A Family Project That Got Out of Control
The Story of WinMan begins with a common dream of many Wisconsin families: Purchase some land for the family to enjoy together in the Northwoods.
The plot twist is what Susie and Rick Gering did with their humble parcel, which was to build a 40-mile, 4-season trail system with an arms-wide-open invitation for the community to come out and play.
The Early Days
Rick Gering fell in love with Manitowish Waters the very first time he visited in 1970. Spending three summers working at Camp Jorn, he experienced the kindness and care that residents and visitors poured back into the community.
When his wife, Susie, and he bought a cottage on the Manitowish Chain in 1992, they spent as much time at the lake as possible. And like so many other families, Susie and the kids lived every Summer at the cottage while Rick commuted back and forth from Wausau.
In 2010, the Gerings purchased 160 acres of wooded land on Papoose Lake Road in Winchester, about four miles from their cottage. Rick and his son, Tommy, loved to hunt on the land, and the entire family enjoyed snowshoeing and skiing during the winter.
The Gerings’ daughter, Elizabeth, laughs as she recalls the memories from those early days at the property:
“Our family would go out there to snowshoe and my dad would say, ‘Hey, we’re looking at putting in a new trail out here.’ We’d get to the spot and there’d be absolutely nothing. I’m so impressed that he had the vision to see it before it was a reality. But I was too busy trying to avoid getting slapped in the face by a random tree branch to see the trail that wasn’t there yet.”
As the weather warmed and the family spent more time at the property, their vision expanded.
Following in the rich tradition of giving back to the community, they knew they wanted to do something to enhance the area and provide opportunities for people to enjoy the Northwoods…
What about mountain biking?
In 2011, Rick approached Andy Teichmiller at the Chequamegon Adventure Company in Minocqua to see if he knew anyone who built trails.
Andy suggested Travis Bellman, who was building mountain bike trails by hand at the Raven Trails in Minocqua. Travis was willing to work evenings and weekends around his job, and he and Rick both quickly realized the high-quality soil and terrain at WinMan.
Thanks to the glacier that moved through the area during the last ice age, the soil deposited on the property was essentially perfect for trails: it packed hard, drained quickly, and made for really fast rides.
A Trail System is Born
Working by hand and later with a small bulldozer, Rick and Travis started building some early trails that never opened to the public.
(Note: Riders can experience a portion of this original trail on what is now LAMBO Spur.)
They had some real – and valid – apprehensions about investing too much into the trails with no proof of concept. What if they did all this work only to learn no one actually wanted to ride out there?
But they enjoyed riding what they built, and so did their friends. Rick and Travis realized pretty quickly that they were on to something – the rolling terrain and high-quality soil were just so unique and exhilarating.
They also knew that to make it worthwhile for folks to visit, they’d have to offer more than just a couple miles of trail. They needed to expand, which meant finding additional land and more help.
When an adjacent 200-acre parcel with a parking lot went up for sale in 2012, it was the sign they needed to keep going. The Gerings purchased the land, and Rick and Travis doubled down on their trail building efforts.
Later that year, biking enthusiasts Robert Polic and Gene Oestreich joined the team. With Robert, Gene and Travis on board, along with two summer interns, they established the WinMan culture:
- Always be willing to learn and offer something new
- Strive to build the best trails possible
- Listen to users for ways to make the trails even better.
Their inquisitive, try-anything mindset led to a great deal of experimenting, learning and reaching out to other experts. Through research, the team decided the best way forward was to build with a mini-excavator, a revolutionary idea at the time.
This decision was the turning point that launched WinMan from being a modest family trail system into a full-fledged community attraction.
WinMan opened for mountain biking to family and friends in 2013 with about 4 miles of trails. That winter, they opened to the public with groomed, mixed-use ski, snowshoe, and fat bike trails.
During these early years, WinMan operated under the umbrella of the North Lakeland Discovery Center. The NLDC provided administrative support, office space, and staff to groom the trails in the winter.
Progress was slow but steady until 2015, a break-out year in WinMan’s history:
- WinMan separated from the NLDC and established their own nonprofit, the WinMan Trails Foundation.
- Robert Polic became the first trails director.
- WinMan acquired grooming and trail building equipment.
- Staying true to the culture, the team brought in professional trail builder Tim Wegener to help them become better trail builders.
- The Phase I Master Planning committee plotted out the next 5+ years.
