Beat the winter blahs and party in your parka

“People don’t notice when it’s winter or summer when they’re happy.” – Anton Chekhov

One of my goals for 2015 is to be more positive, especially about where I live.

It’s no secret I’m open to relocating, preferably to a warmer, sunnier locale with a better job market and friendlier people, but my significant other appreciates having steady work and the seasonality of Michigan, including boating in summer and snowmobiling in winter. I don’t mind the boating, or the beach, and I keep reminding myself I moved here willingly. So I’ve been left to build a freelance writing career as an unsuccessful job search continues (despite news reports Michigan’s economy is once again booming).

A couple of successful travel writers said to start promoting hot spots and hidden gems in my own backyard. Maybe this will make me feel better – to focus on the attractions that draw tourists to vacation – and will end up as a spinoff of the column I used to write for the Muskegon Chronicle highlighting cool happenings in the community. Who knows if it will be regular (paid writing comes before pleasure writing), or what I’ll cover? Maybe event promos, exhibits, concerts, festivals, dining deals, new breweries, reflections on a walk in the woods or a day on the boat. I’m open to suggestions.

Since it’s winter, it seems smart to start with a truly unique winter attraction in West Michigan, actually in the entire Mitten – Muskegon Winter Sports Complex. It includes one of only four luge tracks in the nation. Yes, the entire NATION, where five time Olympian and two-time Olympic medalist Mark Grimmette learned to luge as a youngster.

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The Winter Sports Complex will celebrate its 30th anniversary and Michigan’s 178th birthday in style with a Party in Your Parka celebration all day Saturday. Admission is free to enter the complex, but rental and activity fees apply. You’ll also need a state park sticker to park. The all-day event features plenty of winter sports, family activities, live music, and Michigan art vendors, food, beer and wine and local craft favorites. There will even be mind-melting LED hoop light shows. Muskegon didn’t get its Beer Tent Capital title without perfecting the art of the beer tent and hosting them in every season!

Muskegon has another claim to fame – the invention of the Snurfer. In honor of this early take on the snowboard, the Snurfer Classic is set for 1 p.m. down the road at the Block House. The Luge Lounge opens at 6 p.m. and will host a dance party 7-11 p.m. featuring DJ Jef Leppard, concessions and live entertainment. My good friend and former Chronicle co-worker Kendra Stanley Mills will be shooting photos, so make sure you show off your best parkas, smiles and dance moves.

If you’re a bit of a thrill seeker, the luge is actually a fun thing to do in the winter. It’s amazing to me how many people have lived here their whole lives and never tried it. Initially a little nervous, I figured if a 10-year-old kid can do it surely I can.

The fine folks who run the complex put on an annual media luge race, complete with medals and free food and beer, and I participated a couple of winters when I worked at the paper. The complex also holds a Tuesday night luge league, and I competed on a Jaycees luge team in 2009. The one stipulation is you need health insurance. And people travel from throughout the Midwest to try it, so it’s smart to call and schedule a sliding time. You receive a short lesson before they send you down the luge. Wear warm, old clothes because they can get ripped if they catch the edge. Keep you hands and feet in. And prepare for a cardio workout as you climb up the stairs with luge sled in hand.

As much as I love to complain about the cloudy weather and lake effect snow in winter, the Winter Sports Complex always proves to be a good time. If you gear up and get out there, it’s a great way to get some exercise, fresh air and enjoy some winter sports.

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Don’t we look like we’re having fun!

If you can’t make it Saturday, the property is off Scenic Drive in Muskegon State Park and stays open through March, weather permitting.

The 1,200-acre complex also features the longest lighted cross-country trail system in the Midwest and more than 15 kilometers of groomed trails. The terrain is mostly flat with a few challenging options for the advanced skier. The trails wind through the woods, so the trees and scenery are beautiful after a fresh snowfall.

There are three separate trail systems for snowshoeing or snow hiking that serve all skill levels and allow you to explore a variety of Muskegon State Park’s natural features, including the Lake Michigan Loop and Lost Lake Trails with more aggressive terrain and spectacular views.

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The facility also added an adaptive luge track to accommodate people with disabilities, which is open on weekends during the summer months. It’s the only accessible wheeled luge track in North America. Yes, I’ve been fortunate to do it as well.

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The complex encourages family fun with hockey rinks, a family skating rink, a quarter-mile ice skating trail, a cozy lodge and even a yurt for overnight outings. The lodge includes equipment rentals, concessions, restrooms and a lounging area that surrounds an indoor fireplace and offers views of the skating rinks.

We were actually planning to visit last weekend and check out the ice skating trail through the woods, but the weather warmed up to the point they had to close the rinks.

That’s the curse and blessing of the complex. Its success each season truly hinges on the weather. Mother Nature is the refrigeration system. So employees – and winter enthusiasts – pray to the snow Gods for temps that stay below freezing and snowy weather for a steady three months. The Polar Vortex obliged last winter, bringing extreme cold and record-setting snowfall, which helped the complex set its own records for attendance and luge runs.

I can vouch organizers know how to throw a good party! So get out and enjoy winter before it’s gone! Feel your heart skip a beat at the splendor and beauty of a fresh snowfall.

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