By Joe VanDeLaarschot,
Brian Jopek and Craig Turk
of The Lakeland Times
The Northwoods is built largely around its four seasons. When one of those seasons behaves erratically, it’s bound to have an impact.
During the last few weeks, weather conditions in the Northwoods have been dramatically different – it’s either been too warm which makes the snow melt, there’s been a lack of normal snowfall amounts or it’s been bitterly cold.
All these conditions have hampered outdoor winter fun in the Northwoods, and Lakeland communities are feeling the aftermath of this unseasonable weather.
However, Friday morning's fresh blanket of new snow has brought renewed opportunities for the snowmobilers, skiers, skaters and snowshoers who are looking for winter fun here in the Northwoods.
Overnight Thursday and into Friday morning, Mother Nature turned her kind cheek toward the Northwoods, dropping about four inches of fresh, powdery snow on the Lakeland area.
Not only did the fresh snow present better opportunities for weekend activities, but the trend toward more seasonable temperatures will also offer better outdoor conditions for enjoyment of those activities.
Impacts on the local economy
As a vacation destination, Northwoods communities are strongly dependant on tourism. That means for the winter months, snow is a key factor for the Lakeland economy.
Chamber of commerces across the area are reporting that the local businesses are taking a hit from firstly the lack of snow, and now the arctic temperatures that have frozen the area over this past week.
The following is a sampling of how the local economies have been faring so far this winter season.
Kim Baltus, executive director of the Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce, didn’t mince words when asked to describe the impact on the area’s economy due to the lack of normal snowfall amounts over the last couple of weeks.
“It’s lousy,” Baltus said. “Really, really lousy. You can’t really describe it any other way.”
Baltus said the season started out reasonably well with enough snow for winter activities, but the recent warm spell melted most of the snow in the area, and the subzero temperatures have also caused a drop in winter recreation business for area merchants and businesses.
“It’s hurting us and it’s hurting us bad,” Baltus said. “But Friday after we got that little bit of snow our phones began ringing and this past weekend there were some people visiting the area. But looking out my window today with the subzero temperatures people aren’t traveling or moving about if they don’t have to.”
Baltus said warmer temperatures and a good snowfall of at least five to six inches would turn things around.
Mary Beth Leopold of the Manitowish Waters Chamber of Commerce said the lack of snow has also had an impact on area businesses and residents in other ways.
“The people who rent snowmobiles and other equipment for winter fun have been affected,” Leopold said. “But the local people who do the plowing of driveways and the clearing of sidewalks are also seeing a drop in their income.”
Leopold said the snowfall last Friday into Saturday did help things a bit.
“We did see a pick-up in things this past weekend due to that little bit of snow we got, but it’s still far from being normal,” Leopold said. “We need a good snowstorm.”
Theresa Smith, Boulder Junction Chamber of Commerce director, acknowledged the affect the overall lack of snow has had so far this season, but she also pointed to other community events that bring people to the area.
“We all know it’s hard on the businesses when there’s a lack of snow involved,” she said. “It’s tough on the area, that’s a fact.”
She said the recent snowfall last week helped last weekend, especially for a breakfast the Boulder Junction Snowmobile Club holds each year on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day.
“They were only expecting, because of trail conditions, about 50 people for it,” Smith said. “They ended up with a good turnout of 110 people.”
Smith highlighted events coming up in the area, including an ice fishing tournament next month.
“As a chamber we try to do things and put together other things for people to do,” she said. “We try to promote things like ice fishing and things that people can do that don’t require snow.”
None of those things may be the draw to the area that snowmobiling is, said Smith, but people are still coming up.
“They’re coming up to see family or to ice fish or something else,” she said. “But it’s not the filled-out weekends we’d see if the conditions were good for snowmobiling.”
In Mercer, where there has been a little more in the way of snowfall, Tina Brunell with the Mercer Chamber of Commerce said things don’t appear to be much better from a business standpoint.
“I know that our lack of snow is taking its toll on our businesses,” she said. “There’s really no alternative to that not happening when you don’t have snow.”
Brunell said the four- to six-inch snowfall the area received last week helped a little but it’s not enough to improve the trail conditions.
Like other area chambers, Brunell said what the Mercer chamber has been doing is promoting more of the silent winter sports – cross country skiing, snowshoeing and ice fishing.
“But lack of snow even cuts down on the number of skiers and snowshoers as well,” she said. “And now the recent cold temperatures keep people indoors as well.”
As for people calling the chamber office to inquire about the area, Brunell said the number of calls hasn’t really dropped, but they’re different.
“Instead of ‘We’re coming up. What trails are best to ride on?’ or ‘Who’s got a vacancy? Where can I stay?’ It’s a lot of ‘So, did you get the snow they were calling for?’” she said. “‘Do you have snow? What are the conditions like?’ We certainly have taken a lot of those calls. I know people are waiting.”
Brunell is going to a trade show in Chicago to promote the area.
“It’s more of a spring fishing show,” she said. “But we do end up running into a lot of snowmobilers and I know we’ll get a lot of questions as to how the conditions are up here.”
Last year wasn’t a record year either for the area, despite being one of the few locations in the area that did have snow, Brunell said.
