On the trail of excellence

What started out as a business venture to harvest maple sap in 1973, spawned into something sweeter for the Richards family, the owners of Maplelag Resort in Callaway.

Jay and Jim Richards
Jay Richards, left, and his father Jim keep up the extensive cross-country ski trail at Maplelag Resort. Avid skiers themselves, the family-owned business is tuned into what skiers want in their trails. (Brian Wierima/Tribune)

What started out as a business venture to harvest maple sap in 1973, spawned into something sweeter for the Richards family, the owners of Maplelag Resort in Callaway.

After deciding to uproot their family from the busy city life of Edina, Jim and Mary Richards -- along with their children, Jay and Debbie -- purchased a plot of 53 acres in 1972, with the idea of starting a maple syrup business.

Although the Richards' maple syrup venture proved to be profitable -- the business lasted 12 years and even produced the most maple sap in Minnesota one year with 400 gallons -- Maplelag would evolve into a national attraction for its cross-country ski trails.

But it didn't happen overnight, as chunks of land was bought up by the Richards' throughout the years, and the land now has 64 kilometers of some of the most pristine trails in the nation.

More than plenty of work has gone into making Maplelag's cross country skiing trails into the best in the United States, along with a lot of love and enjoyment of chiseling the trails through some of Minnesota's prettiest country.


"They say if you choose a job you love, you never have to work in your life," Jim Richards said. "I just enjoy the work so much. The feedback (on the trails and the resort) has been unbelievable; we have a lot of repeat customers coming back. About 80-85 percent of our business being repeat customers.

"It's like having friends coming back."

In fact, Maplelag doesn't have to advertise much, instead relying on one of the most potent tools -- word of mouth.

"We don't have to do the big circuit shows to spread the word," Jim Richards added. "It's been mainly word of mouth and (recently) the Internet. Jay does a great job posting fresh stuff on our website daily."

The word of Maplelag having spectacular groomed cross-country skiing trails spread like wildfire in 1992.

That was the year a nationally Nordic skiing publication conducted a poll throughout the U.S. and named Maplelag ski trails as the best in the nation.

The little, tucked away family-run resort in rural Callaway, Minnesota, beat out the big corporate resorts of the East and West.

It was the last time the poll was conducted.


"We just blew those resorts from California and New York out of the water," Jim said of the poll. "The big corporations were none too happy about that and the poll was never run again."

What started as a small trail meandering through the woods in 1973, was the spark of something special in the world of Nordic skiing.

From sugar house to a splendid lodge

The Richards' purchase of the land -- roughly located halfway between Richwood and White Earth village --  coincided with the publics' movement from downhill skiing to cross-country skiing.

The Richards family was into Nordic skiing and collected a vast knowledge of the sport from their love of it.

The downhill runs in Minnesota were short and usually it lost out to the much longer runs of Colorado and Montana.

So Nordic skiing took its hold in Minnesota during the early 1970s.

And that was when the foundations of Maplelag were laid.


"We had room for 12 people in our bunkhouse, which was really just a sugarhouse," Jim said. "The only trails we basically had were some deer trails."

The first Nordic skiing club took interest in the newly formed maple syrup business, called the Mother North Star Cross Country Skiing Club, from out of Minneapolis.

Richards charged $3.50 a night for the skiers to stay in the sugarhouse, which had a bathroom and a small community kitchen they could cook their food in.

The first Maplelag skiing trail was promptly named Sap Run, a 1.3 K short loop.

The big break came a little later, when Concordia College Language Camp director Dell Bjorkness took interest in Maplelag.

"He was interested in having the Russian-Swedish Language Camp here, if we would build a lodge to host it in the summer," Jim said.

Maplelag started its expansion, along with the trails, with the help of 44 Norwegian students, who helped carve out the second ski trail -- the 3.4 K Sukkerbusk trail.

Throughout the years, as well, Maplelag has been host to hundreds of foreign students, who have worked at the resort.


"I had experience in blasting ponds, so we used chainsaws and blasted rock and stumps to make the trails in the early days," Jim said. "It took two seasons to make Sukkerbusk."

