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Hope on the slopes: At Bears Den, they are 'snow farmers'

John Bekkerus walks through the deserted ski lodge of Detroit Mountain. Dust covers the snack bar. Water-stained ceiling tiles appear ready to fall to the floor.

Area ski runs

John Bekkerus walks through the deserted ski lodge of Detroit Mountain. Dust covers the snack bar. Water-stained ceiling tiles appear ready to fall to the floor.

Bekkerus, who grew up on this 260-acre ski resort near Detroit Lakes, Minn., peers through the smeared picture windows that frame Chipmunk Hill.

When his father opened the resort in 1957, Chipmunk Hill was one of the slopes where many area residents learned to ski. But on this January day, the chair lift is gone - its wooden seats stored in the basement of the lodge. The tow rope andT-bar are disassembled.

"It's pretty quiet out there now," Bekkerus says.

Even though Bekkerus still gets as many as four phone calls per week asking if the slopes are open, Detroit Mountain has been closed to skiing for the past three winters.


It's one of a dozen Minnesota ski resorts to close in the last 15 years. Weather is the big reason.

"Winters have been tough ... not enough snow," Bekkerus said.

Skyrocketing expenses, such as liability insurance, have officials from area ski resorts like Andes Tower Hills near Alexandria, Minn., and Bears Den Mountain near Lisbon, N.D., wondering if it's worth staying open.

"With the bad winters that we've been having, you've got to start scratching your head, 'why am I doing this?'" said Tim Salscheider, general manager at Andes Tower Hills.

But about the time Salscheider thought the business was losing skiers, a winter with snow has finally arrived.

Andes Tower Hills has had 18 inches of snow so far, plus warm temperatures to lure more skiers to the slopes over the holidays. Bears Den Mountain received nearly a foot of snow during the last week of December.

"The last few years have been lousy," said Marlene Anderson of Bears Den Mountain. "This year, it's warm and we have snow."

Bears Den, which is open Friday through Sundays, had nearly 600 skiers last weekend. Andes Tower Hills, open every day for most of the season, is averaging nearly 4,000 skiers per week - up from its 1,500 average last year. During the post-Christmas week, Andes had 7,000 skiers.


"That's as many as we had all of last December," Salscheider said. "We're hoping and praying this continues."

Dale Anderson remembers skiing on the hills outside Valley City, N.D., in the 1950s. But construction of Interstate-94 cut through the slopes.

"There was really nowhere else in the area to ski," said Anderson, who grew up near Enderlin, N.D.

So in 1962, Anderson and Russ Larsen opened a ski resort on the hills of the Sheyenne River Valley in Ft. Ransom, N.D.

They started with one tow rope, powered by a Chrysler six-cylinder engine, to haul skiers up the hill. "We ran that for years," Anderson said.

Forty-four years later, the 69-year-old Anderson still owns and operates the Bears Den Mountain ski resort. Along with his wife, Marlene, and brother and sister-in-law Ron and Karen, Anderson now has a 24-acre ski area that includes eight runs and a 1,500-foot long chair lift that was added in 1995.

"It ain't no get-rich deal," said Anderson, sipping a cup of coffee in the resort's lodge - an 84-year-old building that was once the town hall in nearby Lucca.

Unlike larger ski resorts that are open every day, Bears Den is open Fridays through Sundays. Brisk business, such as the 600 skiers last weekend, helps pay for expenses such as liability insurance, routine inspections of the chair lift, maintenance of 12 snowmakers and two snow groomers, and paychecks for as many as 16 employees.


If the weather cooperates, the ski season runs from late November until mid-March. The last two seasons, Bears Den did not open until January. When the resort season ends, Anderson returns to his construction business.

"We're snow farmers," Marlene said. "In the summer, farmers rely on the weather. Well ... we rely on the weather in the winter."

So far, the weather has been perfect at Andes Tower Hills ski resort in west central Minnesota.

Salscheider, general manager for the last 10 years at Andes, said November's cold spell was ideal snowmaking weather. That was followed by the first snowfall in early December, which has accumulated to nearly 20 inches so far this season.

This month, mild temperatures have brought more skiers to Andes while consistent cloud cover has reduced melting.

"Out of the last 10 years, too many of the seasons we have had brown ground," Salscheider said. "If people don't see snow in their backyards, it's not clicking that we have snow here.

"Natural snow is a million dollar ad for us."

There wasn't much natural snow in 1980 when brothers Paul and Vern Anderson opened Andes Tower Hills. With very little snow and no snow-making equipment, the Andersons were open for one day during its debut season.


"It has grown ever since," Salscheider said.

Twenty six years later, more than 750,000 skiers have visited Andes - which has 15 slopes, three chairlifts, a tubing area and 15 kilometers of cross country trails.

Andes, which has 150 employees, has an after-school program that has 500 fourth through six graders signed up, a racing team with 52 members and a high school alpine team of 19 skiers from Fergus Falls, Alexandria, Wheaton and West Central Area.

On the first Thursday in January, elementary students from Barnesville, Minn., and Enderlin, N.D., were learning how to ski at Andes. During a slow year, Salscheider estimates that school groups make up 50 percent of their visits.

This year, it accounts for only 30 to 40 percent of the visits. The increased walk-up business will help offset the skyrocketing costs of liability insurance, which has increased 500 percent during Salscheider's 10 years at Andes.

"People will look at that $30 lift ticket and say 'Wow, that's expensive,'" Salscheider said. "But I tell them if you look at my bottom line, you would question my sanity."

Despite the costs and the unpredictable weather, Salscheider says the Anderson brothers want to keep Andes open.

"For the next 100 years if possible," he said. "There's no question we want to continue."


Even though Detroit Mountain has been closed, snowboarders keep showing up, only to be asked to leave.

"If it wouldn't have been for snowboarding, a lot more ski resorts would be closed down," said Bekkerus, who estimates snowboarders accounted for as much as 70 percent of Detroit Mountain's business since the mid-1990s.

"Snowboarders have been our lifesaver, actually," said Dale Anderson of Bears Den Mountain. "They come out all the time whereas skiers only come out once in awhile."

But the snowboarding craze wasn't enough to keep Detroit Mountain open. Bekkerus said it was too difficult to run an operation for only three or four months.

Even during the winter of 1996-97, when the area was hit with more than 100 inches of snow, Bekkerus said business wasn't much better.

"The skiing conditions were awesome that year, but no one could get to you," Bekkerus said. "By the time everybody got dug out, we got buried in again. And you have to remember, 50 percent to 60 percent of the skiers came from Fargo-Moorhead."

Bekkerus and his brother, Bob, who together bought the resort from other brothers and sisters in 2005, plan to sell nearly 40 lots on the west side of the resort for a housing development.

"We may have limited skiing available for the property owners," Bekkerus said. "But I don't ever see it being a full-blown ski area again."


Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

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