The second-warmest autumn on record in Minnesota has kept cross-country skiing at bay, sidelining recreationists eager to start the season.
“Our phones start to ring the minute snow sticks on the grass,” said Peter Mott, Washington County’s parks program manager. “Not only are our ski trails a couple weeks behind, but we’re going to have a hard time making ice this year, I think.”
Winter recreation in east metro abounds — when cold weather cooperates. But that won’t happen even by the middle of December, with forecasts showing temperatures climbing into the 40s, erasing the little snow and ice that’s accumulated.
“As the recent past goes, if we don’t have conditions in the next week or definitely two weeks, we’re behind,” said Mark McCabe, operations director for Ramsey County parks.
Last week, “closed for skiing” signs dotted trails at Lake Elmo Regional Park, popular for its lighted night outings. Wet snow that fell Monday and Tuesday wasn’t fit for skiing, Mott said, but the county reconsidered on Wednesday.
“This way we’re allowing skiers to get out there and tightly pack it over,” he said. Among them were high school teams anxious to train.
The Lake Elmo park has the most extensive ski trails, but Washington County also has trails at its Big Marine, Pine Point, Cottage Grove Ravine and St. Croix Regional Bluffs parks.
In 2010, before Washington County parks staff installed lights for night skiing at the Lake Elmo park, the county documented about 35,000 users per winter there. That number jumped to about 40,000 in recent years, or at least in recent winters with snow.
“We might have to be creative this year to keep snow on trails for people,” Mott said. “We’re pretty limited, short of a snow-making machine.”
At Green Acres Recreation, a private sledding and skiing business in Washington County, owner Rich Springborn said the snow-making machines operated for three nights but that wasn’t enough to open for customers.
“You can’t make snow when it’s in the 40s,” he said. “It’s up to Mother Nature. She’s not cooperating this year.”
In Ramsey County, the west portion of Battle Creek Regional Park has 4 kilometers of lighted trails. The county also has ski trails in the east portion of Battle Creek and at Grass Lake and Vadnais/Sucker Lake parks and Tamarack Nature Center.
“We’ve got some beautiful natural trails,” McCabe said. “Some people would be surprised when they’re out on trails that they’re not in the North Woods.”
Ice fishing, another popular winter sport on the metro area’s many waterways, also waits for colder weather.
“It was the second-warmest autumn in a very long time,” said Greg Spoden, a climatologist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The mean average temperature of 53.8 degrees is only a shade cooler than the record, set in 1931, of 54.5 degrees.
Climate trends tracked since 1875 don’t bode well for winter enthusiasts — showing a steady warmer trend. “Our winters are warming at a greater rate than our other seasons,” Spoden said.
One of the key indicators for anglers is “ice in” on lakes and rivers, but the DNR purposely doesn’t track that in “real time” because ice conditions vary on waterways, Spoden said. In addition, he said, it’s unsafe to estimate ice conditions. He advises people to consult with bait shop and resort owners and law enforcement officers who are more familiar with local conditions.