Donors Let There Be Light on the Tech Trails

By Marcia Goodrich | Published

Cross-country skiers using the Michigan Tech Trails usually enjoy plenty of snow. What they haven’t had is plenty of light. Near the winter solstice, the sun falls below the horizon before 5 p.m., meaning that all but confirmed night skiers end up limiting their time on the trails to the weekend.

That will soon change. Anchored by gifts of $25,000 from Richard and Bonnie Robbins and $20,000 from Portage Health and its Health Foundation, the university has raised nearly $70,000 to install lights along 7.5 kilometers, about half of the entire trail system.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” says Mike Abbott, Michigan Tech’s director of sports and recreation. “It will be huge for the campus and the community at large. Probably the number-one request we’ve had was for lighted trails; people work late, and our days are so short.”

Mr. Robbins, who graduated from Michigan Tech in 1956 with a BS in Mechanical Engineering, skied for the university at a time when the team also competed in Nordic skiing, along with downhill, slalom and ski jumping. “I was never good enough to letter, but I had a lot of fun cross-country skiing, and I wanted to support Tech’s cross-country ski team. They really need to be able to get out and train after school and before class, when it’s dark.”

Lighting will also enhance the Tech Trails’ reputation as a Nordic skiing mecca, which has grown since the university hosted major national competitions during the last two winters.

Jim Bogan, CEO of Portage Health System, said the gift reinforces an existing relationship between his organization and Michigan Tech. “We view this as a next step in developing our strong Michigan Tech/Portage Health community partnership, which already exists within many of our departments, programs and staff,” he said. “We look forward to our continued collaboration and growth for many years to come.”

The new system will have about 130 lights mounted on fairly short poles, so the lights will be only about 18 feet above the snow. “That cuts down on light pollution,” Abbott explains. Thus, skiers who prefer to ski by moonlight or with headlamps can use the unlighted portion of the system and not be distracted.

In addition to major gifts from the Robbins family and Portage Health, the trail lights were funded by contributions from many area skiers, including Paul and Deb Charlesworth, who supported the project for two years via payroll deduction to the Michigan Tech Fund.

“It’s going to be good for the students and the community,” said Paul Charlesworth, an associate professor of chemistry. “When you have teaching or meetings until five in the middle of winter, it’s dark. You have to wait till the weekends to ski.” The trails, he says, “are one of the best features we have. All we need now is for the student skiers to start up a little coffee shop.”

Deb Charlesworth has a particularly soft spot for cross-country skiing. “On our first date, Paul and I we went skiing up at Swedetown, and he didn’t laugh at me when I fell down,” she remembers. “We went back to the Tech Trails when they were renovated. They are beautiful, a great place to take your family, but the biggest problem in winter is it gets dark so early. We want the trails to be lighted; that will be a great addition to the community.”

For now, the university plans to light the trails until about 10 or 11 p.m., and possibly early in the morning depending on demand. “We have lots of flexibility, and we’ll be looking for feedback,” Abbott said.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.