In our little corner of Central Illinois, winter sports just aren’t high on our to-do list. Really, I spend most of the winter trying to squeeze the proverbial square peg in a round hole by bundling up in 46bazzillion layers and riding my bike like it’s June anyway. The lack of winter sports in our area isn’t too surprising though, as large quantities of snow are hard to come by and are almost always accompanied by a glaze of ice which makes a cup of hot cocoa and a movie sound better than most things you’d want to do outside. But not so very far away… 4.5 hours from Quincy by car… exists a little pocket of wintertime fun tucked in the glacier-carved hills of northwest Illinois…
This past weekend I followed my Adventure Foot and took a trip with my husband and 12 of our friends to Galena, IL to check out the skiing and snowboarding at Chestnut Mountain. Today is not Chestnut Mountain’s debut on my blog however. If you recall, I biked up this very hill in June of last year during the Tour of the Mississippi River Valley bike ride (TOMRV). I believe the exact thought I had was, “If you see a sign while on your bike that says “ski area ahead,” you really should consider turning around.” But I digress…
This trip was a dual birthday celebration for my husband and our friend Jeff, so we decided to make it extra special. Jeff found a wonderful vacation rental home [read: with a hot tub] in Galena, and we all made our way up north after work on Friday. It was early to bed, early to rise for us, and after a surprisingly winding and hilly road, we made it to the Chestnut Mountain lodge to grab our rental gear and lift passes.
Chestnut Mountain has 19 trails on 220 acres overlooking the Mississippi River. The longest trail boasts a drop of 475 feet. Now…I know you’re thinking “I’ve been to Colorado where 475 feet is the run-off for the bunny slope,” but in Illinois, this is respectable.
Weekend lift tickets are $40 for a day or $78 for two days, and gear rental of either boarding or ski equipment is $32. Rates are slightly less during the week and they also have special rates in the evenings. A neat feature of the rentals is that if you rent, say, a snowboard to try but don’t end up liking it, it’s only $5 to switch to skis instead. Helmet rental is $8. Lessons are available for $20 an hour in a group or a $50 for a private lesson.
This trip was only my third time skiing, and much like my previous outings, the worst part was sitting in the locker room sweating and trying to wrestle ski boots on. In no time though, we stepped outside into the beautiful day, ready to roll.
About the beautiful day: it was over 40 degrees outside. That’s not ideal. Sure, it’s nice to not be so cold, but the mostly man-made snow was awfully slushy and got worse throughout the day. At times, the slush was nice for me because it slowed me down a little, but at other times, it caused everything to be extra slippery and skiers would gouge the slopes making bizarre trench hazards.
Our group had mixed experience with skiing, so some of the more experienced members headed off to the blue trails while I tested my legs out on the bunny slope. A pair of safe rides down the cotton-tail-trail and two trips up the moving carpet later, and I decided to go on one of the larger trails.
The first beginner trail was called, “Old Man.” This trail butted up against the bunny slope in the beginning and then dog-legged to the left down the mountain. I started out okay, but took the first turn down the steeper slope faster than I expected and ended up wiping out and sliding on my belly for ten feet. My husband, who is much better at this than I am, skied over and helped me up, and we hit the trail again. My friend Sara was right behind us on her snowboard and was finding her legs too.
Just before the steepest part of the trail there was a member of the ski patrol holding a “slide zone” sign which the slushy conditions necessitated. I skied over by him, clearly a little shaken by my fall, and asked how I could avoid another fall in this slippery area. His answer? Make the mountain bigger! He said to take long, sweeping passes more horizontally across the slope (while watching for other skiers, of course) and that it would help me not feel so out of control on the slush.
So that’s what I did. And we made it safely (and slowly) to the bottom of the slope. My husband and I waited in a relatively short line for the ski lift and headed back up the mountain to try some more trails.
We had lunch around noon at the restaurant inside the lodge. I imagine locals bring their own food when they ski because eating at the lodge is very expensive, but I suppose that’s to be expected at a resort.
After lunch, I made an equipment swap and upgraded to a half-size bigger pair of boots. This was the best decision I’d made all day, because I had more mobility in the larger boots. Note to self: never suffer in ill-fitting equipment!
The group of us spread out over the mountain- some people took on the hardest trails, some stuck to medium or easy ones. The bravest thing I did all day was to go down “Rookie’s Ridge” which runs alongside of some jumps, and I skied up the side of the jumps and back into the bowl a few times. I thought that was just the best! I also tried out the little slalom course and finally felt like a real skier whooshing back and forth between the markers.
All in all, the entire group had a lot of fun regardless of skiing skill level. Despite being so nearby, being in the hills of Galena seemed like a real vacation.
I should mention that downtown Galena is very cute and shouldn’t be passed by if you head up for a ski trip. My favorite shop there is called Fever River Outfitters. This shop is an outdoorsperson’s paradise. They carry great kayak, cycling and general outdoor items as well as a nice line of merino wool tech gear. They are one of the sponsors of the Fever River Triathlon, which I’d really like to participate in this year. In addition to Fever River, there are lots of great specialty food shops, gift shops, a brewery and several bistros in downtown Galena. It’s a fun place to spend a whole afternoon if you’re not on the slopes.