A rainy, mushy, it-could-be-March-out-there kind of day Monday added up to yet more drizzly dismay for skiers, skaters and ice fishermen who are suffering through a miserable start to winter, even as it buoyed the hopes of those who never saw much beauty in frozen Minnesota.
A brown Christmas seems all but certain at this point, with meteorologist Paul Douglas hinting at temperatures in the 50s for the holiday. The mild weather so far meant shuttered alpine runs this week, social media photos of people kayaking on area lakes and an emergency ice floe rescue in Beltrami County as ice broke up on Upper Red Lake, stranding about 50 people who were trying to fish.
The Beltrami County sheriff’s office got several 911 calls Monday morning from people stranded on ice floes on the lake about 60 miles north of Bemidji. All were rescued, but authorities warned about the dangers of thin ice on many Minnesota lakes.
This has been the warmest autumn on record, according to Douglas, who said winter this year will be “abbreviated, compressed and relatively tame by traditional Minnesota standards.”
“El Niño is combining with record amounts of heat coming out of the Pacific Ocean, overwhelming other signals, hijacking jet stream steering winds, keeping them predominantly from the west,” said Douglas. “There will be snow and cold, but not in the volumes we’re accustomed to.”
Hockey rinks won’t open in Minneapolis until the city gets at least three to four nights of below freezing weather, said Nicholas Williams, assistant superintendent for recreation. “Normally we’re cold enough in November to get the rinks up,” he said.
As for Mother Nature, Williams said, “We’re just waiting for her to show up with her uniform on.”
It’s too early to know if the warm weather will threaten popular winter attractions like the Ice Caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, said Neil Howk, the assistant chief of interpretation at the park. The National Park Service office in Bayfield, Wis., saw some snowfall Monday, but Lake Superior didn’t have any ice on it.
“Usually by now the south end of Chequamegon Bay has ice, and there’s nothing,” he said. “It’s a late start, which certainly doesn’t bode well.”
The lake typically doesn’t reach its maximum ice cover until early March, however, and a deep freeze in early January could start the ice forming. Huge crowds toured the ice caves in recent years as bone-chilling cold the past two winters covered 90 percent or more of the lake in ice. The ice cover was much lower, just 10 percent or less, from 2010 to 2013, he said.
Still, he sounded hopeful for winter’s arrival. “It’s way too early,” Howk said. “We’re still holding out hope for a white Christmas.”
Some open water on Leech Lake near Walker, Minn., had the organizer of the annual International Eelpout Festival hoping for cold weather. The festival draws 10,000 people to the (one hopes) ice-covered terrain of Leech Lake in February, along with their cars, trucks and fish houses.
“It’s quite a bit of weight in one area,” said Jared Olson, the organizer. Some shallow areas of the lake had ice as thick as 4 inches, but deeper areas are still nothing more than open water. Olson said a cool front headed to Minnesota by Friday would push temperatures to the single digits overnight.
Cross-country skiers desperate to find snow lined up for the annual Hoigaard’s Relays race as early as 6 a.m. Saturday, the bleary-eyed start necessary because of the race’s location on man-made snow at Afton Alps. The skiers were done by the time the hill opened for alpine skiers later in the morning.
Not all has been lost for the Nordic crowd this year, thanks to an advanced snow-making system at Three Rivers Park District. A portion of the Nordic trails at Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington and Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove remained open Monday, despite the rain.
“Even if it’s 45 degrees in the daytime but it drops to 27 overnight, we can make snow,” said Tom Knisely, the park district’s spokesman. The park district plans to close the trails midweek to make more snow in time for the weekend, he added.
Alpine skiers in the metro area haven’t been as lucky: Hyland Hills downhill runs closed Sunday for the week, with plans to reopen at 9 a.m. Saturday. Buck Hill closed Monday with plans to reopen Friday at 3 p.m. A bit to the north, Wild Mountain ski area in Taylors Falls remained open Monday, with 70 percent of its runs operating, said spokeswoman Amy Frischmon. The ski hill will host the 27th annual Wild Mountain Invite, a high school alpine race, on Friday. “We might just have to get creative,” Frischmon said.
Ice sculptor Roger Hanson, meanwhile, said he was keeping a close eye on the thermometer. The man behind a massive ice sculpture each year in Superior, Wis., Hanson said he’s built a second spray tower this year and tinkered with the software he uses to control the watering system that slowly builds the tower over the course of the winter.
“The weather is a constant struggle,” he said Monday. “We’ll just have to see how it goes.”
He didn’t get started on last year’s tower until Jan. 1, he said.
“It looks like next week I might have some decent weather,” Hanson said Monday. And by decent, of course, he meant cold.