The whir of snow-making equipment — heard ever more frequently in the woods this winter — is the sound of hope but also desperation for cross-country ski enthusiasts.
From the Twin Cities to Duluth, northwestern Wisconsin and beyond, Nordic ski advocates are firing up more snow-making equipment than ever before in a desperate attempt to save a sport that’s in danger of melting away due to warmer, less-snowy winters.
Many say the future of the tradition-rich sport is threatened in the Upper Midwest by climate change.
“I absolutely believe that,” said Ben Popp, executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, which puts on the famed Birkie ski race from Cable to Hayward, Wis.
But ski advocates in Minnesota and Wisconsin are fighting back, making more snow in more places than ever before.
• This year, for the first time in its 47-year history, about 7,500 Birkie participants will ski on artificial snow at the start of the Feb. 23 event. In the last 20 years, the Birkie has been canceled twice, most recently in 2017, and shortened three times because of lack of snow. Just 2½ kilometers of the 55-kilometer trail will be covered by artificial snow this year, but the plan is to increase that number in the years ahead.
• Organizers of the Vasaloppet cross-country ski race at Mora, Minn., bought a second snow-making machine this year to boost their efforts. “Three years ago we decided if we’re going to save this race, we had to start making snow,” said volunteer Don Olson.
“Of the last three races, there was virtually no snow beyond what we spread ourselves. It appears we’re on the same trend again this year.”
Volunteers plan to blanket 14 to 17 kilometers, if necessary, for this year’s race on Feb. 9.
• Duluth, long synonymous with cold, snowy winters, recently opened 1½ kilometers of trail with artificial snow at the new Grand Avenue Nordic Center. It’s a first for Duluth, and the plan is to eventually have more than 3 kilometers of trails covered with machine-made snow.
• In southern Minnesota, the Rochester Active Sports Club is raising money for a winter recreation area that would have 2 to 3 kilometers of trails with artificial show.
• With a dearth of snow so far again this winter in the Twin Cities, Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington, Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove and Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis — which all make snow — have been a white oasis for skiers in an otherwise brown landscape. Their snow-covered trails total about 15 kilometers. All three have been packed with skiers craving snow.
At the Birkebeiner, North America’s largest ski race, officials said the long-term climate trends and projections forced them to act. Climate researchers at the University of Wisconsin report that between 1950 and 2006, average winter temperatures in the Birkie area have warmed 3 to 4.5 degrees. And by 2055, they predict warmer and shorter winters and 10 to 15 inches less snow.
“We dove into snow-making this year for two reasons,” Popp said. “To save the Birkie, and to create a destination venue in Wisconsin like you have at Hyland, Elm Creek or Theodore Wirth — where we could have state cross-country ski meets or smaller races with guaranteed snow.”
A costly quest
Fake snow isn’t cheap.
The Birkie Foundation has spent about $180,000 on snow-making equipment. The foundation is covering about 2½ kilometers of trail at the Birkie start in Cable. “Next year we’re hoping to do 3.3K and the year after that 5K,” Popp said.
That wouldn’t be enough to save the Birkie race in a no-snow year, Popp said. But the long-term goal is to increase snow-making capacity to 20 kilometers, which would be enough to hold the marathon race by having skiers traverse a 40K loop.
“It would be a huge, huge effort,” Popp said. And a costly one.
“We’re always asking for donations from skiers to help pay for the snow-making,” he said.
The Birkie and several other shorter races are expected to draw about 13,000 skiers and 25,000 spectators this year. That’s a $20 million shot in the arm for the Cable-Hayward region.
In Mora, pop. 3,500, about 70 miles north of the Twin Cities, volunteers also are trying to save a 46-year tradition, the Vasaloppet. The races, which range from 13K to 52K, were canceled five times, the latest in 2012, and shortened several times in recent years.
In the past four years, the 14-member Vasaloppet board has invested about $200,000 in snow-making equipment. Two snow guns pile up the snow, and then volunteers use a manure spreader to distribute the snow on the trails.
“It took 1,500 loads to cover 14 kilometers last year,” said Olson. “That’s enough snow to cover a football field 15-feet deep.” He said they try to keep 6 to 10 inches of snow on the trail.
Olson, 67, a local farmer and skiing enthusiast, and his two sons, Eric and Paul, are among the many volunteers who are trying to not only save the annual ski races, but build a cross-country skiing venue that attracts recreational skiers as well as high school and citizen racers.
“I have a passion for the sport,” Olson said. “The Vasaloppet is a tradition. We’re going to try to keep it going. It’s an incredible effort for a small town.”
Like other venues, the Vasaloppet seeks contributions to help pay for the snow-making.
In the Twin Cities, Luke Skinner, associate superintendent at the Three Rivers Park District, which operates Hyland and Elm Creek parks, said there are no plans to expand snow-making capabilities in the park system.
“It’s a big investment,” he said.
Elm Creek began making snow in 2003, Hyland in 2013.
Climate scientists told Minnesota legislators this week that the state is rapidly losing its winters, which are warming 13 times faster than its summers. The park district is concerned about the effects of climate change on the parks. One example: The natural snow ski trails at Elm Creek have been open an average of 19 days less in the last decade than they were in the 1990s, because of lack of snow.
Meanwhile, snowfall in the Twin Cities so far this winter is about 16 inches below average, and the ski trails covered with artificial snow are heavily used.
“They’ve really helped maintain and protect Nordic skiing in the metro area,” Skinner said.
Doug Smith is a former Star Tribune outdoors reporter.