Monday, October 08, 2007

Farm Guest Writes about his Time at The Farm

The following is an article that was written for Silent Sports magazine by Bruce Steinberg, a freelance writer and novelist as well as vacationer of Palmquist Farm.
“So—do you do striding or skating?”
This was a question Jim Palmquist asked me in earnest while I made my family’s reservations last winter for Palmquists The Farm in Brantwood Wisconsin. Chicago-suburbia born and raised, I couldn’t keep from thinking about Joliet Jake’s confusion over that country-or-western demand imposed on his blues band. Jim clarified things.
“I like to know ahead of time,” he said, “so I can groom the trails for you.”
“Groom your trails -- for me?”
“For your family. So, striding or skating?”
“Both for me,” I said. “Striding and snow-shoeing for my wife. Our son’s 5 and mostly likes to make snowballs into snowmen.”
“Okay then,” Jim replied evenly, as if he were taking notes.
December’s pounding of early snow had been decimated by warmer temperatures by the time our trip arrived in early January. We drove up I-90 out of Illinois, past Madison, veered right onto Route 51, and it looked as though the only choice we’d be making would be between whining or complaining.
My wife and I frowned out the car windows, witnesses to a sky of thin gray too wimpy to snow, and the barren pale yellow of sleeping grass and long-ago harvested corn stalk stumps. “Is there snow yet?” my 5-year-old asked, as silent-sporters almost everywhere were asking in the winter of 2007. I spied a patch of crust in the highway median, and desperately said yes.
At Wausau, it seemed as though hope was taking a breath, as if the patch of crust I had seen was beginning to breed. Heading the final stretch down Route 8, though, grayness prevailed and the snow we saw made the sound of “Help Me!” as it slowly passed on into water.
In winter, snow beautifies everything. Without it, you get the colors nobody takes out of the Crayola box. The same was initially true at Palmquists The Farm, including the gray-white slush that was left of a ski trail winding past the White Pine chalet we had reserved. But there were hints even then that The Farm stood defiant. First there was the huge, well-kept barn that stood brightly red and attractive near the entrance. Then there were the bright smiles of owners Jim and his wife Helen. Most striking, however, was that same earnest sound I had heard in Jim’s voice when I made the reservation. “We’ll take care of you.”
Before our son was born, my wife and I had done our share of traveling to places both near and far. It has been our experience, one I’m sure most people have shared, that every once in a while, some act of kindness or extra attention by a resort staffer or owner makes a trip special or extra memorable, and it happened at Palmquists The Farm over and over.
The first full day, I was set to skate-ski at 6 a.m., determined to find out whether yesterday’s melt-off had turned to ski-able crust in the morning’s cold. A sledding hill outside the door was rendered closed by the unsafe and closed skating lake at its base. I had to hike over and past this hill and another rise, and leap over a rivulet of melt, through a path in the woods where lumpy iced snow made me teeter about and my ski bases fear for their future. Then I found it.
Groomed snow. Corduroyed, even, and very ski-able. The sight of it left me wondering how this had happened. All of a sudden I was skiing on fast, winding trails where I had never been before, along an embracing trail of pines passing by creeks, small lakes, and wildlife, along flats with mild rises and falls, until I reached a lighted trail and came face to face with a hill that had absolutely no snow. I turned around, figuring these two or three kilometers were all I had, and skied back to repeat and pretend that the ski-able trail wasn’t so limited. Then I heard the noise. A snowmobile’s engine. And I discovered that my tracks were gone and replaced by new corduroy. Soon a man driving a snowmobile pulling a groomer met me at a T-intersection in the trail. It was Jim.
“Been looking for you,” he said. “You seem to know what you’re doing on those skis. Follow me.”
For the next hour, I skied behind Jim Palmquist, owner of Palmquists The Farm, son of Toine and Art who ran the place before they got too old and then passed. Jim and Helen, longtime hosts and caretakers of The Farm, took over to operate this land that the family has owned since the late 1800s. Yet time hadn’t worn at their enthusiasm. Suddenly, this skier who was barely holding on to his second-wave Birkie bib had his own, personal groomer.
Jim showed me the shortcuts and the secrets of skiing at The Farm when snowfall is weak in the area, to trails with snow that survived and were close to pristine because he had groomed them – for me. Twenty miles of it, although, Jim said, some weren’t very groom-able just then and striding tracks were not possible to set. Still, he took me to places where he knew the skiing was good, and understood about crust skiing and what was possible. He guided me to a herd of buffalo – that’s right, buffalo, and a deer farm where I had to pop off my skis, make my way through a special gate, to more kilometers of skiing where the snow was supposed to be icy and lumped, but had been groomed smooth. Again, for me. Even the purple sunsets felt specially ordered.
At the time, Jim and Helen Palmquist had no idea that I had begun to write a regular column for Silent Sports. They gave me no special favors beyond the special favors they give to all their guests. I knew when I got back home, that I would ask Joel Patenaude if I could tell you all about this gem-- not just the place, but the people that make Palmquists The Farm special.
“Jim built most of the hills on the trails many years ago,” Rita and Mike Shores of Mountain, Wisconsin, told me. Rita and Mike are a married couple of, let’s just say, many years, but who are youthful at heart and deed. They sat with my family and another married couple from Chicago with two teenaged daughters at our meals in The Palmquists Farm main house. “He literally took his equipment and built the hills. Not many or huge like the ones at Minocqua Winter Park or ABR, but nice for the kids to play on, and for some good rolling ski trails. Jim also put in the lighted trails some years ago so families can ski after dinner.”
