Rhinelander, a small city in northern Wisconsin, is a popular winter destination because of its extensive trail network — but not this year. Snowmobiles generally need at least 3 inches of packed snow. But with thinner layers in some places and brown spots elsewhere, trails are unusable.
Snowmobile sales and rentals have fallen about 30 percent at Shoeder's RV, Marine and Sport Center, sales manager Ken Brown said. Rebates and incentives offered by manufacturers are of little help.
“On a normal weekend, all 30 sleds are rented two to three weeks in advance,” he said. “Right now the inventory is just sitting there.”
Sparse snow has forced cancellation of the Langlade County Trailblazer Challenge Sled Dog Race in northeastern Wisconsin the previous two years, a blow to the local tourist industry. This month's scheduled running has been postponed until February — assuming there will be enough snow.
In Minneapolis-St. Paul, snow removal company owner Kent Gliadon said his bottom line hasn't suffered too badly because he has contracts with apartment complexes and other clients who pay whether it snows or not. But subcontractors who mount plows on their trucks have no such protection. “That's the guy that's getting hurt,” he said.
Steve Lashinski said snowmobile sales and rentals are down 50 percent at his shop in Grand Marais, Minn. “It hurts,” he said.
But in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Hungry Jack Lodge owner Forrest Parson is breathing easier after getting some good snow last week. He still hasn't rented any snowmobiles but recently booked 10 cabin reservations. “Keep the fingers crossed,” he said. “If the weather comes, the business comes with it.”
It's not unusual for some sections of the Upper Midwest to get more snow than others. The region is known for “snow belts,” particularly in Michigan, which lies in the path of frigid air masses from Canada that barrel across the Great Lakes, suck up moisture and deposit it as snow on the other side. But even some places accustomed to plentiful “lake effect” snow are running short.
“We used to be in the middle of the lake effect. Now we're on the southern cusp,” said Van Drie, 40. “When I was a kid we'd have a ton of snow, but it's getting more and more sporadic. We're just not getting the winter.”
Mike McGuire, general manager of a family resort in Cadillac, is among those resigned to the growing scarcity. He now offers sledding, hot tubbing and other activities that require less snow — or none at all.
“Ideally, we'd have enough for snowmobiling, skiing and everything else,” he said. “When you don't, you just have to be smarter.”