Monday, April 22, 2024
Home Travel Upper Peninsula tourism reckons with warm winter

Upper Peninsula tourism reckons with warm winter

by Staff

Steve Hamilton estimates his snowmobile rental business has lost 99% of its revenue this winter.

Hamilton North Coast Adventures only had about seven days where the snow was deep enough for snowmobilers to hit the trails. During that white week in mid-January, Hamilton was able to rent out snowmobiles and host guests at his cabin.

But outside of that brief winter spell, Ontonagon and Gogebic counties have been a ghost town.

“Here right now, there’s nobody on the roads. There’s no traffic. There’s no waits anywhere,” Hamilton said.

The Lake Gogebic Outpost doesn’t have any rumbling snowmobiles lining up at the gas pumps. Ontonagon restaurants have open tables ready to serve hungry diners. And western Upper Peninsula resorts have empty rooms.

This is Big Snow County without much snow.

“You don’t really understand the gravity of it until you come into Bergland or Ontonagon on a Friday night at 5 o’clock,” Hamilton said. “Usually there’s a couple hundred people around everywhere. It’s full of snowmobilers and skiers, but they’re gone.”

The lost winter

Looking north from the summit of Hogback Mountain in Marquette County, Michigan on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024.

Unseasonably warm weather, little snowfall and muddy trails have hollowed out the winter tourism industry across the Upper Peninsula. This crisis has devastated the small communities that rely on a thick blanket of snow to keep the economy humming.

Everything from snowmobile rentals to ski hills and local eateries have been impacted by what’s being called the “lost winter.”

“You’re having businesses up here that are either tightening up their payroll, laying employees off or simply cutting operating hours for their businesses,” said Brad Barnett, executive director of Visit Keweenaw. “This has real impact to our community.”

Tourism, a pillar to the Upper Peninsula economy, brings nearly $1.5 billion to the region and employs about 16.5% of the workforce. Although visitor numbers peak in summer, winter plays a vital role in tiding businesses over between shoulder seasons.

Related: Rare February warm-up cancels UP200 race, pivots to Festival of the Sled Dog

An annual average of 200 to 300 inches of snow make the Upper Peninsula a playground for winter enthusiasts plus 3,000 miles of snowmobile trails, 14 steep ski areas and ice caves. But there’s only been 116 inches in the Keweenaw Peninsula to date and Marquette is 5 feet below its normal snowfall.

“What’s been very challenging, it’s just been almost a complete absence of snow in many cases,” said Barnett said.

Many snowmobile trails are listed in poor condition by UP Travel with some “down to dirt” and others waterlogged. Iconic sled dog races, like the UP 200 and Copper Dog, were canceled due to the lack of snow. Houghton was only able to host the Jibba Jabba snowboarding rail competition, Barnett said, by hauling in 70 truckloads of snow from surrounding areas.

For Hamilton, he had to lay off his sole full-time employee just to keep his three-year-old business afloat.

“It’s just quiet,” he said. “You can definitely hear the skeleton of the economy.”

Why is it so warm?

Michigan has experienced the warmest December through January on record, according to Jeff Andresen, a state climatologist from Michigan State University. February has largely felt the same: a 70-degree day, open windows, T-shirts and brown landscapes.

A strong El Niño has played a big role, by interacting with the jet stream that normally delivers frigid arctic air to Michigan. During these events, Michigan typically sees warmer conditions, but Andresen says this is part of a “longer-term trend” toward milder winters.

Since 1951, yearly average temperatures have increased by 2 degrees throughout Midwest, according to the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences And Assessments. Future temperatures are expected to rise by another 6 to 11 degrees by 2100.

“The cold weather still does occur, but it’s just not typically as severe or as cold,” Andresen said.

Related: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula smashes records in warmest start to winter on record

Warming conditions have also led to big swings in snowfall. Some years, like the 2013-2014 winter, heavy snow buried Michigan with 116 inches falling in Grand Rapids and 273 inches in Baraga County. But other years, like this winter, there have been extremely low levels throughout the state.

“These are areas that snowfall is climatologically almost guaranteed statistically, but now that is no longer the case,” Andresen said.

Related: Open water: Ice cover on Great Lakes drops to historic winter low

What can be done?

A coalition of 43 western Upper Peninsula businesses are pushing for disaster relief after they lost an estimated $3.1 million during the unprecedently warm December.

This type of aid was recently made available to Wisconsin businesses that have suffered losses due to the mild winter. Those affected can apply for disaster loans up to $2 million from the U.S. Small Business Administration, Gov. Tony Evers announced in mid-February.

The Michigan Economic Development Corp. last said it takes seriously the “difficult circumstances Michigan’s winter snowsports industry and related businesses are facing,” and it’s working with local partners to find resources that will help.

“It’s pretty unbelievable how much money can really flow out of the snowmobile trail system into our local communities,” Hamilton said. “It drives lots.”

Related: Little snow, warm temps and $3M loss create crisis in Upper Peninsula

As the climate changes, Andresen says there will be more extreme weather events creating bigger economic impacts.

Climate disasters cost the United States $165 billion two years ago, the White House reported, the third costliest year on record. And a recent study from the University of Waterloo and University of Innsbruck found the U.S. ski industry has lost more than $5 billion over two decades due to “human-caused climate change.”

“Instead of becoming more resilient or less vulnerable by technology or whatever means, we may be actually seeing the opposite,” Andresen said. “We just can’t afford to do that.”

To cope, the Upper Peninsula hopes to diversify its economy so jobs are not entirely reliant on tourism.

“It will remain an important part of who we are, and we’re proud of that. But you realize with some of the uncertainty around weather, that we’ve got to have a broad economic base to draw from,” said Marty Fittante, CEO of InvestUP.

Some tourism businesses are using the same playbook.

Mount Bohemia, named the top ski resort in North America, added a Nordic spa three years ago and two new saunas this winter.

Hamilton North Coast Adventures, a Polaris Adventures Outfitter, also pivoted to renting out electric off-road vehicles instead of snowmobiles this winter. Michigan awarded Polaris a $700,000 grant last year to create an electric vehicle charging network along 100 miles of Upper Peninsula trails.

“We were supposed to pilot it this spring, but with what’s going on now, we’ve turned a leaf,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got to make lemonade.”

More stories about Northern Michigan

Leave a Comment

Copyright ©️ All rights reserved. | Tourism Trends