With winter's snow literally on Minnesota's doorstep, another unmistakable sign of the season is here:
Sales of new snowblowers are going strong, dealers say, with memories of last winter apparently still fresh in people's minds. Back then, the supply of machines couldn't meet the demands of the Twin Cities' fourth-snowiest winter.
"We've had a tremendous presale," said John Madson, assistant manager at Jerry's Do It Best hardware store in Edina. "A lot of people who wanted one didn't get one last year because there was short supply. They don't want to get caught."
At Gruber's Power Equipment in Maplewood, co-owner Andrew Gruber said sales have outpaced last year's at this time by 15 to 20 percent.
"For not having any snow, I guess it's been pretty good," he said.
Madson said many customers seem to have weighed last winter's experience with the long-range outlooks for the coming season -- many of which are calling for relatively heavy snow totals -- and upgraded to the largest snowblowers.
Meanwhile, people not ready to buy new have been crowding the small-engine repair shops. At Peak Performance Power Sports in Fridley, owner Brian Ledbeter said the near-dozen calls he received Tuesday morning alone were a "very unusual" number. At Wright's Small Engine Services in Rochester -- where an inch or two of new snow was expected overnight -- owner Fred Wright said anyone who brought in a snowblower for repair Tuesday would have to wait five weeks for it.
"It's just crazy," he said.
Little snow to date
An early winter storm had been expected to bring 4 to 8 inches of snow to southeastern Minnesota Tuesday night and Wednesday, but that storm track moved south and east through the day Tuesday. By mid-afternoon, only Houston County, in the state's southeastern tip, remained in a winter weather advisory. Four to 7 inches of heavy, wet snow was still expected to fall across western Wisconsin, possibly disrupting travel on both Interstate 90 and Interstate 94.
Minnesota has seen little measurable snow so far this autumn. One-half inch fell at Babbitt on Oct. 28, and one-tenth of an inch the same day at nearby Wolf Ridge. The Twin Cities had not seen a trace through Tuesday. That isn't very unusual, and ongoing drought across the state may be limiting precipitation, assistant state climatologist Pete Boulay said.
Last winter's 86.6 inches of snow in the Twin Cities got a jump start with 8 inches Nov. 13-14 (Maple Grove saw 12 inches). While most forecasters are calling for above-normal snowfall (and below-normal temperatures) for December, January and February, drought is one argument for below-normal snow, Boulay noted. So are statistics, he added: The Twin Cities has not seen a winter that ranked in the 10 least snowy since 1986-87.
"We're due," he said.
In any case, the Twin Cities saw a sure indicator of the change of seasons this week with the removal of 1,200 "Nice Ride" bikes and racks from around Minneapolis and St. Paul. The bikes, which are rented for short rides for small fees, will be stored in a warehouse until early April. Marketing manager Ellen Apel said the program is suspended for the winter because of liability issues and because road salt would probably damage the bikes.
Through Sunday night, riders had checked out bikes 217,529 times since April 8, more than double the number in the slightly shorter 2010 season.
"People knew it was coming," Apel said. "But they're still disappointed."
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646