It doesn’t matter how many times he’s been down it, Jim Rudicil says. He still gets pumped when he makes a run down the luge track. And he’s been down it a lot.
Rudicil, executive director of the non-profit Muskegon Winter Sports Complex (MWSC), has been working to make this one of Michigan’s premier spots to have fun in winter since he was 12. The complex, at the north end of Muskegon State Park on Lake Michigan, has been part of the winter sports scene since 1984, and Rudicil has seen nearly ever step of its development. Its most famous element is its luge track, one of only four in the country.
For those unfamiliar with luge, picture yourself careening down an iced track— with banked turns and twisty corners— trying to maneuver a narrow sled while flat on your back, feet first, with only a few tweaks of your toes on the runners and some weight shifts between you and just going straight, or causing a ping-pong effect against the luge walls.
The experts competing in the Winter Olympics run their laps at up to 90 mph with up to 5s of force, down tracks of up to a mile and a half long. If you take the plunge at Muskegon, you’ll be traveling 600 feet at up to 30 mph on a track designed for public use as a safe introduction to the sport for ages eight and older, making it a great family activity.
That this luge exists is a testament to forward-thinkers who saw the region’s economy shifting from industry to tourism in the 1980s, and who are continuing to evolve this into a year-round sports spot. Rudicil was in on its creation from when the first board on the track was laid. It all began with a sledding hill that was almost in his back yard, and is now a part of the course.
“I lived on the park border and neighborhood friends (including future Olympic silver and bronze medalist luger Mark Grimmette) heard construction equipment on our favorite sledding hill. Workers were putting posts across it and we were told they were building a luge track, and they asked us if we’d like to volunteer and carry some boards up the hill. The rest has been a long, fun journey,” Rudicil recalls.
“What made the complex a natural as a site of a luge track was that it was a toboggan run developed by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.” After the luge was completed, he and Grimmette traveled to the U.S. Olympic training center at Lake Placid. Grimmette went on to compete on the world circuit. Rudicil made the junior national development team but wasn’t ready for the time commitment needed to qualify for the U.S. team. He returned to Muskegon and coached others for a potential national ride, helped to run the complex and contributed to improvements and additions, and eventually took charge of the wintertime amusement park of outdoor fun.
Of the four luge tracks in the U.S., two are in Michigan; there is a naturbahn (natural) luge in Negaunee, in the Upper Peninsula. The others are Olympic-level tracks, in Lake Placid, New York, home of the 1932 and 1980 games; and Park City, Utah, site of the 2002 Olympics. At Muskegon, Rudicil says, “We pride ourselves on opening the luge experience to the average Joe or Jane. We’re here to introduce the sport to people.”
The public portion of the run starts threequarters of the way to the top of the 850foot track. Sliding sessions, offered Friday through Sunday, include instruction on how to steer the 30-pound sleds, track safety and techniques that will make your run faster. Strap on your required helmet and elbow pads (provided with the luge fee), and follow your fellow wannabe Olympians to the start. Then it’s get on the sled and get comfortable, as much as you can on a platform that will send you down the track in about 18 seconds, 17 or so if you push it–although many who clock 30 seconds say that’s fast enough.
There’s time during each two-and-one-half-hour session for three to five runs. Most are happy with that, especially after carrying their sleds up 60 stairs to the start. On the last two runs, lugers can compete against each other, with medals for the fastest times. Conquering fear on that first run, Rudicil says, is the main challenge.
“There is control, but when you watch the Olympics it looks easy. It’s a lot of precision and there’s a lot of things going on when you’re on that sled at 80 mph. It took the racers you see in the Olympics, a minimum of six or eight years before they’re sliding at those speeds,” he says.
You’ll find a lot more is going on here than just its famous luge run, Rudicil explains. The beauty of the Muskegon complex, especially for a family with different ages, abilities and interests, is its variety of outdoor activities besides the luge. Younger children get their downhill thrills on the family sledding slope; rental sleds are available. MWSC has two acres of ice rinks for recreational skating and hockey, and a lighted quarter-mile, figure eight ice skating trail through the woods.
This is home to the Midwest’s largest lighted cross-country ski trail system, with three of its five trails efficiently illuminated by LED lights. Trails range from two to five kilometers in length and pass through woods, along the shore, and over dunes at levels of difficulty from easy to expert. Group lessons are available, so the family can learn to ski together.
Of the four snowshoe trails, the Woods Loop is shorter and easier for children and beginner snowshoers, while the Lake Michigan Loop traverses the ups and downs of shore dunes for a more challenging hike.
Skates, hockey sticks and helmets, and cross-country ski and snowshoe equipment rentals for children and adults are available at the 4,000-square-foot lodge, where you can sip hot chocolate by the warming fireplace.
This article originally appeared in the 2018 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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