Just a week ago, things looked dire for Sarah and Tim Long, owners of Timbers Resort in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Snow is their winter lifeblood, drawing outdoor sports enthusiasts from far and wide, yet the ground was bare.
Then came a desperately needed arctic blast. Suddenly the drifts were thigh-deep — and snowmobilers were flocking to the mom-and-pop operation's cottages on the northern end of Lake Gogebic.
"Right now it's going very good. We're getting tons of snow," Sarah Long said Friday. But after losing nearly three weeks' worth of reservations and enduring a dismal season a year ago, she's not ready to declare the crisis over. "It's been pretty scary. Hopefully we can still recover."
The Longs' experience illustrates the increasingly fickle nature of winter in the Upper Midwest, where dry, mild weather is making life difficult for businesses that rely on abundant snow, from ski hills to plow trucks to taverns located near snowmobile trails. Even as icy temperatures gripped the region over the past week, snowfall remained spotty — a feast in some locales, a famine elsewhere.
"This year and last year, there's been what we'd call a snow drought," said Jake Crouch, a climate scientist with NOAA's National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.
Even places with snow are getting less than usual. The Lake Superior shoreline city of Marquette, Mich., is nearly four feet off its usual pace. Total accumulations are below normal by 14 inches in Minnesota's Twin Cities, 4.5 inches in International Falls, Minn., and La Crosse, Wis., and 32 inches in Muskegon, Mich.
Chicago is more than 15 inches below normal and finally got an inch-deep layer Friday morning. It was the city's latest first snowfall of at least an inch since record-keeping began in 1884.
"This is the first time we've had a blade down this year," said Clara Mark, a dispatcher at Chicago Snow Removal Services, which plows parking lots at condominium complexes, strip malls and factories. "It's been rough. Last year was a bust, too. We only plowed three times."
Lack of snow has been fatal for some small businesses. Others are barely hanging on, reducing staff or cutting other expenses. Some resorts have begun offering winter activities that don't require snow, such as wine tasting and ice fishing. Diversifying helps, but there's no substitute for a powdery white landscape to draw tourists northward.
"If there's no snow on the ground, it's hard to get people fired up about winter activities," said Joy Van Drie, executive director of the Cadillac Area Visitors Bureau in Michigan's Lower Peninsula. "Our downhill ski resorts can make snow, but that doesn't help the businesses out in the rural areas that rely on snowmobile traffic — the restaurants, the gas stations. It's killing them."
But in the eastern Upper Peninsula village of Strongs, tavern and motel owner Rex Hyrns had no complaints. His area is among those where conditions are normal. "Everything's beautiful, the trails are in good shape," he said.
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."
Associated Press writers Amy Forliti in Minneapolis, Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee and Tammy Webber in Chicago contributed to this story.