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Family, staff carry on the tradition at Buena Vista Ski Area (video, photos)

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A view of the chalet from atop one of 16 downhill runs at Buena Vista Ski Resort. (Eric Hylden | Forum News Service)2 / 6
The resort has several machines to make snow when the temperature drops below freezing. (Eric Hylden | Forum News Service)3 / 6
Suzanne Thomas plays a tune inside the Lumberjack Hall of Fame on the grounds of the Beuna Vista resort. (Eric Hylden | Forum News Service)4 / 6
Buena Vista ski resort overlooks Lake Julia north of Bemidji. (Eric Hylden | Forum News Service)5 / 6
Buena Vista Ski Resort owner Suzanne Thomas and her staff are putting the finishing touches on the Bemidji resort for the upcoming ski season. (Eric Hylden | Forum News Service)6 / 6

BEMIDJI—Standing at the highest point of Buena Vista Ski Area, where the waters from Lake Julia to the north and west drain into Hudson Bay, and Larson Lake to the east and south flows to the Gulf of Mexico, it's easy to see why Suzanne Thomas and others in her family love this place and eagerly share it with others.

The view, quite simply, is breathtaking here at the Continental Divide.

"Isn't it pretty?" said Thomas, a third-generation family member to run Buena Vista Ski Area north of Bemidji. "We can see nine lakes from the top."

There's been a Dickinson—Thomas' maiden name—forging a living from this rugged land of trees and lakes in Turtle River Township since the late 1800s. Ranching, logging and lumber were staples, but Thomas' grandfather, Leonard Dickinson, cleared the first run at Buena Vista for friends and family back in 1936, and the ski area officially opened in 1949 with the installation of the first rope tow.

Chairlifts were added in 1975.

There's a lot of history here at the site of the former lumber town of Buena Vista, which Thomas says narrowly missed becoming the Beltrami County seat in the late 1800s. A church and a one-room schoolhouse that's more than 100 years old stand on the 90-acre ski area site, offering reminders of days gone by.

A Lumberjack Hall of Fame Museum built in 1985 is rich in memorabilia and artifacts from the early 1900s logging era.

This time of year, though, skiing is the focus, and Buena Vista Ski Area is marking its 67th official season, Thomas says.

"I believe we're the second-oldest ski area in Minnesota," she said. Only Lutsen Mountains on Lake Superior's North Shore is older, and that's just by a year or two, Thomas says.

"People don't realize we've been open and going this long," she said.

Signs of winter

It's starting to look a lot like winter, thanks to a Nov. 17-18 snowstorm that dumped more than 6 inches of snow on the Bemidji area—just in time for Buena Vista's annual open house Nov. 19.

Not everyone likely shared Thomas' enthusiasm for the snow.

"We love to see the snow—it was exciting," she said. "I couldn't wait to go out in it. I was still mowing up to about a week and a half (earlier)."

The snowfall brought cooler temperatures, and workers fired up the ski area's seven snowmaking machines the afternoon of Nov. 19. They made snow until about 10:30 a.m. Monday, when temperatures got too warm.

Thomas said they'd hoped to open as early as today, but with no frigid relief on the horizon, Buena Vista probably won't open until next weekend, she said.

"All of the snowmakers like the temperature to be about zero degrees and low humidity," Thomas said. "If we have high humidity and 27 degrees, they spit water out."

Getting the ski area ready for another season is a big job, Thomas says, and employees and family members have been busy since October mowing, painting and tending to countless other tasks.

There also are more than 440 pairs of skis to wax and another 120 snowboards to prepare for rental.

The resort has about 60 employees at its peak, Thomas says, including instructors. Some of the employees have worked at Buena Vista for more than 20 years, and many wear several hats.

"We like to have people that are cross-trained," she said. "That's really important. We really appreciate their willingness to pitch in. It's kind of like a family team working together."

Andrew Buell is one of those workers. Buell attended the University of Minnesota-Crookston for water resource management. Now, his job is snow management, helping to man the snow machines and tending to other duties that needed tending before the ski area opens.

"We do a lot of (ski) lift maintenance when it's warm, so we'll service all the towers and chairs and lower drive assemblies, we'll chop the hills, cut the grass one more time to make sure we're ready to roll and then start making snow from there," Buell said.

Now in his second season, Buell said he needed a job, and Buena Vista fit the bill. Thomas says she hopes he sticks around for a while.

Buena Vista also has a 40-person ski patrol, a volunteer crew of trained personnel that shares duties onsite in case of mishaps on the resort's 16 ski runs.

"They're mainly here for support if someone is injured, and their training will give them the skills to treat people right on the hill," Thomas said. "The main thing is to get the people settled on the hill and safely bring them to the patrol building.

"If it's wrists, ankles, frostbite, they're out there. Without them, we couldn't run."

Lodge a centerpiece

Beyond the hills—one an 80-foot slope sculpted with heavy equipment in the late '70s—the lodge is Buena Vista's centerpiece. The 90-by-50-foot building has three floors, and workers recently completed a major project to refurbish the flooring.

"It gives us a nice, fresh look," Thomas said.

The lodge is rich in historic photos, including several of Thomas' father, Earle Dickinson, a renowned logger and horseman who died unexpectedly in October 2006 while running the D8 Caterpillar he loved to operate. Horses, the D8 and people were her dad's passion, Thomas says, and she and others in the family are working to keep that tradition alive.

Thomas says her husband, Don, does a lot of the heavy work her dad used to handle on the site.

Earle's wife, Mariann, and sister, Muffy Dickinson, still live nearby and are regulars at the ski area and lodge, Thomas says.

It's a big job, running a ski area in the winter and hosting weddings, reunions and events such as the annual fall festival, Thomas says, but the work is enjoyable.

"I guess I'm kind of into history because I've had so many good memories; I want to keep them alive for the next generation," Thomas said. "I miss Dad, and Grandpa and Grandma and everything, but I just feel that they're all kind of still here together because this is what they built.

"I'm only trying to carry on and keep it going."

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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