For the first time since 2006, a brown Christmas is predicted
WILLMAR -- A brown Christmas means that snow blowers and snow shovels aren't exactly flying off store shelves, to the dismay of merchants.
It also means that snowplow operators with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and many area counties will be home on Christmas Day for the first time in two years.
With the possible exception of a narrow swath of snow expected in a small section of south central Minnesota, the National Weather Service in Chanhassen is predicting that most of southern Minnesota will see a brown Christmas.
Sunny skies and a high of 37 are predicted for the Willmar area, where the Weather Service does not expect to see a one-inch coating of snow to qualify for a white Christmas.
The last brown Christmas experienced throughout much of southern Minnesota occurred in 2006, according to the Weather Service.
There was more than 2 feet of snow on the ground last year at this time, and Minnesota Department of Transportation snowplow operators were putting in lots of overtime pushing snow that seemed to fall mainly on weekends.
It's hard to calculate the actual savings that comes with a brown Christmas, since the work still goes on. The MnDOT workers are busy instead with road work and duties made possible by the relatively mild weather this December, noted Craig Gertsema, highway maintenance supervisor for District 8 headquartered in Willmar.
All the same, there are some real savings, said Gertsema. Last year the district had spent more than $220,000 on sand and salt during October and November. This year, the bill for the two months totals only $30,000.
This year, the lack of snow has become an expense for the Willmar High School Nordic ski team. It had to pay for the opportunity to ski on man-made snow at Powder Ridge, Kimball.
Last year's snowfall was a boon to cross country skiing enthusiasts, but other types of outdoor recreation suffered. Brad Foshaug, of Brad's 71 Bait and Sports, Willmar, said last year's heavy and slush-filled snowpack on area lakes made it one of the worst seasons ever for ice fishing.
This year is off to a better start, but not great. There's ice enough for walking, but Foshaug said the real ice fishing business picks up once the ice is thick enough for vehicle traffic.
But it's a great year to be selling ice cleats, and flathead minnows and jigs are going out the door too, he said.
After all, the best news is this: "The fish are biting,'' said Foshaug.
A few dozen portable fish houses were holding eager crappie anglers on Lake Andrew near Sibley State Park, where park naturalist Dick Clayton was busy Wednesday lining up activities for the coming month. Clayton said the lack of snow hasn't forced the cancelation of any events yet. The park usually doesn't schedule snowshoe hikes and similar snow-related programs until after the holidays, he explained.
Clayton said last year's early snow cover attracted many people to the park to ski, sled or snowshoe, but he noted the park doesn't miss a beat when the winter snows come late. Indoor activities and programs are scheduled instead, and people are always welcome to enjoy hikes in the woods.
That's exactly the sentiment at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center as well, where director Dave Pederson said there is a silver lining to the lack of snow. It has allowed for the development of a very smooth sheet of ice on lakes and rivers, making them just perfect for exploring on ice skates.
He's already strapped on his own pair of Nordic skates and tested the ice on the Crow River. "You can skate for miles,' he said.
The lack of snow does mean that some people who typically drive a few miles to enjoy the opportunities here aren't making the trip. Every year, area lodging destinations such as the Spicer Castle host many visitors from the metropolitan area and elsewhere who appreciate the cross country skiing opportunities found near Willmar. Sibley State Park, Prairie Woods ELC, and the Willmar golf course offer miles of well-groomed trails when snow conditions are favorable, Pederson noted.
This winter's conditions are more favorable to wildlife, which experienced considerable stress last winter. Leroy Dahlke, area wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in New London, said the mild conditions should help the area's pheasants and other wildlife recover some of the losses they experienced last year.
The mild start to winter isn't all bad for other native life, either. The snow-free November and December "is really going to shorten the winter,'' said Clayton. With only a few more months of real winter ahead, said Clayton, laughing, "Any good Minnesotan can make it