Now, Maplelag has a total of 21 trails skiers can take, spanning 64 K. There are also attractions like the largest hot tub in Minnesota (which is open 24 hours, seven days a week) and a gorgeous 46,000-square-foot lodge.

But the trails don't take care of themselves and that's where Jay Richards -- Jim's son -- comes in.

Hard work, early hours and much TLC has transformed wilderness into finely groomed skiing trails.

Early to rise

It's hard to think of anyone anticipating the first snow more than Jay Richards.

"I can't sleep when I know the first snow is coming," Jay said. "My passion goes into those trails."

That passion is proven when Jay gets up at 2 a.m. on some mornings, to drive one of his three snowmobiles or big tread-tracked groomer, to groom the trails for the early-morning skiers who are staying at Maplelag.


It's not only the hard work and long hours that make Maplelag's trails the best, but the knowledge the Richards' have picked up while being passionate cross-country skiers.

"Having that passion for the sport and carrying that over into the grooming has been important," Jay stated.

But it's a big process to get the trails in shape, and it starts with the first snowfall of at least two to three inches.

Although that isn't enough for skiing, compacting that first snow is as key as anything else during the winter season.

"When you are compacting it, riding over dirt and rock with a snowmobile just doesn't feel right, but it needs to be done," Jay said. "It's the worst feeling going over that kind of ground, but that creates the base for the season."

When that two to three inch base is compacted, the next snow will provide enough for the skiers to at least get an early taste of gliding down the trails.

So, in essence, Maplelag trails are ready to go much earlier than any other trail system, simply because most cross-country trails are not groomed until there is at least five to six inches of snow.

During the summer and fall, the trails are maintained like golf fairways -- making it easier to compact the first base.


After that, every day is different for Jay Richards and his grooming helping hand, Lee Disse. Richards needs to be on top of the snowfall forecast and if the white is ready to fall, the two groomers will be out on the trails.

Last year, Richards and Disse were out on the trails grooming 42 out of 45 days.

"We have to get out there by 4 a.m. to start grooming to have them ready by 9:30 a.m. for the skiers," Jay said. "It's definitely not a 9 to 5 job."

It also takes precision and a timely effort to keep the trails in perfect condition. If the temperatures get a little high, which makes the snow heavy and wet, Richards has to be on top of that and compact and groom the trails before it gets colder and freezes the snow back up.

Using his cross-country racing experience, Jay also knows how to effectively groom the trails' corners and downhill approaches.

"You just want as firm a surface as possible," he said.

With 64K of trails to work with, there is plenty of variety at Maplelag. There are treks for classic and freestyle, as well as for both. There are trails for experts to beginners, so the options for the skier is almost endless.

"This is our livelihood and business, we want our trails to be in the best condition as possible," Jay said. "That's what keeps me motivated every day, to keep the trails in the best shape for the skiers and (ensure that) they want to come back."

Being out on the trails in the early dawn hours, also provides plenty of sights.

"When it's a full moon, it's just still and quiet," Jay said. "It's an amazing experience not many people get to have. You see deer, owls, woodpeckers and lately I've been seeing some timber wolf tracks. And the sunrises are just beautiful."

With the trails being in condition like no other in the nation, their unique names also stand out.

Names like Lucky's Loype, Poki Loki, Rootin' Tootin' and Jib Fly make the trails colorful and even more interesting.

Each name and names of points on the trails have a story. Like Rootin' Tootin', which was inspired by a Laurel and Hardy Fan Club.

The 10.1 K Roy's Run, was named after Roy Skoen, a Norwegian bachelor who made his own cross-country skis and skied from his cabin near Maplelag to the Richwood General Store returning with a gunny sack full of supplies.

Or the point called Frank's Fort, which was inspired by University of Minnesota professor Frank Irving, who set up his blind for hunting near the trail.

There are stories galore which go into the Maplelag trails and each one is unique.

With nearly 40 years of history in the Maplelag skiing trails, it's fair to assume -- with the hard work and passion the Richards put into them --that another 40 strong years are on their way.

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