For every Minnesotan welcoming this weekend’s warm weather, there’s another putting away skis, skates or a snowmobile and wondering whatever happened to the cold. Springlike temps are in the Twin Cities’ forecast for much of the rest of February, meaning winter’s fans might be the only ones getting frosted.
“It’s going to be 50-ridiculous,” said Dawn Bentley, executive director of the Art Shanty Project on White Bear Lake, a beloved event that has artists reimagining the traditional ice fishing house into a conversation booth, a dance party and more. Bentley said most shanties will stay put for now, but she’s taking frequent bore samples of the lake ice to make sure it’s thick and safe.
It’s not just moods that are threatened. Small-town festivals and ski races across the region are in danger of being curtailed or canceled, jeopardizing tourism dollars that boost struggling local economies. Loggers in the North Woods raced Friday to haul lumber from the woods before roadways turned to mush. And the Hennepin County sheriff issued a thin ice advisory.
Others are adapting as winter wanes. Snowmobilers are traveling farther north in search of snow, businesses are beginning “end-of-season” sales and, in the case of Burggraff’s Ace Hardware store in Duluth, are making an earlier-than-usual switch from snowblower displays to peddling potting soil and house paint.
Driving the change is an unprecedented streak of warm weather — this month is the 18th straight to record higher-than-average temperatures, said Mark Seeley, the University of Minnesota climatologist.
“We’ve never seen that before,” he said, pointing to records going back to 1873. “We’ve been way, way skewed toward warmth.”
This winter’s warm spell has surprised climatologists who were expecting something cooler based on observations last fall.
“The head scratcher for this winter, to be honest, is that starting last autumn we were entering a period of La Niña, a period of cooler-than-normal water in the equatorial Pacific,” Seeley said. “The historical tool kit that the weather service used said we should have had a cooler-than-normal winter. … We’re likely to have one of the seven or eight warmest Februaries in state history. We’ve gone the complete opposite of the La Niña correlation. There’s something going on with the climate that we don’t fully understand.”
Birkie needs snow
The odd scenes that played out Friday as temperatures hit the mid 50s included people walking around in shirtsleeves in International Falls — “America’s Icebox.” Local loggers worked round-the-clock shifts, too, traveling the icy logging roads while they were still usable. Rain is forecast for the area Monday.
“It really creates some headaches for those folks to get wood out of the woods,” said Paul Nevanen, director of the Koochiching Economic Development Board.
Adjusting to the warm-up has been easier for retailers, said Aaron Gursky, a hardware store manager in Duluth. Snowblower sales tapered off this winter, but “now we have more people coming in looking for potting soil,” he said.
At Minnesota’s largest Polaris snowmobile dealership, Mies Outland in Watkins, the end-of-season sales have already started.
“We’ve started to talk to people about motorcycles and lawn and garden equipment,” said owner Jeff Mies.
Nancy Hanson, business coordinator of the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association, said members of her organization are driving farther north — including the North Shore — in search of good snowmobile trails.
“We were just up in Grand Rapids last weekend,” she said. “It was beautiful.”
Last month, the snow-cross races at Canterbury Park went on as scheduled, but with artificial snow.
But there’s a limit to the adaptations fans of the season can make.
The trail crew at the American Birkebeiner Ski Race in Hayward, Wis., shut down the 53-kilometer-long ski trail through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest this weekend, hoping it will last until next weekend’s ski race, the nation’s largest. Some 13,000 skiers are expected for the four-day series, when the town of 2,300 hosts some 40,000 people.
The Birkie usually packs a wallop for the local economy: A 2013 University of Wisconsin study found that skiers, bikers and runners pour some $15 million into the three-county region around Hayward, with Birkie skiers a big piece of that. About $6.4 million of that tourist revenue goes into the hands of local residents in the form of employment income.
With the stakes high for the local economy and local pride, Ben Popp, the executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, has spent the past week strategizing with his trail crew about how to protect the ski trail from the freakishly warm weather.
“The big killer is if it doesn’t get cool at night,” he said. An icy base under the trail — the result of rainfall during the Christmas holiday — may protect some of the snow during the warm-up. His crew also moved as much snow as possible last week, scraping it off fields to pile it up in “snow caches” along the trail. Some crews used front-end loaders and dump trucks to move snow onto the trail.
The race has been shortened or canceled nine times in its 45-year history, said Popp. If it has to be altered or canceled, he hopes to make the decision in the next day or two.
“I think we’re going to need every snowflake we can find,” he said.
Balmy weather is threatening winter festival season in cabin country, too.
The annual Eelpout Festival in Walker celebrates the most unlovable fish in Minnesota. Over the past 38 years, the celebration has drawn thousands of people to the frozen surface of Leech Lake for a long weekend of eelpout fishing, eelpout kissing, eelpout curling and deep-fried nuggets of bloated, bewhiskered, bottom-dwelling eelpout.
Eelpout is a cash cow for Walker, drawing millions of tourist dollars over the years to a town of about 1,000 people on the edge of the Superior National Forest, 3½ hours north of the Twin Cities.
But the unseasonably warm weather prompted the Cass County sheriff last week to ban vehicles from parking on the lake during the event, which begins Thursday.
It’s not the first time the festival has weathered the heat. Last February, it actually rained during the celebration. Vehicles were banned from the ice last year as well, creating hourslong traffic jams and hurting turnout.
Jared Olson, the event organizer, believes the sheriff erred in issuing the ban again this year. Festival organizers measured the ice around Walker Bay and found it several inches thicker than it was in 2016. If anglers can’t park near their fishing spots, it could mean another year of low turnout and another blow to an event that generates up to $800,000 in one weekend for local hotels, restaurants and bait shops.
This year’s parking ban is the third in six years. Before that, it was imposed only once in a decade.
“It really has started to change,” Olson said of the weather. “I don’t want it to continue that way, because I think it will hurt the event and hurt the local economy enough to where it just gets too hard to do anymore.”
Weather tests artists
Meanwhile, in Rochester, the ice sculptors were sweating, too.
Last Thursday was the annual SocialICE gathering downtown, featuring ice sculptures, an ice wall and seven 12-foot-long ice bars. The event is meant to coax crowds downtown in the February cold.
But with daytime temperatures above freezing all week, artists were forced to play hide-and-seek with the sun. They swaddled their creations with Styrofoam and dry ice, carved early in the morning and late in the day, and worked in the shade cast by downtown buildings.
“The good news is that the sculptors are seasoned,” said Jenna Bowman, executive director of the Rochester Downtown Alliance, which puts on the event.
This is the second year in a row that mild weather has threatened the ice bars. When temperatures go up, organizers have found, attendance goes down. In an icy 2015, an estimated 46,000 people attended the three-day event. Last year, turnout dropped by more than 10,000 people.
But this is Minnesota. Wait a few minutes, and the weather could change.
As of Friday night, the long-range forecast for the Twin Cities and surrounding area was for “a return to near normal temperatures ... as well as the possibility of some snow” by week’s end, said Alexandra Keclik, a meteorologist with National Weather Service in Chanhassen.
“As Minnesotans,” Bowman said, “we all just embrace the weather that we’re given.”