“It was better, but we’re taking a hit this year,” she said.
Overall county budgets
Vilas County Highway Commissioner Jarred Maney said the lack of snow over the last few weeks has had a positive impact on his department’s budget.
“We’ve had less overtime and fewer equipment breakdowns,” Maney said. “Our people have been able to do a lot more tree cutting and equipment maintenance than we normally would for this time of the year.
“We haven’t spent nearly as much money so far as we had originally planned, but weather can change here quickly and we could be in a whole different situation within a short time.”
Oneida County Highway Commissioner Freeman Bennett said his department has not had to deal with snow this year as much as they normally would, but other weather problems have impacted his department.
“We’ve had more rain events than usual over the last few weeks,” Bennett said. “And then that rain freezes and we have black ice. My people still have to go out and sand and salt. Our costs are down some because of having less snow, but not as much as you might expect because of the rain.
“We’re not saving as much money as I wish were saving.”
Impacts on outdoor sports
Finally, a too-mild winter sees its first truly arctic blast – and there’s very little snow to play in. But there’s more and more ice to play on.
Overall, winter sports have also taken a hit – much like local economies. Snowmobile trails are bare, and the cross country ski and snowshoe routes have also suffered this season.
However, the recent frigid temperatures have benefited one faction of winter outdoor enthusiasts – ice fishermen. The sub-zero temperatures have started to make up for a slow start to the ice fishing season by increasing the lake ice thickness.
Silent winter sports
Minocqua’s Winter Park saw the winter season start well, but the recent lack of snowfall has caused problems there as well.
“Between Christmas and New Year’s we probably had one of our best periods ever, but after that with the lack of snow and the warmer temperatures we had to close down the trails and the tubing hill all week,” Casey Sovil, operations manager at Winter Park, said.
Sovil said Monday all the park’s trails were open as of then, except the River Run Trail.
Sovil said people are able now to snowshoe and cross country ski on the trails thanks to the bit of snow that fell late last week.
Discovery Center in Manitowish Waters has also seen an impact due to the lack of snow, but not as large of an impact as other area winter recreation facilities have.
“We’ve had to cancel a couple of events,” Discovery Center Executive Director Sarah Johnson said. “We’ve had a very quiet last three weeks or so.”
Ice fishing and snowmobiling
Pete Krueger of Northern Highland Sports in Boulder Junction said winter conditions have affected business.
“We haven’t had the influx of fishermen we usually have just because of the ice conditions early and now the cold,” Krueger said.
He noted that Boulder Junction is a bit off the beaten path and might be seeing the effects more than communities like Minocqua, where there are more people.
“It’s just mainly locals and a few that have homes or cottages up here that come up for a weekend or something. During the week we have very little traffic,” Krueger said.
With the snowmobile trails in poor condition for most of the winter, Krueger thinks his own business has taken a blow along with many others.
“The snowmobilers bring a bunch of people up and some of them fish, too,” he said. “In general, it’s been slow.”
Krueger said the weekends have been pretty good, but customer traffic is down overall.
“The snow really hurts you – if you don’t have it,” he said. “All the way around. Not only for snowmobiling but fishing and ... the women that come along and shop in the stores, too. And they may not go snowmobiling every day – so, you miss out on a lot of things with no snowmobiling.”
Krueger did seem to think there were still some positives, noting that there was around five inches of snow on the ground and that groomers had been out grooming.
“It might be better this weekend if we get a little dusting or something, anyhow,” he said. “A little snow would help and will get a few more people up. And it’s supposed to warm up for the weekend.”
And the arctic blast of air, even without snow, isn’t all bad either. At least as far as ice fishing is concerned.
“With not a whole lot of snow on the ice, that can build ice pretty good,” Krueger said. “That’s good. Especially since we had such a mild start to the season. The ice wasn’t real good to begin with.”
In contrast, fishing guide John Andrew of Angler’s Choice Guide Service in Presque Isle said he has been keeping busy this winter.
Andrew has 12 heated ice houses on seven different lakes that he uses for guiding anglers. Those anglers are showing up and seeing success, he said.
“The fishing’s good,” Andrew said. “We’re getting walleyes in the evening. Obviously, recent cold conditions make any activity a little difficult, but we’re getting panfish during the day. We’re getting perch, bluegill, crappie, sunfish, northern pike. We’re doing well. We’re not breaking records but we’re definitely catching fish on a daily basis.”
Andrew indicated that the recent sub-zero weather is probably good for the business of ice fishing.
“We’ve had a lack of snow this year. The ice is pretty thick now – there’s plenty of safe ice,” he said.
Andrew thinks anglers should take advantage of conditions that are good not only relative to earlier this winter, but to seasons past as well.’
Outdoor enthusiasts might view ice fishing as something to fall back on. While other winter pursuits are not in full-swing just yet, ice fishing finally seems to be there.
“Maybe we can’t do as much snowmobiling as we’d like to, or cross country skiing – although people are skiing now,” Andrew said. “But the cold conditions are making good, safe ice, as of now – maybe not two, three weeks ago – but, as of now, we have good, safe ice.”
