U.P. outdoor events pivot because of warm winter

It has not been a traditional winter in the Upper Peninsula.

This winter has been the warmest since 1964 in Newberry and since 1923 in Houghton, according to the National Weather Service. A combination of both dry and warm weather patterns – usually seen every 10 to 12 years and almost never together – has led to rain showers, dense fog and just the fourth green Christmas in the U.P. since 1900.

While the reprieve from snow and cold weather is nice for some, the warm weather has wreaked havoc on the local tourism and outdoor recreation economy. 

Snow cover melts near ice formations outside Munising.Snowmobile trails haven’t been groomed in weeks. There are too many barren spots to run sled dog teams. Ice conditions for fishing and skating are unsafe.  And snow is not staying on the ground long enough to build a base for smaller skiing and sledding hills.

Many U.P. communities, however, are finding that the show must go on for their winter-themed events. Organizers are finding new ways to rally together, striving to balance both the financial boost from hosting events and the cultural benefits of celebrating their neighborhoods, 

“There isn’t a business in our community that isn’t hurting after the winter we have had,” said Devin Lawrence of the Grand Marais Chamber of Commerce. “It was brought up at our organizational meeting that maybe we should just pack it up, but that was not what this community decided. Instead, it was overwhelming how many people offered to do whatever it took. We needed to do something.”

For the second year in a row, Grand Marais will not serve as the turn around point for the UP 200, the largest and most prestigious sled dog race in the Lower 48.

After the race was canceled due to poor conditions, both Grand Marais and the start/finish community of Marquette decided to host their own separate Festival of the Sled Dog events February 16-17. Some local race teams will host meet and greets and then shift indoors for events ranging from silent auctions and bingo to face painting and cornhole tournaments.

Adaptation has been a key factor of survival for event organizers this winter. 
The Honey Bear Classic Ski Festival in Big Bay is adding bonfires and cookouts in case the trails aren’t ready for cross-country skiing.  Various ice fishing tournaments are heading to smaller inland lakes to keep the competition afloat. And the Outhouse Classic may have to haul in snow to make its drag strip through downtown Trenary. 

Some changes are more successful than others, but often provide a way to think about what makes each event special.

“I can’t tell you how many changes have happened this year because there’s been changes happening literally every five minutes,” said Bill Thompson, organizer of the Michigan Ice Fest in Munising. “But climbers have been historically adaptable due to the elements, and that’s what we have been doing during this festival as well: we’re playing the shell game, moving things around and trying to give everyone a safe, fun experience.”

Vendors fill the gymnasium at Alger Parks and Recreation in Munising as one of the many indoor activities during the Michigan Ice Fest.Michigan Ice Fest is one of the largest ice climbing festivals in the country, with participants coming from 49 states and several countries to climb ice formations around Munising. After a rainstorm midway through the festival, all climbing activities stopped due to safety, but many participants stayed for the rest of the week-long event, focusing on vendor shows, educational courses, speaking engagements and participating in other events happening in the community.

“Munising got a much-needed shot in the arm this week from all the visitors (Michigan Ice Fest) brought to town,” said Peggy Carberry, co-owner of Cooking Carberry’s Wood Fired Pizza and Catering. “It was great seeing motels, stores, restaurants and bars having customers during this winter that wasn’t.”

Understanding the economic and cultural impacts of major events is understood by more than just local business owners and tourism leaders, but also by volunteers and many younger members of the community. 

At Michigan Tech’s Winter Carnival — the Upper Peninsula’s largest winter event in both the number of activities and participants — multiple activities were canceled throughout the week-long event. Most of the activities impacted by weather were the most enriching to student life on campus.

However, students rallied to protect the carnival’s most recognizable aspect – snow sculptures. The massive portrayals of art made of snow may have been a little smaller this year, but, according to MTU officials, students decided to uphold the strongest judging standards to guarantee that the community would still have a quality sculpture installation.  

“It is extremely important to keep the Winter Carnival running year after year. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of alumni that come back to MTU for Winter Carnival every year, and they look to enjoy what Michigan Tech and the Keweenaw has to offer, so we have to keep Winter Carnival running for them,” said Joe Dlugos, president of Michigan Tech’s Blue Key National Honor Society, which helps organize the Winter Carnival from the student side of the event.

“But it’s not only for the alumni, it’s for the community as well. Winter Carnival week is one of the busiest weeks for businesses, so canceling this event would mean a large loss of revenue for these businesses," he added.

As the winter tourism and outdoor recreation season continues through February, more U.P. communities and participants will have to make changes, finding their own form of success along the way.

“It may not be fun if it's always simple and easy. Every year there’s something,” Thompson said. “We’re just lucky that we have a lot of good people with creative minds that take on these challenges.” 

Brice Burge is a regular contributor to UPword.
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