Interview: Michael Zielke
February 2, 2001
Michael Zielke may be a name quite familiar to racers from
the mid to late 80s. He was a top skier for Northern Michigan
University, where he was part of three national collegiate
championship teams and was a five-time all American. [Photo
is of Mike competing for NMU at Giants Ridges in the late
80s.] In 1986, Mike finished as the top american in the Birkie,
as well as in the top 25% in the Norwegian Birkie. After NMU,
he trained with Nikolai Anikin at the U.S. Olympic Training
Center, and raced in the Great American Ski Chase.
Last fall, Mike joined Bearskin
Lodge, located up on the Gunflint Trail in Northeastern
Minnesota, as their new ski instructor. Mike and his wife,
Laura, have two kids, a 3-year old boy, Noah, and one year
old girl, Hana. He's been busy providing ski lessons and planning
activities at Bearskin, but he took some time out recently
to answer some interview questions via e-mail.
- Skinnyski: You previously worked at Devil's
Thumb near Winter Park, Colorado. I've never heard of
that place -- what was that like?
Zielke: Devil's Thumb is a beautiful Nordic resort offering
over 70km of skate and classic skiing. It is nestled at
the base of the continental divide in the Winter Park
Valley. Because it is only 70 miles from Denver, we saw
100 skiers daily, up to 300 skiers on a good day. The
base of the valley is 8,500 feet which makes the challenging
terrain difficult for the "average Joe" skier.
- Skinnyski: What led you to the ski instructor position
at Bearskin Lodge?
Zielke: I recently completed a degree in Journalism,
and after a summer internship in Kansas City I realized
that an office job just wasn't for me. We found Bearskin's
wonderful web site and after meeting the owners Barb and
Dave Tuttle, seeing the beautiful facility, we were sold.
- Skinnyski: How has your first season up on the Gunflint
Zielke: We love it! It is fascinating to live somewhere
that Mother Nature dominates the landscape rather than
humans. It is easy to get lost in that state of "just
being" as you ski the hilly trails, wooded with huge white
pines, over and around numerous lakes, and abundant wildlife.
My wife Laura and I are very much into the "active lifestyle"
approach to raising our two children so we find Bearskin
to be an ideal setting for incorporating numerous outdoor
activities into our daily routine. The facilities such
as the hot tub house are fantastic. Because the owners
and staff are so friendly and the beautiful log homes
are so neat and clean I feel proud to be part of the team
and honored to share my love of skiing with all who come
to visit us.
- Skinnyski: You provide both individual and group instruction
at Bearskin, in addition to some activity planning (like
the Super Bowl weekend events). What other events do you
have planned this season?
Zielke: We have a monthly moon-light ski. I am also
planning a weekly ski to the bonfire -wine and cheese
event with Ivy Hocking. She leads dog sled tours here
and we want to integrate her tours with a ski tour that
will have a little social twist to make for a fun winter
experience. I thought it might be fun to start some weeknight
fun races on our lighted loop and maybe in the future
host a "Tour the Gunflint " event that could span several
trail systems. We share our rail system with Golden Eagle
Lodge and the Banadad trails. We could have a really neat
event where people could ski 100km point to point and
stop at the yurts, Bearskin Lodge, and Golden Eagle as
stopping points to eat and socialize and then ski to another
warm and friendly stopping point. Some might ski fast
and other might just tour. The idea would just be to have
fun. The main idea is to promote Nordic skiing at all
When I was 18 and I finished 19th in the Birke over
10,000 people raced. I just read in "Silent Sports", given
current registrations they are projecting 6,500 entrants.
We have seen a reduction in winter occupancy as well.
We don't believe that Nordic skiing is on the way out.
But the last few mild winters has hurt the Nordic industry
across the board. It is my belief that we can come out
of this slump with a few fantastic winters like this one.
What we need is to get creative and keep it fun for all
levels to rekindle the interest. In Colorado the Nordic
race seen is very different from the Midwest. The races
are composed of a higher percentage of serious racers.
They consequentially don't get quite the turn out because
they don't get all the citizen skiers that we do in the
Midwest who show up to "survive" a race and have fun.
I loved growing up in Wisconsin and going to races and
meeting all of the local people. Even the "Hot shots"
were friendly and that gave the Nordic community a kind
of a big family feel. I do think that some of the decline
in numbers may also be due to the high price of equipment.
For instance, when I started racing I bought my first
ski package, boots-skis-poles- and ski suit from this
guy named Mitch Mode for only $120. Now Mitch is a legend
and the same ski package would cost some high school kid
$600-1000. Back then all I had in my wax box was Swix
purple and Rex blue. Now you can spend $100 an ounce on
fluorocarbon waxes just to compete and you better have
on a nice respirator gas mask to save your lungs that
you spent so many hours developing. I'm not saying its
all bad. All sports have gotten higher tech. But its the
entry level skier that has gotten left in the dust and
those are the people who keep the sport alive. Sure you
need the high end racers. But most of those people get
equipment for free or get deals. I was one of them. It's
the average skier who buys all of his/her's equipment
that are getting turned off to the high tech prices. I
must admit that now that I'm a dad and my three-year-old
is starting to ski I cringe thinking about how I am going
to afford to buy him cap skis and carbon fiber poles.
- Skinnyski: What are your off-season plans?
Zielke: We will stay here at Bearskin year round. The
summers are busy and we will be helping with children's
programs, winter promotions and preparations, and all
those other things that go along with running a successful
- Any thoughts on returning to some competitive skiing
Zielke: You bet. I'm getting in about 40km a day right
now putting in base work. I do about 65-70% classic skiing.
I might do some spring marathons as 50km and up is my
specialty. We are just to busy on weekends for me to sneak
away right now. I have finished in the top 30 in the Birke
a hand full of times and I still feel that I might have
a top ten left in my legs. I also hope my children might
catch the cross-country ski bug and I know that I had
better stay in good shape to keep up with them some day.