REGIONAL— For tourism-related businesses in the North Country, this winter’s cold temperatures, frequent snow, and the lingering post-COVID surge in outdoor recreation travel have …
REGIONAL— For tourism-related businesses in the North Country, this winter’s cold temperatures, frequent snow, and the lingering post-COVID surge in outdoor recreation travel have combined for one of the best winter seasons in memory.
Snowmobilers, in particular, have poured into the region over the past two months, taking advantage of the snow conditions and the most extensive trail system in the state.
“It’s the best winter I’ve ever had,” said Randy Semo, who operates Good Ol’ Days Bar and Grill in Tower. “We’ve been having summer numbers.”
For business owners in the hospitality industry in the region, the rumble of snow machines has long been associated with wintertime sales, but this year is particularly good. “We’ve been pretty busy,” said Rick Oveson, who operates Oveson’s Pelican Lake Resort and Inn, in Orr. “We’ve had good ice and good trails. Plenty of snow has helped and the cold has helped things firm up.”
Brian Anderson, at Fortune Bay Resort Casino, concurred. “Snowmobile business, both small groups and larger ones, has been very steady for us,” he said. “The abundance of snow has been a key reason for that.” While Fortune Bay has had its regulars back this winter, Anderson said the resort has also seen an influx of riders from places like Iowa and Wisconsin. “It’s great to bring in new groups that will hopefully make the Lake Vermilion area their destination of choice when it comes to snowmobiling,” Anderson added.
Change in weather helped
For a time, it had looked like the winter could be a bust for winter recreation. An exceptionally warm December left limited snow cover and kept area trails mostly unfrozen, making grooming difficult. But Mother Nature flipped the switch around Christmas. Both frequent snow and cold temperatures have been the rule ever since, and it’s left the trails in “very good condition,” according to the Tower Area DNR trails staff, who groom about 200 miles of primary state trails in the region. “We’ve had those intermittent blasts of snow, which have been really, really nice for the trails,” said Joe Majerus, trails supervisor in the Tower work area.
Riders from around Minnesota have noticed. “The trails are in great shape,” said David Williams, of Lakeville, who has led groups of sledders to the area twice already this season.
And Williams knows what good trails should look like. He’s a longtime rider and is president of the Lakeville Snotrackers, a local snowmobile club that maintains about 65 miles of trails in that south metro community.
Williams and his crew filled the Vermilion Park Inn, in Soudan, last weekend as part of their second visit to the area this season. They visited Elbow Lake Lodge earlier in February.
Williams and his fellow riders have been coming to the Lake Vermilion area regularly for years, in part because the trail network offers so many options for riders. “The lake also helps. It gives us options in low snow years,” said Williams. “There’s just a lot of flexibility.”
Williams knows some of the local club members up here as well and keeps in touch on the latest conditions. When the reports are good, he and his fellow club members are usually eager to hit the trails.
Williams said he’s always impressed by the trail system up here as well as the dedication from so many of the local clubs, which keep the bulk of the trail network groomed. As someone who is involved personally in establishing and maintaining snowmobile trails, Williams understands all that’s involved in creating a trail network as exceptional as what’s available here in the North Country. “You really need to give full credit to the snowmobile clubs in the area,” he said.
DNR trail crews play a role as well and Majerus said his groomers put in long hours to keep the trails in good shape, often working late at night once the snowmobilers are mostly off the trails.
In a good year, they don’t get much feedback on the trails they maintain. “For us, no news is good news,” said Majerus, who judges the quality of the trails by the number of complaints, rather than kudos. “Usually, if things aren’t going well, the phone doesn’t stop ringing,” he said. This season, he said, they’ve had very few complaints. “It’s probably a record low number,” he added.
The trails remain in good shape despite traffic levels that are exceptional. As of earlier this week, Majerus said a trail counter in Tower had already logged 10,000 sleds, which would be a good season total in a typical winter. Yet with more snow and continued cool temperatures in the forecast for the foreseeable future, there are almost certainly at least two, and possibly three, more weekends of excellent riding ahead.
An excellent winter season came despite the highest surge in new COVID-19 cases on record in January. The prevalence of the Omicron variant did put a damper on some snowmobilers’ plans and it complicated reservation systems at some area motels. “Dealing with reservations took a lot more time than usual because we had so many cancellations due to COVID,” said Orlyn Kringstad, who operates the MarJo Motel, in Tower. But as quickly as potential clients canceled, Kringstad said new reservations would fill the space, which left the eight-room motel’s small parking lot jammed with snowmobile trailers at times, especially on weekends.
Kringstad said the snowmobilers like Tower as a base, because it provides direct access to Lake Vermilion and a trail system that goes in virtually every direction. “And they like being in town, where they have easy access to restaurants,” he said.
More good riding ahead?
While snowmobile traffic often slows by mid-March, as milder temperatures and the returning sun begin to eat away at the snowcover, there’s no sign of an imminent end to the great conditions. As of deadline, the National Weather Service was hinting of a potentially significant snowstorm for the weekend, with a continuation of below average temperatures through the middle of the month. That forecast has kept the phone ringing at places like the MarJo Motel. “I had been totally empty for March and April, but I’ve spent hours this week taking reservations for March because everyone knows the snow is still great here,” said Kringstad.
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