Wild winter weather

By Lindsey Woods

This season’s warm weather and minimal snow may be something to celebrate by those who enjoy driving without ice or walking without soggy feet, but for those who revel in winter, it’s a disaster. Bare mountain slopes and high temperatures are nothing to cheer about for those who relish winter recreation.

Until last Thursday the new year was bringing 50-degree weather and sunshine, and not everyone is happy. Winter sports enthusiasts and those who rely on winter recreation for income are frustrated by the snow drought, according to Bob Richards, director of the Northern Illinois Nordic Cross-Country Ski Race.

“A lot of people just enjoy winter,” Richards said. “Not everybody wants to run off to Florida. There are people [who] actually like snow.”

For Richards, the delay in winter weather has caused the cancellation or rescheduling of two Illinois races—the Northern Illinois Nordic Cross Country Ski Race, which was supposed to be on Jan. 5, and the Joliet Nordic Cross Country Ski Race, which was supposed to be on Jan. 8. Richards said this is not only disappointing, but could also have negative implications for the rest of the season.

“A lot of us just enjoy the sport, and also a lot of us are training for the major marathon in late February in Wisconsin, called The American Birkebeiner,” Richards said. “It becomes a little difficult to train for that race when there’s no snow on the ground.”

Richards said to compensate, some people were bringing themselves to the snow by driving for five or six hours to find it. Others have been training with roller skis, cross-country skis on wheels that allow athletes to train on solid ground without snow.

“Roller skiing simulates the movement and technique pretty well,” Richards said. “But it does set you back because there’s nothing like being on the real stuff and getting that beautiful glide on the snow.”

The effects of the warm weather extend beyond the Midwest. Jo Simpson, public affairs officer of the National Ski Council Federation and president of the Sierra Ski and Race League, said the Lake Tahoe area had to cancel races this season, as well.

“I belong to a race league, and one of our races was supposed to be the weekend of Jan. 6, and it’s been cancelled,” Simpson said. “The snow is there, but the resorts on the weekends when we race, they have such limited terrain open. They really don’t want to close off any of the few slopes that are open for a race.”

The snow that winter parks in the Midwest and on the West Coast do have is not natural. Winter recreation parks produce their own snow, which is difficult to do when the weather doesn’t sustain a below-freezing average, according to Ed Meyer, general manager of Ski Snowstar Winter Sports Park.

“Because we can control the quality of the snow we make, we’re perfectly content if we can make it,” Meyer said. “But it’s gotta be cold for that to happen.”

According to Meyer, the lack of snow causes more of a marketing problem than a logistical one. If there’s no snow, he said, there are fewer people who come to the park.

“The mindset of the marketplace is that if there’s not winter weather in your backyard, a lot of people don’t think about winter recreation,” Meyer said. “So numbers are down drastically even though we’re open, just because the marketplace isn’t thinking winter right now.”

Opening was also a big problem for Meyer and his park. Ski Snowstar usually opens in the first week of December, he said. This season, it didn’t open until Dec. 26.

“The number one impact is that we did not get to open when we typically open,” Meyer said. “So you’ve got a loss of revenue for the days you miss.”

Meyer isn’t the only one missing out on money. Approximately 325 people he employs work on hourly wages, meaning they missed several paychecks before Christmas.

Patrons of the park may also be experiencing winter blues. Those who purchased season passes aren’t getting as much value since the park opened late and is still not fully operational. According to Meyer, the park still hasn’t opened 15 percent of its runs.

Simpson reported a similar pattern in winter recreation parks around Lake Tahoe. While resorts are open, “the percentage of the [operating] runs are fairly low,” she said.

Meyer added that even the runs that are open are not as good as they could be because although snow is being manufactured, the weather hasn’t been able to sustain a large enough snow base for the park.

“We typically run with a 36- to 72 inch snow base, but now I’m running on 12-24,” Meyer said. “We’re constantly at risk of bare spots popping up.”

Richards, Simpson and Meyer all agree that this late-blooming winter weather isn’t typical and that last year things looked better for winter sports.

“At this time last year, we’d already had 16 or 17 inches of snow,” Richards said. “We’d been cross-country skiing right here in Illinois without having to drive to Wisconsin or Michigan for three weeks. What a difference this year is, where there’s been zero skiing here or within four or five hours. It’s amazing.”