By Patty LaNoue Stearns
HILLMAN, MI -- We are bundled up beyond recognition in layers of thermal underwear, hooded Polartec sweatshirts, down-filled coats, mittens with liners, fleecy scarves, hats, earmuffs, double socks, waterproof boots and lap blankets, yet our toes are beginning to tingle from the bitter chill of the afternoon.
But the majesty of the hills and snow-crested pines that surround us is breathtaking, and the 45-minute glide through a forest that has not seen tire or snowmobile tracks makes the minor discomfort bearable.
In fact, it is perhaps the ultimate Up North winter indulgence: a 2-1/2-mile elk-viewing sleigh ride and gourmet dinner at Thunder Bay Resort in Hillman, about 230 miles north of Detroit.
Sixty-six hearty souls have piled into three red wooden sleighs, each pulled by two huge, handsome Belgian horses decked out in ornate harnesses and sleighbells. Myra Sheen guides our sleigh, keeping the convoy in formation. The pleasant clomping of hooves and jingling of the horses' gear put us in the mood.
At the rear of the sleigh, our chatty, fur-hatted guide Joe Libby, who also doubles as a golf pro in warmer months, gives the scoop on the log cabins we pass (the resort rents them out) and the local flora and fauna at this sprawling 150-acre resort.
We wend along the Thunder Bay River, under a thick, verdant canopy of red and white pine peppered with stands of poplar and maple. White-tailed deer, raccoons, wild turkeys, black bears, coyotes and foxes roam free on the property, says Libby.
As we approach the deep woods, our sleighs pass through a gated area that is fenced, where the herd of Rocky Mountain bull elk are kept. A dozen of them, sporting chocolate-hued manes and wooly, caramel-colored coats, are feeding, and they are enormous: more than 8 feet tall including their massive antlers and upward of 1,000 pounds.
We hop out of our sleighs for a face-to-face—right next to the feed troughs. We are warned to stay back from the fences, in case they decide to charge. Though mating season is over, these huge elk, captive or not, are dangerously wild and unpredictable. Many have had their antlers surgically removed in a procedure called 'velveting,' in which the growing antlers, covered in a velvet-like skin, are amputated within one inch of the animal's skull and regenerate the next season. The velvet is harvested and processed for use in Asian and North American nutritional supplements, and is thought to be, among other things, an aphrodisiac.
Thunder Bay owner Jack Matthias says his bulls average about 20 pounds of velvet annually over a lifetime, which can bring anywhere from $40 to $140 a pound.
The elk chew and snort and stare at us, unimpressed with our humanity. Up on the ridge beyond, we watch as two bulls, antlers locked, spar for dominance. In winter, the females and calves are kept in another part of the preserve. There are 130 elk in Thunder Bay's herd.
As dusk sets in, the snow takes on an icy shade of silvery blue. We jump into our sleighs after a short visit with the bulls, wrap the blankets tight around our feet and continue gliding through the woods, anticipating our five-course meal.
We approach a Norway-pine log lodge in the middle of a forest whose windows glow with golden light. It is toasty inside, so we file in, peel off our coats, gloves and boots and drop our blankets by the massive floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace, which crackles with a roaring fire.
The walls of the rustic, two-story lodge are filled with moose, elk and deer heads, animal pelts, antiques and old handsaws. We head for our assigned tables, decked out in crisp linens and china, and begin the sumptuous feast, after wine and sparkling grape juice is poured.
- First course: shrimp cocktail and a rolled tartlet made with Macintosh apples and pears.
- Next: A cup of thick chicken noodle soup.
- Third course: a marvelously sweet sesame-flavored salad with Napa lettuce and crisp noodles.
- Fourth: A fork-tender roast crown of pork with roasted redskin potatoes.
- Last course: Michigan cherry coffee with hand-rolled Italian pizzelle waffle pastry stuffed with white chocolate mousse and drizzled with raspberry sauce.
What makes this meal so spectacular is that our hostess, Jan Matthias, Jack's wife, has prepared dinner on two 100-year old gas/wood-burning stoves. She's been making these meals for the last nine years, perfecting what is certainly a lost art and most definitely a trial-by-fire mission.
Nine years ago, in a previous cabin on the property, there was no electricity, so Matthias decided she'd go back to the old way of making a meal. Of course, no instructions came with the stoves, which she bought from an antiques dealer. But Matthias, one of 13 siblings who grew up dirt poor on a farm between Hillman and Rust, recalled how her Polish mother, Anna Konwinski, prepared all of her family meals on a wood-burner.
"I probably ruined a good dozen meals before I perfected my method," she laughs. "You learn this was too hot or that was too long and that kind of thing. I mean, there are no dials to tell you what temperature that stove is ' now I have it pretty much down to a science."
She single-handedly prepares two meals a day for between 88 and 132 people. "Truthfully, it is just good, wholesome, old-time cooking. Good ingredients, everything from scratch, old-style cooking," she explains.
After we stuff ourselves with food and drink, it is time to bundle up and head back to the parking area and main office. Our toes feel fine, and the sleighs take a shortcut—in 20 minutes we are back in our cars, warm as toast, stuffed as pigs.
Patty LaNoue Stearns, former Detroit Free Press staff writer, is a Traverse City-based freelance writer.
If you go
Thunder Bay Resort is at 27800 m-32 East in Hillman. From Detroit, take I-75 to M-33, exit 202 (Alger, Rose City exit). Follow M-33 north through Rose City, Mio, Fairview and Comins to M-32. Turn right on M-32 to Hillman, go 10 miles. Remain on Hillman M-32 bypass. The resort is just past the second Hillman turnoff on the left.
Murder Mystery Weekend and winter viewing packages are available. Accommodations include suites, villas and chalets. Dinner events start at $68 per person; overnight with breakfast starts at $129 per person. Jan Matthias' recipes are available in a cookbook, 'Flavor from the Village,' which Thunder Bay Resort sells in its gift shop. For more information, call 1-800-729-9375.