Traverse City News and Events

Winter Is (Not) Coming

By Craig Manning | Feb. 7, 2024

You heard the Groundhog: An early spring is on the way.

In northern Michigan, with little snow on the ground and 50-degree temperatures forecasted this week, it might already be here.

That’s bad news for northern Michigan businesses that depend on winter weather. Though Traverse City is typically considered an idyllic destination for cold weather recreation, this winter hasn’t had much to offer skiers, snowboarders, ice fishers, and snowmobilers.

According to Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism (TCT), mild winters like this one are eroding Traverse City’s reliability as a winter recreation hub – and with it, the region’s off-season tourism numbers.

“As a guy who grew up in Traverse City, I just feel like you don’t see the winters you used to see here,” Tkach says. “And maybe it was because I was little and the snow piles seemed higher, but my recollection is that we used to have more snow, and it would just stick around forever.”

Tkach’s memories of winters past aren’t inaccurate: Per the National Weather Service (NWS), Traverse City’s normal winter snowfall is 101 inches. The record seasonal snowfall, set during the winter of 1995-96, was 191.2 inches. As February 6, Traverse City has gotten just 48 inches of snow this winter – 20 inches shy of the season-to-date average.

Pair the lower-than-average snowfall with higher-than-average temperatures, and you have a not-so-wintry winter. According to NWS, Traverse City saw one of its 10 warmest Januarys on record this year, even despite a seven-day period from January 14-20 when temperatures stayed 5-15 degrees below normal. That streak of cold weather – which also corresponded with heavy snow – “was promptly offset by temperatures some 10-20 degrees above normal,” the NWS notes, “significantly lowering snowpack” in the region.

That lack of snowpack has been a problem for Mt. Holiday, which has yet to open for ski season. The local ski hill did briefly open up its tubing hill last month, and has been able to offer minimal ski slope action for two of its programs: the Kiwanis Ski School and the Holiday Racing Team. For the most part, though, Holiday’s chairlifts and ski hills have remained dormant.

When asked why Mt. Holiday couldn’t translate January’s streak of cold, snowy weather into at least a few days of business, Executive Director Jim Pearson says it all had to do with the science of the snowpack. Ideally, Pearson explains, Holiday would have a base of 24-36 inches of snow on its slopes before welcoming a flood of users. Skiing on less accumulation is possible – especially for beginners who are “not really carving into the snow." But opening a less snowy hill to the public means quick degradation of the base, which can lead to other issues.

“So, it was debatable,” Pearson says of Holiday’s decision not to open during the mid-January snowfall. “The idea was: We won't touch [the base], and we’ll try and preserve it so that when the temperatures do drop again, we can just build on the base we already have. And then, ideally, the season lasts longer because we made that decision.”

But temperatures warmed faster than the Holiday team expected, and stayed warm for longer. A week into February, Mt. Holiday still isn’t anywhere close to opening. It’s a crisis, and Pearson says he and his team have had “a lot of internal debates” about their chances of salvaging any semblance of a ski season.

They aren’t the only ones feeling the heat: Last week, organizers for the North American Vasa pulled the plug on this year’s races, citing “the unfavorable weather forecast, concern for the safety of the competitors, the quality of the course, and the long-term viability of the North American Vasa.” Numerous other high-profile winter events in Michigan have fallen off the calendar, too, including the Gaylord Snowmobile Fest, the UP 200 dog sled race in Marquette, and the Interlochness Ice Fishing Tournament.

Also cancelled: much of the high school ski season. According to Traverse City Central High School Athletic Director Justin Thorington, the school’s ski teams have had vanishingly few practices or meets so far this season. “The Michigan High School Athletic Association requires skiers to have at least four races in a season to be eligible for the post-season tournament, so, it is likely we will need to request a waiver,” he says.

All the mild weather has economic impacts, too.

“Some $30 million is lost by the Michigan ski industry and the surrounding businesses that support it when we can’t operate during that Christmas season,” Pearson tells The Ticker. “At Mt. Holiday, we haven’t been open for the Christmas season in I think five years, and a lot of other ski resorts in the area have also missed the Christmas season.”

In part because of those Christmastime losses, Pearson says the Michigan Snowsports Industry Association (to which Mt. Holiday belongs) “has been lobbying the state and federal government for disaster relief.”

Local hotels are seeing losses, too: Tkach says tourism numbers in the region have been “definitely hamstrung by the lack of snow," with occupancy numbers for December and January down significantly year-over-year. The lack of wintry weather has even pushed TCT to modify its wintertime marketing to focus more on indoor experiences like wine tastings or restaurants.

But while muddling through a single fluke season is doable, people like Pearson and Tkach are starting to ponder what happens if northern Michigan winters continue to become milder and more erratic.

Pearson is already thinking ahead to spring and summer, and to how Mt. Holiday can make up lost ground. “We’re hoping to expand some of our biking this year,” he shares as an example, pointing to the popular Mud, Sweat & Beers race and an existing partnership with Norte as foundations he’d like to build upon. “We’re looking into some adaptations for our chairlifts, to hopefully be able to take mountain bikes and people up on the chairlift.”

As for Tkach, he’s not ready to forget about the epic winters of his youth just yet – but he is on notice.

“We do have to recognize that this is technically an El Niño year, and that some of these weather fluctuations might be temporary,” he concludes. “So, I'm optimistic that we will get back into the traditional wintertime activities that we've come to really enjoy, and hopefully that's the conversation we're having in five years. But I also think we need to go into this with eyes wide open, because we may be experiencing a more significant shift. And if so, [TCT] will have to modify our marketing strategy to correlate with that.”

Pictured: The slopes at Mt. Holiday on the morning of Tuesday, February 6.

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