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FACES AND PLACES: Winter play

WALHALLA, N.D. -- The morning sun glistens on the snow as Richard and Judith Johnson stand on a Frost Fire Ski Area slope. Behind the couple, the tree-covered rolling hills of the Pembina Gorge stretch out as far as the eye can see.

Johnsons
Judith and Richard Johnson own Frost Fire Ski & Snowboard Area, located in the Pembina River Gorge, west of Walhalla, N.D. (Herald photo by Jackie Lorentz)

WALHALLA, N.D. -- The morning sun glistens on the snow as Richard and Judith Johnson stand on a Frost Fire Ski Area slope. Behind the couple, the tree-covered rolling hills of the Pembina Gorge stretch out as far as the eye can see.

For more than a third of a century the couple has operated a ski area in this spot west of Walhalla, and their appreciation for the gorge area has grown more with each passing year.

"Our runs are named after the wildflowers that grow in the Pembina River Gorge," Judith said. "We're nature people. It's part of our lives," she said, noting that the runs have names such as Yarrow, Wild Columbine and Spiderwort.

"The bottom line is we love Pembina River Gorge. It's the most wonderful part of North Dakota," she said. "Nature is dynamic in this gorge. It doesn't matter if it's summer, spring, fall, winter."

In winter, not only the natural world, but the human world is full of life at Frost Fire Ski & Snowboard Area. Depending on the weather, between 200 and 600 people from Montana to Minneapolis, daily visit the family resort on weekend and holidays during the ski season. The resort offers families the opportunity to downhill ski, snowboard and tube on its slopes.

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Winter recreation

The Johnsons opened Frost Fire on Christmas Day in 1976 with four runs. The former Grand Forks teachers decided to make a career switch in the early 1970s, Richard said. He had grown up a on a farm a few miles from the resort and was familiar with the area and the couple were avid skiers who had often traveled to the Bemidji or Minneapolis areas to ski.

From the beginning, Frost Fire has had snowmaking equipment, so the slopes have a base of between 24 and 35 inches. Over the years, the Johnsons added ski runs to Frost Fire and cleared a snowboard and a tubing area.

The couple employ about 20 seasonal workers. Richard and Judith are involved in the day-to-day operation of the resort and their son, Jay, helps on weekends.

"I make snow. I groom runs. I do maintenance," Richard said. Judith, meanwhile, is in charge of advertising and food service.

Preparation for the ski season begins in early fall when Richard starts working on the equipment, he said.

"By September you better start greasing the wheels on those chair lifts, mowing slopes," Richard said. Weather permitting, the Johnsons begin making snow as early as October.

Summer theater

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After the ski season, the couple has a few months break before Frost Fire's summer theater begins. The Johnsons are theater buffs and go to the Twin Cities, Grand Forks and West Yellowstone, Mont., and Big Fork, Mont., to watch performances. If the performances are successful, the Johnsons often have the show presented at Frost Fire. The couple hire people from across the area, including college theater and music majors, as cast members and Richard builds and helps paint the sets.

"This year we're going to do Buddy Holly," Judith said.

When the two aren't working at the summer theater or the ski area or, they enjoy traveling to wilderness areas in northeast Minnesota and Montana.

Nature lovers

"We love the outdoors," Judith said. She and her husband often combine business with pleasure, staying at resorts so they can glean ideas for Frost Fire.

"You've got to see what people are doing at other resorts," Richard said.

In their spare time the Johnsons also enjoy walking and hiking the trails on their own land. Richard didn't fully appreciate the beauty of the gorge until he moved away, he said. During those years he and Judith did a lot of traveling to other areas of the country, then in 1976 returned to the area he grew up.

"All of a sudden, I realized it's all right here," he said.

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It's a good feeling to share the beauty of the gorge with others, Richard said.

"I enjoy it when I see the parking lot full or in the evening when I see the line-up of the cars going up the gorge."

Frost Fire is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during January. It also will be open during those hours on Monday, Martin Luther King Day. Information: (701) 549-3600.

Bailey writes for special features sections. Reach her at (701) 787-6753; (800) 477-6572, ext. 753; or send e-mail to abailey@gfherald.com .

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