The winter that wasn't

Here's a look at an eerily warm, (mostly) snow-free season in the south metro.

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Prior Lake hasn't had the big number of fish houses this winter that it has had in the past.

Last winter, Dakota County sold $55,000 worth of cross-country ski passes, which are required if you're planning to glide along the trails in its parks.

This winter? So far, about $2,000.

There's a new sledding hill at the county's Lebanon Hills Park. But hardly anyone has used it.

As for the tubing hill at Eagan's Trapp Farm Park, for the first time in anyone's memory, it never even opened.

But hey: It's the year to get a deal on snowmobile hats and gloves, and there's a steep dropoff in cars sliding into the ditch.

This might finally be the week when winter catches up with us, but even if we have a snowy March, we'll have made it within shouting distance of the first day of spring (March 20) without anything most Minnesotans would recognize as "real" winter weather. Here's a quick peek at how this oddly un-winter-like winter has affected some in the southern suburbs.

HATS & GLOVES

Belle Plaine Motorsports has for weeks now been blasting out pleas on its Facebook page to come on in and check out deeply discounted snowmobile suits and the like.

"No one's wearing winter clothes," lamented Dan Holden, a co-manager there. "Look outside: People are in sweatshirts and windbreakers. We have a lot of excess inventory in winter jackets, gloves and hats."

As for snowmobiles themselves, "We probably sold as many this year as last, as people bought early because last year was so great; but we haven't sold anything since mid-December. The season started better than most -- and died off quickly."

ICE -- ON RINKS AND RIVERS AND LAKES

Rink rats have been mostly out of luck, without much outdoor ice to skate on.

Eagan, like other cities around the south metro, opened and closed its rinks as stretches of frigid weather proved elusive.

"Whenever we felt that we were going to have two or three cool days in a row, we got out there and flooded the rinks to make them as playable as possible," said Juli Seydell Johnson, Eagan's parks director.

Alas, for most of the year they were good enough for broomball, but not skating.

Eagan closed its outdoor ice rinks for good on Feb. 16, a few days earlier than the usual last hurrah on President's Day weekend.

"There just wasn't any ice left," Seydell Johnson said. "It was a pretty easy decision to make this year."

The warm winter won't, however, help hasten barge traffic on the Minnesota River, said Cargill spokesman Mark Klein. "This year the river opening will be driven by lock closures and openings, not due to ice." Lock 25 in Missouri is closed for an overhaul through March 15, so even though other locks are to open by March 2, "not a lot would come north till Lock 25 is ready."

As for lakes, the Dakota County sheriff closed Lake Marion in Lakeville to all motorized traffic as of Jan. 31, because there were areas of open water.

SKIING & SLEDDING

Some ski areas report that even though they can make all the snow they need, folks still aren't showing up because that snowy vibe just isn't there. Buck Hill in Burnsville isn't quite having that experience, a spokeswoman reports, but its cost of doing business rises in a winter like this.

"We have made snow this year every opportunity we have had," said Buck Hill's Jessica Stone.

The equipment rental hut at Lebanon Hills Regional Park -- the go-to spot for those looking for skis, kicksleds and snowshoes -- hasn't seen much action.

"Last year, we were open [for rentals] approximately 16 to 18 weekends, plus holidays and winter break. This season, we have been open one weekend," said Beth Landahl, manager of park operations and education for Dakota County.

The rentals brought in $35,000 last winter. This year, Landahl hasn't even looked yet.

SAND AND SALT

"We have saved a lot of money on plowing and salt," said Belle Plaine Mayor Tim Lies. "I would say by this time last year we'd probably spent $300,000. This year it's a tenth of that. We've really only plowed once or twice."

A GRASS FIRE IN FEBRUARY?

Luminaries twinkling in the snowbanks have been a hallmark of Dakota County's most popular winter parks events for years. But this year's New Year's Eve Party at Lebanon Hills turned into a candlelight hike when there wasn't enough snow for skiing and snowshoeing.

And the candlelight ski at Spring Lake Park Reserve was cancelled altogether due to lack of snow.

Then there was the grass fire -- in February.

A candlelit hike at Lebanon Hills was cancelled when the luminaries sparked a fire on dry grass. The flames were extinguished quickly and no one was hurt, but the event got snuffed out in the process.

Landahl, who has been with the parks department for more than 20 years and through countless wintertime candlelit trail events, said:

"Never have we had to develop a luminary extinguishing plan. That was an odd one."

FROM FLOODS TO DROUGHT

One year after Scott County had some of its worst flooding ever -- helping give new urgency to a major request for state dollars this year -- it's having to cope with the threat of drought.

At the county's extension service, Laura Kieser is referring farmers who ask to a blog item written by the state's climatologist, laying out the dangers and remedies. You can dial it up at www.startribune.com/a1081.

Heading the list of advice: "Consider crop insurance. ... [Everyone] will want to strongly consider it this year. March 15 is the standard deadline for finalizing a plan with your agent for crop insurance."

NO HALT TO BUILDING

State officials late last fall were talking in terms of shutting down construction of projects like the new intersection at Hwys. 13 and 101 in Savage for the winter. But it hasn't happened.

"The weather has definitely been good for construction," said transportation department spokesman J.P. Gillach. "The crews have been working at a good pace and have lost very few days to weather over fall and winter."

At the Minnesota Zoo, which is building a new indoor/outdoor exhibit on the Minnesota Trail starring black bears, the story is much the same, said the zoo's Kelly Lessard.

"It's now substantially complete, and there's no doubt the mild, dry weather helped with this."

OTHER PERKS

The warm weather has been kind to drivers, who have largely stayed out of the ditch.

"During the winter, it's so common that people will be driving along, especially on a snowy day, hit that patch of ice and wind up in the ditch," said Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows. "I suspect that this hasn't been a good year for the tow truck industry."

And there's the comfort factor.

"A lot of folks that do not care for winter, myself included in that group, have actually found this one to be tolerable," Bellows said. "If you're into snow sports, probably not as much."

Star Tribune staff writer Laurie Blake contributed to this article.

dapeterson@startribune.com • 952-746-3285 katie.humphrey@startribune.com • 952-746-3286

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