On a foggy day at Whitefish Mountain Resort, it can be near impossible to see. Any moment, you might smack a tree or begin a silent free-fall off a cliff. With everything hidden in a gray light, you can't tell how fast you're skiing or where the trail ends. According to WMR Marketing Director and skier Riley Polumbus, one way to get through the fog is to ski near the trees. "It loosens things up," she says, "gives you definition."
The other way is to follow the fog balls.
Fog balls are plastic blaze-orange circles attached to bamboo stakes driven into the snow. Like the trees, they give skiers perspective in Whitefish's notorious lake-effect fog, and a reference point in an otherwise whiteout landscape.
"There are days when you simply cannot see your feet," says ski patroller Kyle Sedderly. "We put the [fog balls] as close as we can to the center of the run as a landmark for people to follow."
But not everyone appreciates the guidance. This season, WMR ski patrol has battled a rash of fog ball vandalism. On Jan. 26, the issue was noted on WMR's Facebook page. "During holidays and weekends we experience lots of 'tampering' with the fog balls," the message reads, "and as a result it can ruin someone's skiing experience which in the long run hurts us all."
Sedderly says he finds fog balls moved, stuck in trees or missing altogether. He thinks kids are responsible, and while he admits it isn't a huge deal, he says there are days when the mountain is so caked in fog the orange glow of the fog balls is the only thing to distinguish earth from air. "People can even get lost from fog ball to fog ball," he says. "They end up halfway across the mountain from where they're going."
Polumbus adds that while she doesn't think fog ball theft or defacement is a serious crime, they are still the property of WMR and run the resort about $10 per. "They cost money," she says, "and we need them."
As for the perpetrators of fog ball vandalism, WMR doesn't seem bent on prosecuting. It does, however, allude to punitive measures on its Facebook page. "If you are someone who has been grabbing and tossing said fog balls," the message reads, "our hope for you is a winter of fog-filled powder-less days."