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Candlelight skis, hikes start up in Wisconsin State Parks

More than 25 candlelight skis or hikes are being planned at Wisconsin state parks, forests and trails this winter, according to officials with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

If snow conditions permit, the first candlelight events of the year will kick off Jan. 3, 2009, at Blue Mound, Harrington Beach and Mirror Lake state parks.

Unfortunately, for area residents the annual candlelight ski at Willow River State Park, just outside of Hudson, has been canceled for 2009.

Candlelight events then run at locations around the state through the last weekend in February

Three candlelight events Jan. 11 and six on Feb. 7 also fall near full moons, which add not only to visibility, but to the ambiance of the events.

"Candlelight skis and hikes continue to be some of the most popular winter activities at Wisconsin state parks, forests and trails," says Dan Schuller, DNR director of the state parks and recreation program.

"When the weather cooperates and conditions are good, we can have hundreds of people turn out for a single event," he added.

Most candlelight events are held in cooperation with local park, trail or forest friends groups, many of which serve hot apple cider or hot chocolate, as well as baked goods, popcorn and other treats. Most events also include roaring bonfires and some provide grills for cooking.

With excellent snowfall last year, many parks reported near record turn-out for events. Carolyn Rock, park naturalist for Whitefish Dunes State Park, said conditions could not have been more perfect for their candlelight event last January, which brought more than 400 visitors to the park.

"Many people commented on the true winter conditions that hadn't been seen in years," Rock says.

She adds the park would not be able to hold such an event without the assistance of their friends group and volunteers, noting that more than 50 volunteers spent 119 hours setting out luminaries, baking treats and helping clean up after the event. The Whitefish Dunes candlelight ski this winter will be Saturday, Jan. 31 from 6 to 9 p.m.

Despite a weather forecast calling for dangerous wind chills, more than 150 people turned out last winter for the 19th annual candlelight ski/hike at the Pike Lake Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest.

"Forest staff and members of the Friends of Pike Lake were wondering how many guests, if any, would come out for the event," says Terry Jensen, supervisor at the forest unit. "But the nasty weather thankfully held off until after the event ended, with the wind not much of a problem for the 250 luminaries along the 1.5 miles of lit trails. The 150 guests who came out for the evening had a great time."

The Pike Lake candlelight ski and hike event this winter will be held on Valentine's Day, Saturday, Feb. 14, at the beach area from 6 to 9 p.m.

Many events also include separate trails for visitors wanting to hike or snowshoe by candlelight. Rib Mountain State Park, which doesn't have cross-country ski trails, sponsored a candlelight snowshoe hike that drew approximately 300 people last winter. The candlelight snowshoe hike at Rib Mountain this winter will be held Saturday, Feb. 21 from 6 to 8 p.m.

In general, candlelight events are held on beginning-level ski trails with gently rolling hills; however, some parks do set candles out on more difficult trails for advanced skiers. The trails are lit with between 200 to 400 candles per mile. Most events begin after dusk, about 5 to 6 p.m., and run until about 9 p.m.

The events are free, but state park admission stickers are required for entrance to the parks. Events may be canceled or changed if conditions change or if there are hazardous conditions, such as freezing rain or icy trails, so park officials say it is always best to call ahead.