as favorable grade
as possible and narrow a track as possible.

John wanted the trails to be perfect, so there were a few tense times with volunteers who, for instance, would
spend several hours cutting a trail only to have John come back and decide it would be better if it were 20 feet
over this way or that way.

In addition to trying to keep the trails as narrow as possible, we also tried to cut down as few large trees as
possible, taking the route of least resistance.

The trails were cut in the order they were laid out. Corkpine and Lumberjack were the first and I believe the
only ones open the first year. I got involved in cutting Camp 24 and Double Bit the second year. Catamount, Big
Wheel and Oh Me II were the last regular trails cut in the following summer and fall.

Some re-routing was done through the years. For instance, the first there was a huge downhill at the start of Oh
Me II (I think it was John Capper’s idea that it would scare away skiers who didn’t belong on the rest of the trail,
which was also somewhat challenging) with a by-pass that was suggested to most skiers. After a few years the
big downhill was taken off the map since it was determined by some of us to be too dangerous.

Capper’s Peak was one of the last cut, I believe after John had moved from the area. At one time there was a
trail named for me, Dave’s Look-Out. It went north off of Double Bit to a vantage point. But, once a clear-cut
area grew taller trees, there was no longer a view, so the trail was abandoned. There was also a Little Catamount
at one time – a short-cut version of the full trail. Some of us knew of other short cuts that would cover nice parts
of some trails when time was an issue.

Other ungroomed trails were added in subsequent years. With the addition of mountain biking, a loop that
circles the whole trail system was completed and is open to adventurous back country skiers.

Since the Big M is on Forest Service land, which is open to everyone 24/7, it was always comical when people
would ask about the hours of operation for the Big M. It’s open all the time, of course.
Among ski council members through the years it was debated whether people skied free with donations
requested, or if fees should be set.

The Forest Service instituted a fee system for its various facilities such as trailheads and boat launches. The
forest service fee is charged for the Big M parking lot in the summer, but in the winter the Forest Service has
allowed the ski council to collect contributions in its donation pipe.
The parking lot was also eventually moved. The original lot was close to the two-track north of the current
parking lot.

In early days, many individuals and organizations pitched in to help keep the area going. The road commission
had the truck that plowed the county road also pull in and plow the relatively small parking area. That stopped
after a couple of years – probably before other organizations could request similar service.
The need to hire a person (Tom Moerdyk, who with his brother operated Pine Creek Lodge at the time) to
groom the trails and after several years to plow the parking lot required a way to bring in money to pay for that
part-time work. The Manistee Cross Country Ski Council was formed early-on as a non profit group to organize
volunteers and raise money to maintain trails. Annual letters to potential donors and and a donation pipe at the
start of the trails somehow seems to bring in just enough to cover the purchase of grooming machines and
keeping them going – fuel and repairs – and pay for other servivces. It could be that these days the Forest
Service plows the parking lot.

It has also has been interesting through the years finding places to repair groomers. Machinist Steve Blank lives
close to the Big M and helped with repairs in the early years. I remember our first groomer in Jim Veach’s
garage undergoing repairs.

The ski council has also had various fundraisers through the years. The Big MMMMmmmm Gourmet Glide
turned into today’s Moonlight Ski events. For the Gourmet Glide, we would set up food stations along the trails
and serve up food donated by local restaurants – broasted chicken from 440 West and Big Al’s pizza. We would
haul barbeque grills out on the trails to do the food warming.

Key volunteers were John and Pat Veach, John Veach’s father Jim, Dana Schindler, Chloe Girough (sp?), John
Veach’s neighbor (Bill…..),
I don’t remember Ron Gardin being involved at the start, but a few years later he was one of the top volunteers,
and key to seeing that the lodge was built in the early 1990s. Building the lodge was a huge effort. It took
volunteers quite a while to piece together the logs, then place the trusses and put on the roof decking.
Employees of Bob’s Roofing volunteered their time to put the roof on in one Saturday morning.
Guenhardt Sawmill of Stronach supplied the logs at I think a discounted price (maybe they were donated or
maybe not, I don’t remember) for the lodge with pine trees cut from not far from the location, I believe.
Guenhardt’s was trying to get in on rising log cabin craze, but I don’t think it worked out the business didn’t last
a long time.

