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Winter standstill: Lack of snow delaying winter pastimes

Members of the Bemidji High School Cross Country Ski Team are finding creative ways to stay in shape while patiently waiting for snow. Shown above, Kyle and Tony Sagedahl lead the team Monday afternoon through the single track trail developed by Tom Daman at Movil Maze. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Polly Merhar believes her husband must hold some kind of record for the number of days he has spent roller skiing on pavement this year, the president of the Bemidji Area Cross Country Ski Club said.

Snowmobilers, snowshoers and area skiers are restlessly waiting for Mother Nature to deliver a thick blanket of snow on the area so they can play.

The weather forecast for the rest of this week calls for mostly sunny skies with highs in the mid-teens. Wind chills could bring today's low to minus 16, but there is little chance for snow in the near future.

After early season snow melted, there's only a dusting of the white stuff left, prompting the cancelation of some events - like the ski club's wax and ski clinic scheduled for Friday and Saturday.

For the second consecutive year, the ski club has offered a ski clinic featuring John Bauer, a Nordic ski national champion and Olympian. But this year, with no snow on the ground, there was not enough people who signed up for the clinic.

"If there's not snow on the ground, people aren't as interested," Merhar said. "Maybe instead of a ski clinic, we need to learn how to snow dance."

A lack of snow would seem like a big problem for a cross-country ski team, but Coach Mark Walters' team at Bemidji High School has learned to adapt.

Now one month into their season, the skiers have been using all-terrain skies, which work on grass, asphalt, sand and dirt paths, as well as roller skies, which are like a cross between a roller blade and a ski. The skiers have also been walking the trails with ski poles and running on a local mountain bike path through the woods.

The team has this week to prepare for its first competition, set for Saturday at the Mount Itasca Winter Sports Center in Coleraine, Minn.

While the Coleraine facility has the ability to make snow, it's undetermined if it will have enough to make even a 2-kilometer course.

Walters said this year he has a handful of members who have never skied before, so he will have to assess whether they are ready to participate in their first competition after they have trained mostly on trails with no snow.

Despite the challenge of a lack of snow, Walters said he is optimistic Bemidji will have snow before the team's home meet Dec. 17 at Bemidji's Montebello Ski Trail behind Neilson-Reise Arena.

Fortunately for the sport of Nordic skiing, some high schools have the flexibility to postpone competitions due to a lack of, or even too much, snow.

"We are working hard at trying to stay working hard," Walters said. "We try not to just run. We do strength workouts, which involve plyometric training with resistance cords and other different things that simulate the motion of skiing."

Walters said two snowfalls will likely be needed before the first home competition. Last year's first snowfall dropped 8 or 9 inches of snow on the area, but he said the snow was so light and fluffy it compressed to about 1 inch on the ski trails.

"Three inches of wet snow is ideal," he said.

Despite the lack of white stuff, colder temperatures and low humidity levels have meant Buena Vista Ski Area finally has what it needs to put artificial snow on its slopes. The ski area will be opening for the season this Saturday.

Snow guns are working full time to whiten the Bunny Hill and Julia Vista run, said Director of Operations Suzanne Thomas. A third run could be open by this weekend, as well.

"We are excited it is snow time," she said.

This is a late start for the ski resort. Last year, it opened nearly one month earlier after several inches of snow fell.

For the Girl Scout troop scheduled to stay at the Buena Vista chalet this weekend, no natural snow could mean the their planned sleigh ride could be switched to a wagon ride, but at least they will have opportunities to ski or snowboard.

As of last Thursday, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reported most of the state's 22,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails remain closed due to an absence of snow.

Collin Strain, manager at Bemidji Sports Centre, said snowmobilers have been hoping for snow since early November and have shown excitement about some of the new snowmobile styles coming out.

But no snow oftentimes means consumers are less likely to purchase snow equipment, which could negatively impact businesses that sell winter recreation.

"You don't sell snowmobiles and snow blowers," he said. "(No snow) affects everything, from people wanting to sell gas to snowmobilers to hotels that don't get booked by them."

Strain has noticed some ice fishermen have decided to purchase an all-terrain vehicle instead of a snowmobile in order to get their equipment on the ice.

At Bemidji State Park, naturalist John Fylpaa said he is not surprised by the lack of snow.

"I guess I've found in the last five to 10 years our reliable snow fall has switched from late November to mid-to-late December," he said. "A few years ago we didn't have snow until Christmas."

Currently, many of the trail users are runners and walkers, rather than snowshoers and cross-country skiers.

"I'm hoping the long-range forecast that called for a good, snowy winter comes through," Fylpaa said. "I'm counting on it. That's all I can do beyond snow dancing."

Fylpaa said the park office has been receiving more calls about people wanting to know the ice conditions of Lake Bemidji either for ice fishing or recreation.

"Lake Bemidji has not frozen over yet and I would caution anyone thinking about going out on the smaller lakes around the area," he said.