Andrew said he’s guiding on the ice about four or five days a week, and that this part of his business has been up this year, but he’s not attributing that to the weather. He has increased marketing efforts.
on Northwoods wildlife
Recent winters have been relatively mild and short. That’s good news for deer according to the winter severity index (WSI).
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources uses the WSI to measure the impact of severity of the winter on the deer herd. The WSI was developed in the 1970s.
DNR wildlife biologist Michele Woodford says it’s used in the northern part of the state.
“Mostly, up in the north, where we seem to see the most severe winters, the northern third of Wisconsin pretty much,” she said. “It sort of depends what work unit a wildlife biologist works in. Some are starting to collect [this type of data] just because we’ve had some anomalies in other [areas], like in Madison a couple of years back.”
Data is not generally collected in the southern portions of the state – its milder winter conditions usually have less impact on deer.
The information on snow depth and temperatures is routinely taken at 34 locations in the northern part of the state so wildlife managers can manage herds locally, as conditions can vary a great deal.
“It’s a good way to quickly get a feel for how severe the winters are,” Woodford said. “Basically what it’s doing is adding cold days to the number of days that there’s a lot of snow. If there’s a lot of snow, the deer have a hard time walking around in it.”
Severity is calculated by adding the number of days with 18 inches or more of snow on the ground to the number of days when low temperatures were zero degrees Fahrenheit or lower between Dec. 1 and April 30.
For instance, a day with a minimum temp below zero with 18 or more inches of snow on the ground counts as two points on the WSI. Severity is based on the total number of points.
Deer herd population estimates take into account the WSI totals, Woodford said. The WSI helps wildlife managers determine how many deer may have been lost due to winter weather. Woodford noted it doesn’t account for everything.
“One thing that it doesn’t take into consideration would be snow crust – where it would be really hard (for deer) to get around,” she said.
Still, the factors measured have proven to affect the health and population of deer.
“Short durations are obviously going to be hard on individual animals, but what we’re more concerned about is how long of a winter,” Woodford said.
“If that hard weather, cold weather and deep snow conditions, lingers on into spring when deer may be running out of reserves, that’s when wildlife managers tend to be a little more concerned about winter severity.”
A winter with an index of less than 50 is considered mild, 50-79 is considered moderate, 80-99 is severe, and over 100 is very severe. So far this year it’s mild overall, Woodford said.
“We’ve hardly had any snow and it’s been warm weather with the exception of this week being really cold,” she said. “So, from a day-to-day basis, the animals are obviously requiring a lot more energy just to stay warm, but if this is a short little spell, then it’s not going to be too big of a blip in our winter severity index.”
Whitetail deer have characteristics that allow them to thrive despite winter cold as long as severe conditions do not persist for too long.
“For the cold weather, obviously you need more calories to stay warm,” Woodford said. “It’s going to be depleting any of those fat reserves ... so if there’s really cold weather and a lot of snow that’s going to be a lot more critical. But right now the deer are [good]. I’ve noticed that grouse are leaving tracks everywhere, so they’re not even having a hard time getting around in this snow.”
Snow that’s crusty or too deep makes travel to food sources more difficult, and may make it difficult for deer to outrun predators.
“When you think crusty snow you tend to think of the deer not wanting to move around ... the deer are potentially getting their feet caught up,” Woodford said. “They are going to, potentially, be holed-up in those deer yards we talk about. If there’s a lot of deep snow, the deer just can’t run as fast. There’s a special predator-prey relationship there, when there’s a lot of snow to slow them down.”
The index is considered when deer quotas are set in the spring. Factors such as an early spring can aid deer survival. An early green-up can provide good nutrition for does and result in healthy fawns.
Other factors, such as the availability of good browse going into the winter can also affect winter survival and fawn health. The size of the herd going into the winter and competing for available food affects survival.
Area locations where the WSI is measured each year include Eagle River, Mercer, Park Falls, Prentice, Rhinelander, Tomahawk and Woodruff.
Weather impacts on other animals
Lack of snow has its pros and cons, Woodford said.
“If you’re a deer and there’s really deep snow, sometimes it’s a little bit harder to get down to maybe some food you’re foraging for,” she said. “It would be the same for a turkey and other animals that are trying to dig down into the snow to find acorns, for example.”
She said some animals can benefit from deep snow. Grouse make snow roosts when there is adequate snow.
“Having a lot of snow would be good for thermal cover for the grouse,” she said.
“Martens are another example of an animal that thrives in deep snow. Martens are a little smaller than fishers. So when a fisher may be breaking through a crust of snow, from the weight, martens are going to be doing a little bit better. Those are just two species that kind of compete with each other.”
Woodford noted that many animals will just stay inactive and ride out short periods of very cold weather like the Northwoods saw this week.
“Turkeys, for example, they might not even come down from their roosts to forage and look for food,” she said.
More of the season to come
Though it has been a slow start to the Northwoods winter, the season is still young. It’s been proven time and time again that northern Wisconsin winters can last well into March. There is still time for the Mother Nature to provide the much needed snow to relieve some of the economic anxiety the Lakeland area has felt.
That being said, a few snow dances might be in order to finish off the season stronger than it began.