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Chicago, Midwest’s just fine for snowboarders


Raging Buffalo
Illinois Highway 31 at
Wilbrandt Road, Algonquin

Chestnut Mountain
8700 Chestnut Road, Galena

Alpine Valley Ski Resort
W2501 County Road D, Elkhorn, Wis.

Devil’s Head Resort
S6330 Bluff Road,
Merrimac, Wis.

Swiss Valley Ski and
Snowboard Area

13421 Mann Street,
Jones, Mich.

Updated: February 17, 2014 6:59AM

Growing up, Mike Kartheiser’s family wasn’t into ski trips.

That didn’t discourage him. He mowed lawns all one summer, saving to buy his own gear. Except instead of skis, he got a snowboard.

Participating in a fast-growing, yet still forbidden sport at ski resorts didn’t sit well with his dad.

“He got really mad,” Kartheiser recalls. “I was 13 at the time and that’s the thing to do to your parents, I guess — rebel.”

Once the bad boy of winter sports, snowboarding today enjoys mainstream fanfare. The ratio of snowboarders to skiers on any given slope is nearly even, according to the national trade association SnowSports Industries America.

In addition, snowboarding has become an accessible sport in cold places with mountains — or not. That’s right — snow-capped peaks are preferred, but not a necessity.

Kartheiser doesn’t hail from the Rockies or Alps. He’s a pro snowboard coach from Chicago, where buildings pierce the sky.

Vertically challenged as the Midwest is, snowboarders can lace up their boots on snowy hills within a few hours of the city. Though the number of ski resorts in Illinois can be counted on one gloved hand, Kartheiser and others in the sports business say flatland-dwelling Midwesterners hold their own in snowboarding.

Low elevation allows riders to repeat their runs quickly. And that’s a good thing. “Here they can really hone their skills by doing lap after lap,” Kartheiser says.

“In Colorado it takes like two hours to get down. Here, it takes two minutes,” says 13-year-old Austin Doble. The Crystal Lake teen began shredding snow when he was 6.

These days it’s not uncommon for youngsters to pick up a board early, pointed out Pauly Reed, a Hoffman Estates native who coaches on the national level. “My 16-year-old son started when he was 4,” he says. “My little guy’s been riding for as long as he’s been walking. His second word was ‘snowboard.’ ”

Raging Buffalo Snowboard and Ski Park in Algonquin is the local stomping ground of young riders. An hour outside Chicago on the banks of the Fox River, the park has a 150-foot vertical drop with five runs and a terrain park is just right for beginning boarders.

Most ride for recreation, but there are those who — as the snowboarders say — “podium” in national competitions. Lake in the Hills resident Kyle Kelley, a gold medalist at last year’s X Games, got his start at Raging Buffalo.

“Jumps, rails and features they would have out [West], we have here,” said park owner Keith Duck. “We just don’t have 10,000 feet of vertical and beautiful scenery around us, but the riding is comparable.”

Duck converted the former ski hill into an exclusive snowboard-only park two decades ago. Soon after he allowed skiers in when freeriding — descending on ungroomed snow without a set course — gained the approval of, and then became popular with, ski crowds.

The actual terrain of Midwest slopes also stands in stark contrast to more mountainous areas since the snow base here primarily is manmade. That means no cushion of snow to catch a hard fall. Ice also is a frequent culprit on the hills.

“Holding an edge on that ice, it’s hard,” says Chris Bachman, a longtime snowboarder and owner of the Shred Shop, a Skokie store that carries snowboard gear and outdoor apparel.

Snowboarders who find their bearings on rough runs develop skills that help them adapt to volatile riding conditions.

“Every rider I met who started in the Midwest or was here for a significant amount of time end up doing way better out West,” Reed says.

“A lot of people who aren’t from here wouldn’t be able to handle what we have,” adds William Doble, an emergency care volunteer at Raging Buffalo.

Yet all agree nothing trumps a trip to the mammoth, powder-stricken mountains of towns such as Aspen and Park City.

“The worst day out there is still better than the best day here,” Reed said. “It’s steeper, it’s faster, and the snow conditions are a lot different.”

Still, longtime snowboarder Kartheiser defends the local scene, saying, “It’s a small hill in the Midwest, but what would I rather be doing, shoveling my driveway?”

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