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In memory of Sally

Mike Van Sicklen, left, and Brule River State Forest superintendent Dave Schulz pose with a plaque for the newly-dedicated Sally’s Classic ski trail. (Emily Kram)

BRULE — Mild temperatures and a bright moon provided perfect conditions for a candlelight ski Saturday at the Afterhours Trail in the Brule River State Forest.

As visitors raved about the beauty of the trails and the quality of skiing, Darrell Thompson stood by with a twinkle in his eye.

“When I came to Brule in ’83, our ski trail was basically a deer runway,” he said. “I mean it was just a little trail through the woods.”

That isn’t the case any longer.

The Afterhours Trail now ranks as a popular ski destination. The trail system has grown immensely over the years, and many improvements can be traced back to one group of volunteers.

The catalyst of the group, Thompson said, was Sally Vilas Whiffen.

“I don’t think there’s enough words to say,” Thompson said. “She was a dandy, that’s all I can say.

“Sally and I were good friends for many years. She loved the woods, the water and the wildlife. She was a naturalist.”

Friends and family shared memories of Vilas Whiffen Saturday during a ceremony to rename a loop of the Afterhours Trail in her honor. The route — now called Sally’s Classic — is a nearly 7-kilometer stretch of trail that follows a quiet, meandering course through the woods.

Saturday also marked the grand opening of a new warming house on the Brule River State Forest property.

Dave Schulz, BRSF superintendent, said the project could not have happened without assistance from the Brule Valley Ski Club and a substantial donation from the family of Vilas Whiffen.

“Sally was one of the original members of the ski club,” Schulz said. “This is 25 to 30 years ago, so it was a long time ago when these trails were just beginning.”

Greg St. Onge, a founding member of the ski club along with Vilas Whiffen and Thompson, said Saturday’s gathering was a fitting tribute to the Brule woman, who passed away in May 2013.

“I just think she’d be very excited about the progress,” St. Onge said. “We really came from nowhere. There was a parking lot here, and today we have this shelter that is welcoming and beautiful. It’s a great spot for the community.”

The Afterhours Trail boasts 27 kilometers of groomed ski trails and two snowshoeing loops. The new warming house stands at the trailhead, and a nearby machine garage houses the grooming equipment used to maintain the trails.

The trail system as it stands today is the result of a partnership between the local ski club and the DNR that dates back nearly three decades.

The ski club’s efforts began in earnest in 1991. The purchase a commercially-made groomer — largely paid for by a donation from Vilas Whiffen — marked a turning point for the group. Up to that point, the volunteers had groomed the trail using homemade, wooden equipment that often splintered and broke apart.

The new steel groomer made it easy to maintain trails, and it encouraged the club to ramp up its efforts with the DNR to develop the Afterhours Trail.

“It’s just like that story about the baseball field, ‘If you build it they will come,’” St. Onge said. “Well, we were kind of amazed because people did come.”

At first skiers came from Duluth and Superior. Then they began arriving from Hayward, Ashland and even more distant locales.

“People came from all over because there hadn’t been anything like that here before,” St. Onge said. “We had one of the earliest candlelight skis in the state.”

At the annual candlelight ski and snowshoe event Saturday at the Afterhours Trail, skiers laughed around the stove in the new warming house and sipped cups of hot chocolate. An estimated 200 people showed up to ski the trails.

“This is like a dream,” said Bob Cragin, vice president of the ski club and a longtime member. “This is cause for celebration.”

The new warming house on the property put the finishing touches on what has been an decades-long effort to improve the trail system in the woods near Brule.

Compared to the old warming shelter on the property, the new chalet-style building is a serious upgrade.

“Have you seen the old warming shelter? That was an old garage that used to sit up by the Brule River on Highway FF,” Cragin said.

Mike Van Sicklen, Vilas Whiffen’s son, was on hand Saturday for the grand opening of the warming house and the trail dedication.

“She’d be very excited,” he said. “She’d be embarrassed but very excited.”

Skiing was among Vilas Whiffen’s favorite pastimes, Van Sicklen said, and the dedication of the classic trail in her honor would have suited her.

“My mother grew up as a Vilas and was a socialite who lived in San Fransico and never skied in her life,” Van Sicklen said. “Like most women in that era, she didn’t grow up being an athlete. Then my stepfather dragged her up here and they built a house on the Brule River.”

That marked the beginning of a transformation for Vilas Whiffen. She lived in the Brule region for 20 years and became an active conservationist and supporter of outdoor recreation.

“She turned into an avid outdoorswoman,” Van Sicklen said. “She wrote a book about the deer herd up here, she got the law changed on the use of state forests (to de-emphasize logging) . . . and she turned into a very active master athlete. She won her age group in the Birkie and she ran Grandma’s Marathon regularly.”

By the time she was in her mid-50s, Vilas Whiffen was already winning the Birkie in her age group. Van Sicklen wasn’t much of a cross country skier at the time, but his mother encouraged him to give the sport a try.

When she sent him a skiing kit for Christmas, Van Sicklen agreed to make the trek from Madison to participate in the Birkie.

“I stood at the very tail-end of the very last wave, thinking no one would bother me back there,” Van Sicklen said. “All of a sudden my 55-year-old mom showed up next to me in a pink Lycra racing suit.

“I never skied so fast in my life to stay ahead of her. I had a stiff neck looking back.”

This year, Van Sicklen will be skiing in his 30th Birkie. His three sons all compete as well, and his grandsons will be in the Barnebirkie youth race.

Van Sicklen said skiing the race is one way to honor his mother and the lifestyle she loved.

The new warming house and the Afterhours Trail is another part of Vilas Whiffen’s legacy.

Funding for the project began with the DNR, but as expenses mounted the total cost began to approach the budget ceiling. At that point the Brule Valley Ski Club stepped in.

All interior furnishings — from the knotty pine walls to the new pellet stove — were funded by the ski club and the Vilas Whiffen’s memorial donation.

“It’s turned into a great partnership really between the DNR, local employees and the ski club volunteers,” St. Onge said. “That’s one of the greatest things about this program. A lot of good things have happened here, and it’s happened because of this cooperation that’s going on between the skiers and the DNR.”

Eventually, the ski club plans to have the warming house outfitted have rustic wooden furniture. St. Onge said the ski club has invited students at Northwestern High School to create log-type furniture, but the work is not expected to be finished until next year if they accept.

In the meantime, Brule Valley Ski Club president Cordell Manz expects to move ahead with plans to expand the existing Afterhours Trail system.

“We’re excited as a ski club because now that this building is done — this has been in the works for a few years to get the funding and everything — now we feel like maybe we can look forward to a couple other projects outside again. Maybe add a couple more trails,” Manz said.

Potential projects include the addition of ski loops as well as trails for mountain biking.

Plans for the former warming house are still pending. Schulz said one option is to move the building to a new location on the property to serve as a camper cabin. A second option is to convert it to a heated maintenance space.

“Right now I’m leaning toward moving it out someplace on the ski trail,” Schulz said. “It wouldn’t have electricity — we’d probably put a small woodstove in there — and the idea would be that people could ski out to it and spend the night. It’s like a hard-walled tent, and it would also be available during summer months for that same purpose.”

A decision on establishing a camper cabin and several other property improvements will be addressed in the state forest’s review of its master plan. An open house and presentation on future plans will be held 6-8 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Brule Town Hall, 5814 S. Maple St.