Rita and Mike have vacationed at Palmquists The Farm nine times, and note that there are so many positives that world travelers find themselves drawn to The Farm for return trips. “This is not your fancy Lake Tahoe resort,” Mike says. “The rooms are attractive and well-attended, but what you get is a place that exists to remind all who come of what it was like to roam safely wherever you wanted to go, to explore at your own pace.”
The Palmquists themselves have been known to run a seminar on farm vacations. “You have to like people to go into this business,” Jim explained. “It’s as simple as the difference between friendly service versus service that feels like an imposition. Whether it’s at a hardware store or at The Farm, friendly service brings you back.”
Indeed Jim sits with his guests for meals, and Helen welcomes company while she and her crew prepare meals that are best described by Mike Shores: “Palmquists The Farm is one place I can ski ski ski, and still put on weight.” I would note, though, that Helen prepares meals to take care of the hearty meat-eaters, the vegetarian, the dessert aficionados, and the picky-eater child. Rita agreed with Mike that the highlight of their stay at The Farm is their interaction with people from across the country, who often meet as a halfway point between St. Paul and Chicago, to people who come from as far away as Europe.
But what about the skiing?
I’m a huge fan of Minocqua Winter Park, and drool at the thought of skiing River Run. ABR is out-of-this world fantastic, and having the expanse of the Birkie Trail to yourself is mind-blowing. These compliments to other trails also come from Helen and Jim, who are modest about their trails. They offer up that Winter Park is more challenging and only half an hour away, that Timm’s Hill is 12 miles away and offers great climbs. But allow me to be the critic here – when it comes to family and cross-country skiing, Palmquists The Farm cannot be beat.
Consider, for example, the interest level of skiing in your family. Perhaps the wife or husband is the avid skier, but not both. And the children are not quite into it. With most every other place, even after you settle into your hotel, cabin, or bed and breakfast, you then have to load up the car again with equipment, and travel each day to the ski trails, unpack and gather in limited or crowded warming buildings or chalets, then set out. Dad may want to ski hard for hours. Mom maybe for one hour. The son gets bored, the daughter gets cold, and everybody’s idea as to when to leave is far apart by hours.
But with The Farm, the trails run right along your door. Yes, the trails are not as challenging as Winter Park’s, but they do have some hills, and they are not wanting for beauty. You can pack on the miles without repeating your route, and if you prefer skating or striding, Jim will go out of his way to set the trails for you in advance, complete with a full piston bully groomer when conditions permit. There are a few challenging hills, and if you follow Jim’s instructions, you’ll find yourself on an appropriately named trail called Snowsnake that takes a back seat to no other trail for pure enjoyment.
The main thing, the fantastic fact, about skiing and Palmquists The Farm, is that after nearly three hours of hard skiing, I skied right up to my chalet door. There I found my wife and son engaged in full laughter, building snowmen. They went out snowshoeing from our door (bring your own or you can rent from the Palmquists). We watched Belgian draft horses (Pat and Pete, about the size of Clydesdales) get shoed, and then went out on a bell-jingling sleigh ride under blankets, through the countryside, to the buffalo, streams, and the most scenic aspects of The Farm. In better winter weather, there’s ice-skating and sledding, and no need to travel to get to any of it. You see, once you unpack, there’s no re-packing to get to the trails, nor a need to coordinate varied interest levels. It’s all there out your front door to satisfy each vacationer’s wants, to get back to that roaring fireplace at each vacationer’s pace.
And how many places encourage you to bring your pet?
Families can bring their own dogs to Palmquists The Farm, whether to ski-jor or not, or if you don’t have your own dog, an incredibly friendly black lab named Otis will keep you company while you ski, and then break your child’s heart when it comes time to leave him behind for home.
Helen noted that one little girl’s family, for her eighth birthday, made reservations at The Farm so she could celebrate with Otis. During my family’s stay, Otis joined my son and me for a ski-pulk ride (also available at The Farm), then came back to our chalet for a few Goldfish Crackers, before falling asleep with his head on our son’s lap.
During our stay, I noted two teenaged girls enthralled with a scavenger hunt cooked up by Helen’s and Jim’s daughter, Anna, who incorporated skiing and snow-shoeing, along with The Farm’s trails and buildings, in a search for a horse stolen by Jesse James. And how easy is it to enthrall teenagers these days? Each year, the treasure hunt changes its theme and adventure, but there is always a prize at the end of the hunt.
The prize for Jim and Helen, as Helen said with ease, is that they enjoy people enjoying The Farm.
It’s always a dangerous thing, I suppose, recommending a place for your traveling dollars. What if, like with music, people disagree? My gut feeling is that avid cross country skiers who are married with children, who may not be so avid about skiing, will still adore ABR, Winter Park, and the like, but will discover The Farm, and the way it and the people there warm over families. Palmquists The Farm, may I suggest, resolves the conflict that sometimes arises between the desire to ski and the desire to spend quality time with the family.
The written word, by the way, cannot do justice to the food and trails as the photographs on display on the Palmquists The Farm web site. Take a look at, and you’ll see what I mean.
Bon a petit and bon a peski!