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Inside the Outdoors: A Snow Season Largely Lost

Last Saturday morning just after dawn, I guided my vehicle into the parking area of a cross country ski trail network not far from my home. There was no competition for parking space, which was not unexpected at that early hour. Unfortunately, th...

Last Saturday morning just after dawn, I guided my vehicle into the parking area of a cross country ski trail network not far from my home. There was no competition for parking space, which was not unexpected at that early hour. Unfortunately, this parking area has been empty more often than normal this winter, thanks to a scarcity of snow.

Several days earlier we had a snowfall of about five inches, something we hadn't seen since before our brown Christmas. I saw this snow event as a narrow window of opportunity, given the forecast for a week of temperatures possibly topping out at 50 degrees. Unless there is another meaningful snow event, perhaps when the high school basketball tournaments are upon us, I knew this could be the swan song for a snow season that never really was.

I rubbed what I guessed to be the right wax into the "kick" area of my skis, stepped into my bindings, and shoved off down the trail. Five inches of snow may sound like plenty for grooming a ski trail, but it's borderline once it has been compacted in the trail-setting process. There were some thin, even bare, spots in places, something to watch out for so that a ski doesn't come to an unexpected halt in mid-stride, throwing you off balance and putting you on the ground. Cross country skiers rarely suffer the glamorous fracture injuries that downhill skiers do. But you can never be sure, and the fewer tumbles you take, the better your prospects.

As I emerged from a stretch of trail that transitions from oak forest to a prairie-like area, a quartet of whitetail deer lifted their heads, then trotted briskly away when they realized I was not a normal part of the scenery. Not this winter, anyway, when the ski trails have been largely empty, and the deer have had little disturbance. This has been an easy winter for them, with limited snow and few stretches of really cold weather. They looked fit, and acted like it.

This has not been a lost year for every form of winter recreation. For ice anglers it has been a good winter, one largely without the slush conditions that can plague anglers when there is a deep cap of snow over lake ice. Ice depths have been good statewide, despite what one hears about vehicles and even all-terrain vehicles falling through the ice. In some areas, particularly the border country, ice depth has been so great in places that some augers could not cut all the way through, even with an extension.

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Vehicles go through the ice in the depths of winter not so much because of inadequate cold, but commonly because the ice is weak for other reasons. Typically this is due to underwater currents, or a spring whose outflow weakens ice from beneath. Even the movements of schooling fish can sometimes influence ice thickness, according to the Minnesota DNR. In early spring, of course, warmer temperatures and the radiant energy from a more direct sun angle will begin the thawing process from above, adding to uncertain ice safety.

Just as anglers can't wait to get out on early ice in December, many are equally enthusiastic about late winter and early spring, which can be very good for panfish. Now, more than ever, it's critical not to take chances with vehicles on weakening ice, and to regularly test the ice on which you may be traveling to and from your fishing destination, even when on foot.

Snowmobilers have been just as disappointed as skiers. Some take to the lakes for their riding when the scenic trails lack snow. But that's clearly second-choice, and a lot of snowmobiling adventures were put on the back burner this year, with predictable economic ripple effects that have hurt the bottom lines of resorts, restaurants, taverns, gas stations, and other merchants. As one graphic indicator of this year's snowmobiling conditions, a Hennepin County trail grooming machine had a total of 15 hours on its meter, compared to 360 hours at this time last year.

Interestingly enough, the snow deficit experienced in Minnesota has hit other parts of the country, too. Minnesota sponsors have rescheduled the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon on the North Shore from January to March, in hopes of better snow conditions. Similar shortfalls in parts of Alaska have dictated moving the start of the 1,000-mile Iditarod sled dog race from its traditional jumping-off point in Anchorage, to Fairbanks, some 360 miles north in the Alaska Range, where there is more snow.

But attitudes change when March arrives. As much as we may mourn a disappointing winter, we begin thinking about spring and the opening of our lakes, which usually occurs in April. We're eager to see ripples beyond the gunwale of a fishing boat, not within a small round hole drilled by an ice auger. Winter will get another chance to prove how much fun it can be; next year.

Related Topics: INSIDE THE OUTDOORS
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All proceeds from Saturday, Feb. 4, game against Alexandria Blizzards at Breezy Point Sports Center will benefit CRMC's Courage Cabinet
Minnesota Loons scheduled to host the Blizzard at 7:10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, at Breezy Point Sports Center
The Loons are scheduled to host Alexandria Thursday, Jan. 26 and Willmar Saturday, Jan. 28 at the Breezy Point Sports Center.
The Loons scored two in the third period to tie the game. The Loons are next scheduled to play Friday and Saturday, Jan. 20-21, at Mason City, Iowa.