Wisconsin on cross-country skis; The snow is guaranteed
The plaint of the American cross-country skier is that snow flurries can be few and far between. In many areas, it has been a few years since there has been enough snow to do much more than ski local golf courses; never mind wilderness trails.
Serious skiers head for the Rockies, little knowing that the Midwest has a touring center that can guarantee snow all season long. Blackhawk Ridge of Sauk City, Wis., is one of two resorts of its kind (the other is tiny Cross Country Ski Trails in Gradyville, Pennsylvania) that can make this claim: If Mother Nature doesn't come up with the area's 40-inch average annual snowfall, then Blackhawk's snow machine will cover for her. And if the sun goes down . . . well , Blackhawk's trails are lighted at night.
The beauty of Blackhawk is that it has snow and it caters exclusively to cross-country skiers. A couple of downhill resorts - namely Telemark and Lake Placid - will on rare occasions use their snowmaking equipment to cover cross-country trails. But a blue-blooded back country skier usually feels as comfortable at a downhill resort as a lumberjack at a downtown disco.
For those whose hearts are won by the glitter of snow on a silent trail and not the glamour of downhill slopes, Blackhawk is the ideal resort. This is because the owner-operators, Diana and Larrie Isenring, have poured so much of their back-to-basics life style and love of the outdoors into every aspect of their operation.
They go to great extremes in this respect. For one thing, they prefer to banish all automobiles from the premises. A friendly crew of young people shuttle guests up and down the Baraboo Ridge in a jeep-pulled wagon. If you and your entourage did not have the wisdom to pack lightly, the Blackhawk staff literally bears the burden by personally backpacking your belongings to your lodging. Lately this tactic has been relegated to the summer months when student help is more plentiful. Donkeys and Norwegian sleds called ''pulkas'' are on hand for winter packing to lodging, most of which is accessible only on skis.
Blackhawk had its beginnings when the Isenrings, who lived in nearby Madison, couldn't find any other camping spot that wasn't ''tent stake to tent stake.'' Camping is popular year-round at Blackhawk but never gets ''tent stake to tent stake,'' - especially in winter. Still, a surprising number of campers settle in secluded spots along the trail with tents and sleeping bags suitable for subfreezing temperatures.
Less primitive lodging arrangements require sleeping bags at the very least. By far the most popular accommodations are the trapper cabins. In many instances these are original homesteads that are close to if not completely lacking in modern conveniences. All have beds and wood-burning stoves, some have electricity (especially nice if you like cabin-camping with a crockpot). You'll have to pump your own water, though, and fetch firewood.
On about the same level of ''roughing it'' are the sheepherder wagons. These quaint little huts on wheels are equipped with a small wood-burning stove and a board table that slips out from under a double bed in back. A well-stoked stove will keep the wagon cozy half the night. In the morning you'll find frost sprouting in fern-like patterns on the window. The little Jotul is great for toast but makes a rather lukewarm hot chocolate, so it's best to bring your own cookstove.
If you prefer all the comforts of home, Blackhawk can accommodate you, too. The upstairs bedrooms at the Barn House are available to guests, leaving the Isenring family out in the cold most busy winter weekends. Open house hospitality is in keeping with the finest European or Old West traditions, but it is rare indeed to find an American resort owner today who will open his doors to visitors without first whisking the antiques, crystal, and quilts to a safe corner of the attic. Everything in the Barn House bedrooms, from the rag rugs to the quilts and curtains, looks absolutely authentic.
Blackhawk Ridge was created piecemeal as the Isenrings ''rescued'' property from the clutches of trailer camp operators - ''buying defensively'' the Isenrings call it. Thus Blackhawk's 40 miles of trails is the most extensive system of privately owned and owner-maintained trails in Wisconsin.
Blackhawk blankets a ridge bridging two unique geological landscapes. To the east lies the Wisconsin River Valley and the terminal edge of glacial moraine, a rocky, rag-tag menagerie of gnome-like hills and ridges known to geologists as drumlins, eskers, kettles, and kames. These were formed when a great glacier beat an ungraceful retreat at the end of the last ice age, dropping gravel and boulders as it went. The Barn House and Blackhawk General Store sit atop a hill that, in its heyday, was a mastadonic mountain. A low-lying ridge is all that's left of the Baraboo Range today. To the west lies the Driftless region of Wisconsin - a gently sloping, serene stretch of terrain that escaped the glacier unscathed.
The Blackhawk trails allow tourers to sample this geological smorgasbord at close hand. Every bend in the trail offers its own peculiar beauty. Patches of poplar, their speckled bark camouflaged by underbrush bristling through the snow , seem to sweep entire hillsides up to the sky. There are marshes, fields, pine forests, and ancient stands of hickory and oak. Unlike the towering landscapes of the Rockies, Wisconsin's glacial moraine and Driftless Area have a human scale. They're approachable. They're fascinating in their diversity and subtle design, not in their overwhelmong proportion.
And of course the area has plenty of wildlife, the tracks of which are seen more frequently than the animals themselves. If you don't spot any creatures on the trail, you can find an exotic collection in the backyard of the Barn House: deer, raccoon, and the more domestic though nonnative four-horned sheep and Sicillian donkey. Bird watchers can view the variety of visitors who come to feed on the Barn House balcony, including chickadees, pine siskin, and nuthatches.
Blackhawk Ridge is not the place to find gourmet food. Local cheeses are available at the general store, along with trail gorp, grapefruit juice, and other prepackaged health foods. Hot apple cider is offered at the lodge near the trail entrance. The money jar honor system there is another example of Isenring trust.
If you're ravenous after a day of skiing and did not come prepared to cook your own meals, the Blackhawk staff will direct you to several restaurants in the area. The Firehouse is considered by some to be one of the finest in Wisconsin.
The nicest place to retreat after dinner is the Barn House with its huge fireplace and picture windows, but most apres skiers head straight for the sauna and whirlpool downstairs.
And if you still have any energy left after that - go skiing. After a long, hot sauna can be the most exhilarating time to ski. You may find it the highlight of your visit to trek the deserted, tree-lined trail along Blackhawk Ridge with the city lights glimmering below and the snow glinting in the darkness like a reflection of the stars overhead. If it's a Wednesday night after the League Team races, you can hop onto the deep, double gutters left by the racers in the track of man-made snow and slide along as fast as your wax can carry you.
So if it's coming onto Christmas and you still haven't gotten out your skis, call Blackhawk. A snowy winter is predicted this year, so the white stuff beneath your skis may be the real thing.