Warm winter changes — but can’t stop — outdoor fun

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Great Lakes ice levels on Feb. 13, 2018, 2019 and 2020. Image: Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

By Danielle James
Capital News Service

From ski slopes to dog sled races to snow carving contests, warmer weather this season has forced Michigan’s winter sports and tourism groups to adapt to keep participants and spectators coming.

Ski resorts across the Lower Peninsula are changing how they operate, according to Pete Meyer, the general manager of business operations at Caberfae Peaks in Cadillac.

“Things are changing in the ski industry all over the country, particularly in Northern Michigan,” Meyer said. “Resorts have invested a lot of money in their snow-making systems and can make a lot of snow in a short amount of time.”

According to Meyer, the ability to create machine-made snow allowed slopes to open early and stay open, even with less natural snow.

“It’s a very important part of what we do, and I don’t think we could be open without it,” Meyer said. ”We had some cold weather in November and were able to open mid-November, which is the second-earliest we’ve ever opened, and we were able to stay open without a lot of natural snow.”

His  resort has maintained relatively normal conditions with its snow guns, according to Meyer.

“We can make snow on nearly 100% of our trails. We have backcountry terrain that we can’t make snow on, and that has closed a couple times, but most runs have the ability to make snow,” Meyer said. “We have 150 snow guns all over our ski hills, and we have pumped 50 million gallons of water this season.”

According to data from the Midwest Regional Climate Center, snowfall amounts vary widely across Michigan.

The Upper Peninsula and the northwestern part of the Lower Peninsula have gotten over 48 inches of accumulated snow, while the eastern part of the Lower Peninsula has gotten anywhere from 18 to 42 inches.

Other winter sports groups are also finding ways to continue their events despite warmer weather.

The Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association holds three sled dog races in February. The UP200, Midnight Run and Jackpine 30 take place in Marquette.

Darlene Walch, the president of the association, said routes were changed due to higher temperatures early in the season.

“We ended up changing the course route on the UP200 race because there is a lowland area the trail runs through,” Walch said. “We didn’t get cold temperatures early, so everything was still too wet in that lowland area.”

Walch said shortening the race didn’t affect participation.

“The teams that compete usually number in the teens, and we’re actually up on numbers right now,” Walch said. “We have 19 teams in the UP200, 21 in the Midnight Run and 15 in the Jackpine30.”

According to Walch, the races attract a wide range of visitors and is an economic boost for Marquette.

“We have teams come from all over. We have mushers come from as far as Canada. Our volunteers are also coming from out of the area, and they come back every year,” Walch said.

According to Walch, an economic impact study found that the city made $1.6 to $2 million in revenue during the week of the race. “We think our next study will be fairly comparable, if not better,” she said.

In the U.P. where snowfall levels have remained more consistent, tourism groups have also adapted.

The Blue Key Honor Society, a student group at Michigan Technological University that organizes an annual winter carnival, said high temperatures were a concern this year.

“Temperatures have been a lot warmer,” said Clara Peterson, the president of the honor society. “Living here, I noticed the fall semester was pretty cold, but January and early February have had a lot less snow than normal.”

Winter Carnival takes place in Houghton. It features competitions in snow carving, curling, cross country skiing and broomball, among others.

According to Peterson, the weather affected the times of some broomball games but didn’t stop the snow carving competition.

“The temperatures for our all-nighter carving event were a little bit above freezing, which was pretty close to the cutoff of 40 degrees,” she said, “but overall it didn’t really hurt us compared to last year when we had to cancel a lot of events due to cold days and risk of frostbite.

“We did have to cancel some broomball games because the game is played on ice, but we moved times around.”

Ice levels across Michigan are down, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

On Feb. 13, total Great Lakes ice cover was 9.8%, compared with 54.6% on the same day in 2019 and 63.2% in 2018.

But Peterson said snow and ice events went on as scheduled. The snow-carving competition features month-long carving teams and one all-night carving event.

“Approximately one-fifth of our campus is involved, and we only have 7,000 students,” she said. “We also have 14 month-long participants and 30 all-nighter carving teams. I think participation’s been pretty consistent.”

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