By MIKE NORTON After weeks of unseasonably warm and snow-free weather, Traverse City is finally getting some winter - and what a welcome surprise for those of us who love the outdoors! Saturday was such a splendid, cold and sunny day that I decided to get the kayak out and do some touring on East Grand Traverse Bay. It turned out to be a great decision; it was the perfect weather for a scenic tour along the high bluffs on the east side of the Old Mission Peninsula. The water was as clear as glass, the cedars and firs on shore were frosted with cotton-candy snow, the boulders in the shallows were glazed with a thick coat of ice, and there were birds (including eagles) swooping all over the place. We've never been shy about kayaking the Bay in winter. After all, Eskimos invented these cozy little boats for exactly these conditions. I prefer to go out early in the season before the ice starts to build up, when you can still find sandy beaches. The secret is to dress warmly, stay as dry as possible (using a good waterproof skirt and neoprene gloves) avoid rough water and stay fairly close to shore. And make sure you have that personal flotation device handy! Believe me, winter kayaking is a treat - especially on open water. There's a primeval feeling about steering among the icy rocks as the water churns to a slushy consistency around you, feeling the sun warming your back and counting to see how many seconds it takes for the wind to freeze the droplets on your paddle. I had Vaughn Williams' Sinfonia Antarctica playing on the iPod for an appropriately chilly soundtrack, and it was perfect. On Sunday it seemed like a good idea to strap on the cross-country skis and check out the trail system was doing at the Old Mission Point Park. This huge upland plateau near the top of the Old Mission Peninsula belongs to the State of Michigan, but is operated by Peninsula Township and adjoins the township's own Lighthouse Park - combined, they have over 700 acres of woods, meadows and shoreline and 12 miles of trails.
- Heading off toward Leffingwell Point on Saturday (Notice the ice forming on the water....)
The skiing was surprisingly good, even though the snow was still a bit thin in spots, but I quickly realized that I've let myself get out of shape this year. Hitting the exercise bike is really no substitute for getting out into the back country and herringboning up a few hills. I think it's time to start stashing the skis in the back of the car again! There's another excellent outdoor event coming up this coming weekend at another of my favorite places, the Grass River Natural Area between Alden and Bellaire. I like Grass River almost any time of year, but in winter its thick cover of evergreens makes it the perfect place to explore on skis or snowshoes. Saturday is their annual Grass River Shiver Snowshoe Race and Winterfest.. First the race: there are 5K and 10K courses, and prizes will be awarded for the fastest male and females runner in each. Registration is $15 in advance or $20 on the day of the race. (Racers 12 and under are free, and there's also a free "family run.") You don't even have to have your own snowshoes - there'll be someone on hand from Brick Wheels, ready to rent shoes to anyone who needs them. Then, the festival: Winterfest, which starts around 11 a.m., is a free family event with games and crafts that lasts until 3 p.m. The highlight? A soup tasting featuring homemade soups from the Alden Bar, Blue Pelican, Java Jones, the Lunch Box, Shanty Creek, Short's Brewing, Shirley's Cafe and the Wild Onion. To register for the race on-line, go to www.grassriver.org or call the Grass River office at (231) 533-8314.
- Winter on the Wetlands Boardwalks at Grass River