By MIKE NORTON Winter and I were not always friends. I grew up in the city, where this time of year meant dark gray skies, dirty gray slush, icy sidewalks and wet feet. Skiing was something rich people did. Snowshoes were for Eskimos. As soon as I could get away from it, I did - first to Florida and then to California. How could I ever have foreseen how much I'd come to love the winter season once I moved to Traverse City? Here, winter is a different creature entirely. Maybe it's this rolling, glacier-carved terrain with all its wide vistas and high lookouts; maybe it's the predominance of pine, spruce, hemlock and fir (so much prettier in winter than those scraggly hardwoods). Or maybe it's just that rural settings are better suited to winter than cityscapes. The secret, of course, is that you have to embrace winter in all its chilly wonder - and although some people can do this while looking out the window, I find I just have to get outdoors and do something. Doesn't matter what, really -- cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, kayaking (until the lake freezes) or just tramping around in the woods. And here's the payoff: to come around a corner on the trail and see a herd of deer raise their heads, steam snorting from their noses as they look at you and silently bound off into the trees. To stand in the moonlight in a forest clearing as a fine dusting of diamond-bright powder sifts through the branches around you. To emerge from the woods onto a high bluff at Sleeping Bear, the broad blue sweep of Lake Michigan below you like a giant polished turquoise, and feel as though you're the first (or last) person on Earth. Speaking from personal experience, I know that winter-sports newbies can sometimes be discouraged by all the unfamiliar gear, terminology and techniques they're confronted with. But really, it's a lot easier and a lot less expensive than you think. And fortunately, there are all kinds of people and organizations here in the Traverse City area who are eager to help you get into your winter groove. This Saturday for instance, the folks from the Vasa Ski Club, Traverse Trails and Brick Wheels are holding their annual Winter Trails Day at Timber Ridge Resort. Winter Trails Day is a nationwide event that offers children and adults new to snow sports the chance to try snowshoeing and cross-country skiing free. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., they'll be providing free ski lessons, free demos and free use of snowshoes and skis (both classic and skate styles). (You do have to register ahead of time, so there'll be enough equipment to go around, but you can do it on line at www.traversetrails.org) Another wonderful program starts this week at Shanty Creek Resorts and other Michigan ski areas. It's called Discover Michigan Skiing & Snowboarding, and it's being sponsored by the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association. All through January (Monday through Friday at 1:30 p.m. at Schuss Mountain and on Saturdays and Sundays at Summit Mountain) novice skiers and snowboarders can receive lessons, lift tickets and equipment for a low fee of $30 for skiers and $40 for snowboarders.
- Silly hat, happy snowshoer -- at the Pelizzari Natural Area.
Speaking of Shanty Creek, this is college week, when college students can qualify for big savings simply by flashing their student ID cards. And on Saturday, Shanty brings back one of its strangest retro traditions - the Sardine Special, where you're encouraged to jam as many people as possible into your car for a flat lift-ticket fee of $100 per carload all day at Schuss Mountain. If you'd rather improve your knowledge of winter wildlife, the Boardman River Nature Center is putting on a very different kind of outdoor experience on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It's called Snowbird Bingo. Here's how it works: you stop by the Nature Center on Cass Road and pick up a Bird Hike Bingo card, then head out to the nearby hiking trail. As you hike, mark off all of the birds you see - only birds that winter in Northern Michigan are in the game - and if you get BINGO, bring your card back to the Nature Center for a prize. (By the way, if you haven't been to the Nature Center yet, you're missing a splendid way to learn about the amazing natural wonders in our own backyard, no matter what time of year it is!)
- Downhilling at Shanty Creek's Schuss Mountain