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MN’s Weird, Warm Winter Is Causing Chaos for Outdoor Institutions

Beargrease? Canceled. Skating rinks? Closed. Ice Festivals? Off. It’s a tough year to get outside.

10:29 AM CST on January 4, 2024

Loppet Foundation|

The ski “trails” at Theo Wirth as photographed in late December. “The time and energy that had gone into making that amount of trail, and then to have it deteriorate at Christmas… that was a heartbreak moment,” Claire Wilson says.

This year should have been a high point for the Loppet Foundation. In February, the organization (which stewards the trails in Theodore Wirth Park in addition to organizing year-round outdoor programs) is hosting the FIS Cross Country World Cup, a fact that has been “the source of pure excitement across U.S. Skiing.” 

Loppet Foundation executive director Claire Wilson remembers working with race organizers to push their proposed date back from March to February—a timeframe she felt confident in. She was wary of the weather too late in the winter, but when had the park ever not been able to make a cross-country ski course in February?

“It turns out, there’s actually a scenario where that happens,” she says, laughing ruefully.

In a December 28 newsletter, Wilson shared her concerns on the ground they’ve lost in World Cup preparations at ​​Theodore Wirth this year, along with a few bleak photos of the meager ski trail they’d been able to make in a historically warm December.

“I think we were somewhat prepared for a low-snow year, for an El Niño. But we were not quite prepared for the strength or the severity of the weather,” Wilson tells Racket. “Not having natural snow, combined with no prolonged colder temperatures… has sort of increased the pressure to be able to, frankly, have a World Cup course.”

The Loppet is one of a number of outdoor institutions in Minnesota that are struggling this winter. In December, organizers announced that the Minnesota Ice Festival would not take place in 2024 due to “an extended forecast featuring uncharacteristically warm winter conditions in Minnesota.” On Tuesday night, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon was canceled for 2024; on Wednesday, the Klondike Dog Derby on Lake Minnetonka made the same call. 

“Given current conditions and long-term weather forecasts, we determined it is in the best interest of mushers who planned to race this year, our sponsors, and our volunteers to cancel at this time,” Klondike Dog Derby founder and race director Bethany Hway said in a statement. 

And the skating rinks that reliably pop up around Minneapolis and St. Paul each winter? Those won’t be ready for several weeks at the earliest. 

Larry Umphrey, director of aquatics, athletics, ice arenas, and golf for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, says that they aim to have the rinks ready to go by winter break each year, with a target date around December 20. While he said Tuesday that facilities teams will start flooding rinks this week, at this point, it’s going to be “around a couple weeks, give or take,” before sports like outdoor hockey and broomball can commence. 

It’s not as easy as getting out the hoses for a day or two: The ground needs to be frozen, and then teams apply layers and layers of water over a span of weeks. Ideally, low temperatures should be in the low teens or single digits, with highs that are still below freezing. Looking ahead to the next few days, with a forecast high of 36 on Friday and 37 on Saturday, has Umphrey and his crews a little nervous. 

The forecast seems likely to claim, or at least postpone, more winter victims over the coming weeks. The U.S. Pond Hockey Championships are scheduled to take place on Lake Nokomis beginning January 18; reporting from the lake last night, FOX 9’s Se Kwon showed viewers the “cold swimming pool” that is the lake at the moment.

“We haven’t thrown in the towel,” Umphrey says of Minneapolis rinks, adding that maintenance crews are working hard to give folks an enjoyable, if abbreviated, season. Not since joining the Parks Department in ’99 has he seen a complete “warm-out,” though such a thing is possible if conditions don’t improve—if we get rain, for example, or a heavy snowfall, before the rinks are finished. “I would imagine that at some point [a warm-out could happen]... we haven’t reached it yet,” he says. 

As for the Loppet’s World Cup? 

“I mean, it is true that it could not be worse…” Wilson laughs—because what else can you do? “This is basically the worst-case scenario, but we’re just gonna make snow, and make snow as hard and fast as we can.”

Wilson and fellow organizers have watched as outdoor event after outdoor event has been canceled for 2024, but says that’s not an option for them. They have ticket holders from 35 states; the U.S. Ski Team is doing better than almost ever during a World Cup period. Other nearby outdoor recreation areas have agreed to lend their own snowmaking equipment, and with just 44 days until the scheduled event, she says they’re going to make it happen.

“First of all, this has only happened on U.S. soil once in decades,” she says. “This is incredibly unique to get these athletes to come to North America. And it’s not like there’s a backup venue.

For Wilson, it’s been more heartbreaking to look out and see the empty trails on a day to day basis, especially over Christmas break, when laughing students typically fill the park. One way or another, they’ll put on a World Cup. 

“But for us, as a Minneapolis institution who provides access to all kinds of winter sport opportunities and that really celebrates winter, to not have folks here renting skis or taking ski lessons or fat tire biking or doing the tubing hill or the snowboarding hill… for most folks, if they don’t see winter out their window, they don’t think about coming to a facility like ours,” Wilson says.

“We’re an outdoor recreational facility,” she continues. “That’s what the Loppet does for the community. And we’ve never experienced a winter break where we couldn’t make the snow. Not since we’ve had snowmaking capabilities have we really had a winter where there was no winter available here.”

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