Rental of fat bikes, skating seals and orienteering for Christmas

Thurston Miller and I drive through deep snow on Saturday, over brush and wire netting, to find the Russian drawing a map for possible orienteering around St. Patrick and Madeline Bertrand County Parks .

We pass through Bertrand County Park North into an old farm property, then down a steep ridge. Vladimir Zherdev emerges from the other side of a creek near the Saint-Joe River, his clipboard and compass in hand, crayons strapped to his chest.

He speaks little English, but Miller, an orienteering enthusiast from Granger, says Zherdev is one of the few mapping experts in the world who can draw the kind of detail runners would need: a line fence, a large tree, a shed, a thick patch of thorns and other elements that a satellite photo does not capture. It marks them as landmarks or obstacles that could slow runners down as they seek the best route through the terrain to find their race checkpoints, or flags, which are often hidden from the trails. Runners will only see their cards right before the race.

“You really use your wits to find the best route,” Miller says of orienteering. (Watch a GoPro video of Zherdev’s mapping at

Zherdev aims to complete this map by June. Miller hopes to hold two races a year, including at least one in the fall, in this area on the state line, including the two parks, farm and sports fields just south of St. Pat’s in South Bend. Parks allowed Zherdev to map the area, but St. Joseph County Parks Director Evie Kirkwood said there was still a lot of discussion ahead before allowing a run.

Miller has yet to apply for such an event. And there are natural questions about how people straying off the trail might harm plant life like native wildflowers. Visitors to the park are always advised to stick to the trails. Miller realizes that the decision could depend on where the flags are planted and how many trails are used. Flags are placed just a day or two before the race and then removed immediately, and their location tends to change with each race.

Miller tried to gain local interest in orienteering. He and his family are active members of the Orienteering Cincinnati club, which is said to host the local races, and they go to races in the Midwest where even their children compete in youth races. The Cincinnati club paid to bring Zherdev to the United States to work on several maps – and loaned him out to score the home zone, Miller says.

Zherdev tells me that he teaches sports at a technical university in Moscow, including running and cross-country skiing. He hopes to complete local mapping by Christmas Eve, then move on to mapping projects near Philadelphia, then return to Moscow on January 12.

Fatbikes at Love Creek

Love Creek County Park in Berrien Center now offers bikes to rent and try on its new three-mile snow bike trail, whether or not there is snow. Outpost Sports supplied four of these bikes with large tires, often 3-4 inches wide, which have become a trend among mountain bikers for their ability to gain traction on snow and provide more stability on rough terrain. .

Cindy Rose and her family became the first to rent them last weekend when her two sons and one of their girlfriends returned to Center Berrien. Rose, 62, who runs marathons but lacks mountain biking experience, says it took her a few minutes of riding before she felt comfortable.

“At first it was a little intimidating,” she says. A few trees approached. Her legs were spinning until she understood the gears. “After that it was just fun and a good workout.”

This means you can try a “fattie” without the price of buying fat from several local bike shops, around $1000, more or less. Love Creek bikes rent for $15 an hour or $25 for two hours, plus a $5 trail fee when the snow bike trail is groomed. Call 269-471-2617 to check availability or to reserve a bike. Without snow, all trails in the park are open for riding with fat bikes, except for the Love Creek Valley Loop.

Starr Kelly pushes her daughter, Brynn Kelly, 6, on Sunday on one of the new seals, a device that children can ride or use as a support when learning to skate at the Merrifield Park ice rink in Mishawaka.  SBT Photo/MIKE HARTMAN

skater seals

For little kids who are still wobbly on their ice skates or haven’t learned yet, Mishawaka’s Merrifield Park Rink now offers 15 “coaches” they can hold on to. These plastic devices come in the shape of a baby blue seal, which children push or ride on when an adult drags them. I’ve seen kids use – and learn quickly – using similar trainers at Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena. It’s a modern upgrade from the old days when families took their skating kids to frozen ponds with a push chair. Mishawaka seals rent $1 per session. They made their debut last weekend when the rink managed to open. Manager Brad Mick hopes to reopen this weekend if ice conditions allow.

South Bend’s Howard Park Rink has a handful of similar coaches who are available to support people with disabilities only.

yes there is skiing

The closest alpine ski resort that has managed to open so far is Bittersweet Ski Resort, 600 River Road, Otsego, Michigan, just northwest of Kalamazoo, whose opening day was Sunday with three of its tracks. Bittersweet opened up with lots of snowmaking when temps were cold enough. As the weather warms up again, keep a close eye on current resort conditions at or 269-694-2820.

Just north of Grand Rapids, the Cannonsburg Ski Area tried but couldn’t produce enough snow to open last weekend. But, from Caberfae Peaks to Cadillac, Michigan, and further north, ski resorts are open with artificial snow bases.

Swiss Valley Ski Area in Jones reports that it won’t start snowing for several days when the majority of hours are below 28 degrees and when humidity, wind and rain are light. Remember last winter when conditions didn’t allow it to open before New Years?

Count cranes, etc.

There are still tons of sandhill cranes to see from the observation decks at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, just off US 421 in Medaryville, Ind. – over 18,330 at last week’s final tally for the season. Their numbers increased throughout the fall. Generally, viewing is said to be best until December.

Meanwhile, volunteers at last Saturday’s Christmas Bird Count counted 4,918 American crows within a 7.5-mile radius of South Bend, along with 118 eastern bluebirds (breaking an old record of 71) and 68 sandhill cranes, among 57 bird species, says coordinator Vic Riemenschneider. Twenty-nine volunteers were counted from the field and 10 from their own homes. There are more of these counts in northern Indiana from December 30 through January 2, and they need your help in charting local bird trends, even if you’re inexperienced. Check out last week’s column at for more details. You must register in advance.

Outdoor Adventures author Joseph Dits is at, 574-235-6158, @SBToutdoors, [email protected] and

Thurston Miller, left, of Granger, and Russian mapping expert Vladimir Zherdev explain how they map an orienteering course on a property just north of Madeline Bertrand County Park in Niles.  Watch a GoPro video of Zherdev at work at  SBT Photo/JOSEPH DITS
Vladimir Zherdev holds the tools he uses to mark a detailed map for possible orienteering in Michiana.  SBT Photo/JOSEPH DITS
Vladimir Zherdev of Moscow marks a map he is creating for possible orienteering at Madeline Bertrand and St. Patrick county parks and nearby border properties.  Watch a GoPro video of Zherdev at work at  SBT Photo/JOSEPH DITS

• Last minute gift: Mary Catterlin and Amy Lukas of Beverly Shores, Ind., finally finished the book about their 1,200-mile trip around Lake Michigan by canoe when they were in their early twenties. They’re now taking orders for “Lake Michigan in a Dugout: The Log!”, which includes their own sketches, watercolors, and photos from the 2012 trip. Place orders for $25 at Delivery is scheduled for March 15.

• Christmas Eve Hike: Join a naturalist for a one-hour hike at 10 a.m. CST Thursday, then hot chocolate by a fire at Indiana Dunes State Park, 1600 N. County Road 25 East, Chesterton, Ind.

• New Year’s Getaways: Next week’s column will feature a list of New Year’s rides and other active ways to welcome 2016. So here’s a warning that the Michiana Bicycle Association will be hosting its annual Polar Bear Ride at 11 a.m. on January 1 at Martin’s Super Market. at Indiana 23 and Adams Road in Granger. There will be short trips. Do you know of any other active New Year’s getaways? Let me know, and I’ll include them.

Dino J. Dotson