Insuring the lodge became an issue not too long after it was built. The Forest Service proposed taking ownership
of the building, and after considerable discussion the ski council took the USFS up on its offer and it has
worked out well.

Russ Garrigus was the head of the Forest Service when the Big M began. He reported that it wasn’t uncommon
for volunteer groups to approach the Forest Service to request projects like the Big M, but most did not last
more than a couple of years. About ten years into the operation of the Big M, the Forest Service started taking a
great deal of pride in what was perhaps the finest cross country ski area in the Midwest (I’ve never skied
anywhere better).

The Forest Service and others were impressed with the quality of the Big M. The trails going from easy to most
difficult the further one went out and the overall great job of laying them out done by John Capper has been
enjoyed by thousands through the years. Consequently, the USFS became more interested helping out with the

Mountain biking was unheard of when the trails were first cut. The trails weren’t totally clearly marked at the
beginning because John Capper didn’t want others using them. At first snowmobiles on the trails were a big
problem, which ended once more clearly marked snowmobile trails kept the machines where they belonged.
John Capper hated snowmobiles, especially any that got close to the Big M. (Although our first grooming
machine was a heavy duty snowmobile).

The Forest Service requested that mountain bikes be allowed at the Big M starting about 2000. The North
Country Trail had been built as both a hiking and biking trail through Manistee County, and the National North
Country Trail Association did not like mountain bikes on its trails (the Forest Service built the North Country
Trail as a multi-use trail), so rather than totally ban bicycles, the Forest Service decided to allow them on some
sections of the trail but not others. Mountain bike trails at the Big M were established as an alternate place for
this sport.

The summer use of the trails by mountain bikes has worked well. Just as it is one of the best places to ski, it’s
also one of the best places to mountain bike.

In the early days of the trails there were no cell phones or hand-held GPS’s, so getting lost was perhaps easier
then than it is now, although it is still not difficult to get lost. One of the highest praises of the Big M in the early
days was from a Detroit Free Press writer who noted that the Big M “is no golf course.” In the early days of
cross country skiing golf courses were sometimes opened for the sport.

My first experience at the Big M involves getting lost, or should I say being confused about my location for a
while. I showed up to help cut trails, which was the first time I was at the Big M, me and my huge 1960s
vintage chainsaw were hauled by snowmobile to a spot on Camp 24 to start cutting. I worked with Pat Veach
until about 2 p.m., when she had to go to a wedding or some event like that. I kept working on my own and
every once in a while would shut off the chainsaw to take a break and as I did this through the afternoon I would
hear fewer and fewer other chainsaws working. About 4 p.m. I heard none and the thought occurred to me that
maybe they weren’t coming back to get me.

As it turned out Tom Moerdyke was there only in the morning to carry workers out and we were expected to
knock off in the afternoon and walk back. About two hours after sunset I did happen to find my truck in the
parking lot. I was getting close to the time when I was going to hunker down and build a fire until someone
came to rescue me (I assumed it was also getting close to the time my wife would wonder why I wasn’t home
yet) and call out rescuers.

A number of people have kept the operation going through the years. John Hodjnowski and Ramona Venegas
attended many breakfast meetings to keep us up to date on what the Forest Service was thinking. About the time
the Forest Service took over the lodge, they also improved the parking area. The pit toilets have also seen
serious upgrades through the years. A water well was added at one time but it was difficult getting the water to
test clean, so it was abandoned.

“Civilians” crucial to the Big M through the years have included John Capper, Dana Schindler, John Veach, Jim
Veach, Pat Veach, Tom Moerdyk, Don Peterson, Dottie Peterson, Ron Gardin, Bill Kennedy, Chloe Gereoux,
Bob Rasmussen, Jacque Wallace Erdman, Dave Martus, Loren Bach, and many others.

Many people were recruited to help clear the trails. John Oliver and Henry Minster are a few who come to
mind. As far as I know there were no injuries as trails were cut, but most of us witnessed close calls. Henry
Minster was running a chainsaw as several of us were pushing a tree in the direction we wanted it to fall. As we
rocked the tree, a big piece fell to the ground and just missed Henry. Someone pointed out that these falling
chunks were known as “widow makers.”