Winter in northern Wisconsin is long, dark and cold. Come February, those residents of the Chequamegon Bay region who haven’t gone off to find sun and sanity somewhere down south can get a little stir crazy. Around the holiday season in 1996, a group of people got together to talk about how to make the long winter a little more bearable by giving ourselves and our neighbors something to look forward to in our own backyards. Members of that group also were active in the Tri-County Medical Society and the Friends of the Washburn Public Library, and were looking for a way to benefit those organizations.
The brainstorming session went something like this: Let’s have a ski event! We can ski across the frozen bay! Let’s do it at night, with a bunch of candles all along the way! Then we can have a big party afterward!
OK, we may have been a little stir crazy ourselves. We knew that Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay froze solid every winter, with ice strong enough to support car races, snowmobile tours, fishing shanties, and even the infamous “ice road” from Bayfield to Madeline Island. But getting people out there on skis to glide their way from Ashland to the faraway twinkling lights of Washburn on a cold winter night would be another story.
So, we hit up skeptical area businesses for $10 pledges, started freezing ice luminaries in 5-gallon pickle buckets, printed up some brochures and posters, and packed a rough course by running back and forth with snowmobiles. We figured if we’d get 100 folks out, we’d call it a success.
By race day, we suspected something was up. We had collected more than 100 preregistered entries and we heard our neighbors and friends talking about this crazy ski race coming up. Late Saturday afternoon, we put the finishing touches on the course, lit candles in a couple hundred ice luminaries, set up a registration table, and by the time the gun went off in the evening twilight, more than 350 people were out on the bay, ready to go. Many had dusted off old skis and just wanted to see what it was like to be way out on the frozen bay at night. Parents pulled toddlers in sleds, friends and families skied together, groups congregated along the route to chat and sip hot chocolate, and we ran out of seating room and chili at the post-race party at the Washburn VFW hall afterwards.
It was obvious that we had started something with a life of its own. With little advertising besides word of mouth, Book Across the Bay has grown tenfold from our first year.
This winter, we’re preparing for up to 4,000 skiers. We’ve got a great group of hundreds of volunteers who do everything from stuffing bags to making food to freezing luminaries to lighting candles to designing t-shirts to building bonfires to grooming the course. Come on up north and join us February 18, 2017 for the twenty-first annual Book Across the Bay!