Snowless Snowbelt: Impacts of a lack of snow in Ironwood

Snowless Snowbelt: Impacts of a lack of snow in Ironwood

By mid-March, Ironwood normally has over 150 inches of snow, making it an ideal tourist destination. The lack of snow has hurt some businesses, while others are thriving.

By mid-March, Ironwood normally has over 150 inches of snow, making it an ideal tourist destination for skiing, snowboarding, and anything else winter-related. This year, however, has been starkly different with only 40 inches so far. 

Jerri Anne Ovaska owns two Yooper Delights, a local business with two vacation rental homes and a bakery. Ovaska usually has to have the lots snow plowed often this time of year to keep them clear for customers. 

“We prepaid to have our parking lot, no driveways, no plowed, and we only had it plowed twice this whole winter, which is strange,” said Ovaska. “Typically, we’ll still have people skiing or snowshoeing or cross-country skiing into the end of March.”

A self-proclaimed “Yooper-in-training”, Michael Meyer has never seen so little snow in the ten years since he moved here from Appleton, Wisconsin. As the Executive Director of the Ironwood Chamber of Commerce, Meyer talks to both locals and visitors regularly who have been surprised by how quiet this season has been. 

“I have talked to many of the locals who have lived here all their lives, and they have not seen of winter like this either,” said Meyer. “”People look at our Web cam and say ‘there’s no snow?’ Yes, there is no snow. So they don’t come up at this time of the year.”

Canceled plans have resulted in less business for an area that depends on winter tourism.

“It’s been in the millions of dollars that has been lost. That’s just for the town. So if you’re adding the area as, say, the county, then you’re in the tens of millions of dollars easily,” said Tarun Patel, a local hotel and motel owner who is on the Ironwood Tourism Council. 

The lost revenue goes further than the ski hills with fewer reservations for accommodations in town. Patel says his occupancies are down 80-90 percent from normal.

“I’ve done everything in my power to keep my guys employed, but it’s been tough,” said Patel. “I’ve never seen so many cancellations in my life before this season.”

This season has also been quieter for Yooper Delights this season. 

“We’ve been doing this for almost five years now. I think with the bnbs, typically December is fully booked, and January and February are fully booked. We only had one weekend booked in December, and I think that was because the family had family in this area and they wanted to spend the holiday with them,” said Ovaska. “I can’t complain too much. It’s not as bad as it was during the pandemic as far as running a business, and obviously, we fared better than the ski hills because they depend on the snow.”

Big Powderhorn Mountain Resort, Whitecap Mountains, and Mt. Zion Ski Hill all decided to close by the end of the first weekend in March.

Snowriver has been able to stay open, but it has been a difficult year.

RELATED: Three different ski resorts in the U.P. are now closed for the season

“I mean, it’s been tough. You know, we have, you know, a lot of staffing issues when it’s like this, you know, you start up and you start to stop, you know, with the snowmaking and getting open and stuff,” said Assistant General Manager Tim Moon. “ It seems like every ten years, we have a little bit of a bad drought here. The last one I can remember was ten years ago, but we ended up more in the 80-inch range.”

Moon says what sets Snowriver apart is that they made more snow from the get-go, knowing they might not have much natural snow to rely on. 

“Hats off to our snowmakers. They worked really hard, and they put a lot of hours in,” said Moon.”We made more snow than you ever made that I can remember, but I think this is going to be the new norm for us moving forward.”

Snowriver plans on staying open through the end of March. 

“This year we’ve been seeing a lot of new faces, which is exciting. And being the last kid opening in the neighborhood, I’m hoping that we’ll see some new faces yet,” said Moon.

Skier Mollie Jacobs travels to Snowriver from Washburn every weekend and every Wednesday for ski races. 

“I’ve been skiing here since I was two years old, so I won’t disclose my age, but it’s been a long time,” said Jacobs. “It’s a good hometown, feels good to visit my whole life. My family brought me here, and I met my husband here. Everybody loves it.”

Although winter tourism has been significantly reduced, there have been advantages to the lack of snow. 

“We had our best December, January and February sales ever with the mild weather. None of the contractors went through their normal layoff/slow season, as many worked right through the winter. We have one large housing project about 50 miles south of Ironwood that includes many major remodeling on existing homes and over 25 new homes. The General Contractor has been our largest customer for many years and we work well with him. Again, they were able to work right through the mild winter with no delays.”

Keith Johnson, Forslund Building Supply Inc. Store Manager

Some retail businesses have also seen an advantage to the lack of snow.

“Other businesses who rely on people to come into them the last three months have had increased business supply. Why? There’s no ice on the sidewalk. It’s easier for people to get into the buildings,” explained Meyer. “So some retail businesses that sell products, as opposed to those specifically directed towards skiing or outdoor activities, have done well.” 

The U.P. has plenty to do year-round, so tourists have been simply changing their plans to enjoy the early spring. 

“It’s been very peculiar. The type of telephone calls that I get now are already shifting toward what we would call spring things because they recognize there’s no snow,” explained Meyer. “So they want to come and do spring things, which is get out of the hiking trails or country trail or go on the beach and look for rocks because there’s no snow or ice on the beaches.”

Local business owners hope to see this trend continue for the next few months. 

“The anticipation is that we’re going to have a much, much stronger spring and summer because the weather’s milder,” said Patel. “The snow is going to be gone, probably by the end of the month. So we’ve got two extra months of people to enjoy the outdoors- minus the snow.”