Wishing for a white Christmas? Keep dreaming.
Driving north towards the U.P. last Friday, it's a fairly bleak sight for mid-December in the Northwoods.
The only snow on the ground is a few patches here and there. Mostly it's just brown grass and bare trees.
The mostly snowless landscape makes the bright white of the slopes of Ski Brule a stark contrast.
The Ski Resort in Iron River, Michigan has been making snow since November.
The lifts have been running and skiers and snowboarders have been hitting the slopes since then.
“We opened on Thanksgiving Day for the 23/24 season which is a little later than usual. You know this year has been a challenge with snowmaking, warmer temperatures this year and high humidity,” said Jessica Polich, the Operations Manager for Ski Brule.
Ski Brule needs low humidity and colder temperatures to make snow. It also works better with a colder water source, which usually doesn’t happened until February or March.
Polich says they had a good string of snowmaking earlier in the season, but lately they only get an hour or two a day of the conditions needed.
“We definitely, 100% rely on our snowmaking at Ski Brule and then anything that Mother Nature throws in is just a bonus. We mix it in with our base and it makes a beautiful skiing surface,” said Polich. “We do have some different secrets and techniques that we do to make our snow very similar to what you would expect for nature made snow. You know, oftentimes, you hear in the Midwest, ‘Oh, I don't like manmade snow. It's icy.’ Well, if you know how to make snow and if you know how to groom, it's not going to be icy. Most people can't tell the difference between manmade snow and Brule made snow.”
Heading into the holiday weekend, Ski Brule will have 10 of its 17 runs open.
The ski resort is typically open Thursday through Sunday, but starting this Thursday it will be open every day through January 7.
Polich expects this year, like most years, to be consistently busy over the holidays.
“It is likely to be several days of good business. And not several days of, ‘oh my goodness, the slopes are packed’ because it's so long and spread out. I think it's going to be a really nice holiday this year,” she said.
While Ski Brule is looking forward to winter fun, other places in the Northwoods looking forward to a White Christmas may be out of luck.
Dreaming of a white Christmas?
“Right now, the chances of a white Christmas in Rhinelander are not looking super great,” said Kira Jesse, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Green Bay.
With the upper 30s and low 40s in the forecast through Christmas Day, the light snowfall the Rhinelander area got this week will likely melt.
There is a chance of some precipitation this weekend, but right now that’s looking like rain.
Jesse says brown Christmases are pretty rare for Rhinelander, but they do happen.
“There's only been eight brown Christmases in Rhinelander since the early 1900s and only four since 1960 which is crazy. It's about every 20 years as a brown Christmas in Rhinelander,” said Jesse.
Further north, your chances of a white Christmas are looking a little better. The Ironwood area got 4-5 inches of snow with the last storm. That has better chances of surviving the warm up this weekend.
By the weather service’s definition, there needs to be at least an inch of snow on the ground for it to be considered a white Christmas.
The last brown Christmas Rhinelander had was in the early 2000s, which, following the one every 20 years or so trend, would put Rhinelander on track to have one due.
While most are hoping for snow to complete the picture of Christmas in their heads, the snow also plays a huge role in the Northwoods economy.
“We are a tourism economy. We are desperately dependent upon the weather and having good weather, both in the summer and fall, spring and winter. It all matters,” said Krystal Westfal, President and CEO of the Let’s Minocqua Visitor’s Bureau.
With kids off school, the time between Christmas and New Years can be busy.
Snowmobile clubs aim to have trails by Christmas whenever conditions allow.
In Oneida County, the trails historically have opened sometime between December 17th and January 1st.
The last time Rhinelander had a brown Christmas in 2002, the snowmobile trails didn’t open until January 28th.
Roger Klein, President of the Bo-Boen Snowmobile Club in St. Germain told WXPR trails in Vilas County are all prepped and have passed inspection.
Now they need between 6 to 8 inches of snow on the ground to build a good base on the trails and get them open. Vilas County, like many others in the region, opens all its trail systems at once.
Westfahl says before the snow, they really need the cold, especially in the Lakeland Area.
“The warmth has been really what's been dampening a lot of our hopes that we're going to have really good ice conditions. We have so many snowmobile trails that cross swamps and low-lying areas where a lot of water is collected, not to mention the lakes. Our hopes are that we will get a really deep freeze,” said Westfahl.
Local businesses depend on the tourists that come to the Northwoods to snowmobile, ski, snowshoe, and ice fish.
Westfal says some businesses are adapting to the slow start to winter by offering different kinds of activities. It may be something they have to stick with for a while as Jesse at the National Weather Service says snow and cold temps may be in short supply this winter given the strong El Nino this year.
“You never know for sure. It can be variable how the El Nino will affect one specific area. But if you look back at some of the past years when we've had strong El Nino, which is what we have this year, it's more likely to see the warmer and drier winter especially across northern Wisconsin and so far, that's kind of exactly what's happened,” said Jesse.
Jesse says we will get cold snaps and snow this winter, it will likely just end up with above normal temps and below average precipitation.
Even places like Ski Brule that can make their own snow are keeping an eye on the weather.
Polich recalls the last strong El Nino year being a mixed bag.
“On the positive side it meant a warmer than normal snow season. Nobody's going to be here at 40 degrees below zero this year. It's going to be a little bit warmer which is always nicer when you're getting out, particularly with kids. You're not fighting the elements if you're not dressed properly,” said Polich.
While people do their snow dances, Westfahl says businesses are bracing for whatever Mother Nature throws at them this year.
“I think our businesses have been preparing themselves for that. It was an eventuality at some point. We've been having such great weather for multiple winters. Now, at one point, we're probably going to get one that's going to be a little bit slower starting now,” said Westfahl. “That's kind of where we're at. We're cautiously optimistic that after the holidays, we're going to be getting into some better weather and hopefully building on that ice and getting a big snowfall.”
Even without a lot of trails open, Westfahl says there’s plenty to keep people busy over the holidays.
Ski resorts that make their own snow are open. Some of the smaller lakes have a couple inches of ice for fishing, skiing, or snowshoeing.
Westfahl also recommends people take advantage of all the fat tire biking opportunities in the area.