As the December air cooled, Minnesota businesses warmed to the prospect of a profitable winter recreation season. About 40 miles south of International Falls, Mindy Glennie is getting ready for a busy New Year's weekend.
Glennie and other members of her family bought the modest Ash Ka Nan resort last year. It caters to snowmobilers who ride the Ash River Trail near Crane Lake. The family considered getting out of the winter recreation business after the last, relatively mild and dry snow season.
"Actually, we were thinking about closing down for the winters if it was going to be like last year," she said. "Because we were heating all the cabins and weren't making the payments."
But Glennie reports there is already more than eight inches of snow on the trails and people are starting to pack into the restaurant that seats up to 70 on a good night.
"We get a lot of snowmobilers," she said. "Our cabins are booked. Our snowmobile rentals are being rented out a lot more right now."
Farther south, at the Arrowwood Resort in Alexandria, General Manager Jeff Wild said his 200-room resort is typically booked for New Year's. But he said the best Christmas week snow in at least eight years has his winter recreation season in full swing -- a welcome departure from recent years.
"The last eight years I think we've rented snowmobiles a total of less than about eight weeks," he said. "So our snow season is getting shorter and shorter and some years we haven't rented snowmobiles at all. So this is a big bonus for us to get out of the gate and have a great Christmas week and we're looking forward to January, February and March with the snow, too."
A network of 500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails cuts through the Arrowwood property. With a year-round water park, indoor tennis courts and 100,000 visitors to their Lake Darling resort every year, snow sports are not as crucial to their annual bottom line as some other small Minnesota getaways. But Wild said he and other Alexandria-area businesses are happy for the increased traffic, much of which comes from the Twin Cities area.
Metro-area resident Gary Burggraff was on his way up to the Mille Lacs area Wednesday for a week of snowmobiling. Burggraff helps maintain about 100 miles of trails just south of Lake Mille Lacs. He said this is the earliest his crew has been out grooming trails in at least four years.
"Last year, I think we were out maybe a total of four times. And that's about it," he said. "And we've got that way passed already this year."
Increased natural snow and consistently low temperatures allowed Spirit Mountain downhill ski resort in Duluth to open full operations Dec. 14. Duluth's convention and visitor's bureau said it is the earliest opening in the resort's 34-year history.
Skiers, snowmobilers and snowshoers pump important winter-time tourist dollars into local economies. Winter recreation is an industry, like farming, that is largely dependent on the weather.
Tourism industry watchers know that a lack of snow in the Twin Cities area can dampen enthusiasm for snow sports for a large portion of the state's population, even if conditions are better elsewhere.
Snow on the ground in the metro area also provides a training ground for a large number of winter athletes. The February City of Lakes Loppet cross-country ski race in Minneapolis has not had strong skiing conditions since it started in 2003. Organizers have even resorted to trucking in snow and shortening the course in previous years.
John Munger is director of the City of Lakes Nordic Ski Foundation that organizes the race that travels through Minneapolis parks. He says, if it lasts, the snow could make for best conditions so far.
"The fact that there's snow on the ground and people can actually ski now and just get excited about it," he said. "It's something we've never actually seen before. I'm excited and slightly nervous as to what we could have this year compared to past years for our event."
Organizers for two other famed cross country ski races -- Wisconsin's Birkebeiner and the Vasaloppet in northern Mora, Minnesota -- significantly curtailed their events last year. Both could see a resurgence of interest that on good years infuses thousands of people into typically remote local economies.