Because of the People: Phase I Master Plan Completed
The 2015 Phase I master plan was completed in 2021, with all due credit to the WinMan staff and volunteers who accomplished these milestones:
- Built nearly 20 miles of mountain bike trails + pump track
- 22 kilometers of cross-country skiing trails
- 8+ miles of groomed and backcountry snowshoeing
- 9 miles of groomed fat tire bike trails
- 6+ miles of running and hiking trails
- (2017) Heated chalet with modern bathrooms and comforts
- (2021) Bike wash
Donors and volunteers have helped every step of the way – clearing trail; donating time; helping to cover expenses; funding special projects like the chalet, kiosk, shed, and road signage; and ensuring that the community spaces, buildings and trails are well-maintained and inviting for all.
It’s also worth noting that WinMan didn’t develop in a vacuum. As WinMan expanded, they formed a partnership with the Wisconsin DNR, signing a Land Use Agreement in 2018 that quadrupled WinMan’s available land.
Although the history of the United States told folks to “Head West Young Man,” the Land Use Agreement allowed WinMan to head east and add trails like Gene Machine, Perimeter and LAMBO Spur onto state-owned land.
WinMan has also benefitted from the surrounding towns’ investment in paved biking trails. In fact, in 2019 a donor helped “pave the way” – literally – in connecting WinMan to the 52-mile Heart of Vilas bike path.
Now, mixed groups can park at WinMan, and some can head off-road while others ride the paved trails towards one of the nearby towns. After riding, family and friends can regroup by a roaring fire with an ice-cold beverage in hand, the definition of a wonderful day in the Northwoods.
All Are Welcome
The Gering family has always been 100% committed to making WinMan accessible to users of all abilities. WinMan offers:
- Trails for all levels of riders from beginners to experts
- “B-lines” around features so people can ride at their comfort level
- Dedicated staff and volunteers who build, maintain and improve the trails and facilities
- A trail design that allows each user to customize their experience
- Easy-to-navigate, one-way trails and signage
- Increased safety with minimal interaction on the trails
- Something new every season
Bryon Black, one of the former operations directors, describes WinMan as a place where “the Work-to-Fun ratio is low.” It’s more “Weeee!” than work.
One of the things people like about WinMan is you simply can’t go there and have a bad time – a feeling shared among the 350+ Google and Facebook reviewers!
A Place to Get Better: Phase II Begins
Twelve years into this endeavor, the WinMan team is staying true to their culture of trying something new, building the best trails possible, and listening to users.
In 2021, WinMan hired Scott Linnenburger, one of the best-known trail consultants in the country. Scott’s assessment not only validated the team’s optimism for the potential of WinMan, but suggested ideas and improvements that laid the groundwork for the Phase II Master Plan.
Phase II establishes a path to acquire additional land, build more trails, offer new programming, and create amenities such as rustic camping and community gathering spaces.
WinMan is, and will continue to be, a place for folks to Get Better in every sense of the word:
- Learn and practice new skills
- Immerse yourself in nature
- Test your limits
- Gain hands-on work experience
- Improve your physical and mental health
- Turn that frown upside down
Elizabeth Gering summed up the next phase of WinMan best when she said:
“I hope that it continues to be as beautiful and wonderful for generations to come, a place where families want to come back to over and over again and it never gets boring. That it’s not a place where people can say, OK, we did WinMan and what’s next? That they can come back forever.”
Future of WinMan
WinMan Trails is a 501(c)3 tax-exempt foundation that’s part of the Gering Family Foundation. As such, donations are and have always been tax deductible.
However, it’s time for the WinMan Trails Foundation to move out from under the umbrella of the Gering Family Foundation and become its own public nonprofit. In 2021, WinMan established a new board of advisors to help usher WinMan into the next phase.
Executing the Phase II master plan are three highly skilled, full-time staff members including Isaac Cowart, Brad Kusz and Joel Kleimola, who work every day to make WinMan better.
The team hopes to provide a unique combination of wild-ness and comfort – the quintessential Up North experience – that so many people have fallen in love with.
Will it ever get too big? Nah, the trails can handle many more users than the parking lot can accommodate.
The Story of WinMan has only just begun. If you’d like to share your own story of how WinMan has impacted your life, email your stories and photos to WinManTrails@gmail.com.
Ready to make a difference?
Check out our Phase II capital improvement projects and help us raise $500,000 to make WinMan even more awesome. Visit WinManTrails.com/give to learn more.
Love WinMan as much as we do? Become a member! Gain access to exclusive members-only benefits and feel great about supporting this world-class facility. Your membership helps sustain WinMan’s top-notch trails and facilities.
Don’t mind getting a little dirty? Join our volunteer list and we’ll notify you with opportunities to get out on the trails and work! No experience necessary.