Loving this mild Michigan winter? Outdoor enthusiasts sure aren’t.

Ice fishing enthusiasts drag a shanty into Higgins Lake near Roscommon. The lake has only about 7 inches of ice this year following 18 last year. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

Warm weather, low snowfall and thin ice are getting in the way of business as usual for Michigan’s outdoor recreation industry.

“This is the worst winter I’ve ever experienced,” said Brian Webber, standing in his sporting goods store in Essexville on a rainy 37-degree day in January.

On a normal winter morning over the last 34 years, Michigan Sportsmen Bait-Tackle would be bustling, supplying anglers with lures, shanties and propane for ice fishing on nearby Saginaw Bay.

But lower than average ice coverage across the Great Lakes this winter means ice isn’t thick enough for enthusiasts like Webber, who’s fished every winter for the last 40 years, to head out on the bay. 

Add weather that’s, on average, 7 degrees warmer than usual and toss in upward of a foot less snow (and extra rain), and Webber isn’t the only one sweating this year’s mild winter. 

Ski hills are closing runs, snowmobile trails aren’t being groomed, festivals are changing plans and business is down at bars that rely on winter enthusiasts. Some fear that extreme weather, prompted by climate change, could be the new normal.

“There’s a clear trend toward less consistency in winter,” said Brad Garmon, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry. Current climate “trends are going to make it harder to predict that we’ll have solid snows.”

Outdoor recreation contributes some $10 billion annually Michigan’s economy, according to federal statistics, with $73 million of that coming from skiing, snowmobiling and other snow activities. Nationally, outdoor recreation generates nearly $27 billion in sales, according to the Outdoor Industries Association trade group.

Most winter mornings, Webber said he’d have “40 to 50 guys through” his store. On a recent day, when speaking to Bridge, he had three.

“The number of people coming in for ice fishing is one thing, but there’s been a decline in guys going snowmobiling –  any activity, really. The only benefit this winter has given anybody is a break on their heating bill,” he said.

“If we don’t have a good spring it may well be [my last winter in business].”

Wayne Jaworski, a sales representative at Lyman’s on the Lake tackle shop in Houghton Lake, shows a video of a pike swimming close to the surface under shallow ice. The ice on the lake in central Michigan has been thinner this year. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

‘Our economy up here relies on snow’

In Glen Arbor in northern Michigan, steady snow still hasn’t arrived on the ski hills at the Homestead, a resort on Lake Michigan, and warmer weather makes it difficult to produce their own, said Tom Bartholomew, Homestead’s senior manager of recreation. 

As a result, only nine of the resort’s 15 runs are open.

“We’re not able to charge full price for our lift tickets where we were counting on a full-price ticket… And the customers, when they found out that we’re not fully open, that affects their decision to come to the Homestead,” he said. 

The resort has cut full-day, adult lift tickets in half to $25 and slashed its winter recreational staffing to 45 employees from 60, Bartholomew told Bridge Magazine. 

The resort also has a smaller-than-average staff this winter for housekeeping and dining operations, and its snowmaking and removal crews are unable to work.

That’s bad news for workers in an area reliant on tourism and seasonal work in a state where hundreds of thousands of jobs are tied to the outdoor recreation industry.

“Anything impacting the Homestead definitely impacts us,” said Tim Barr, owner of the nearby Art’s Tavern

It’s the weather itself that holds a larger sway on the business, however, Barr said. Winters have gotten “more chaotic” over the last 10 years, making it harder for locals or tourists to visit.

“Nothing’s normal anymore. You don’t just roll into winter about the 15th of November and have the snow go away towards the latter part of March. You just never know what’s going to happen.” 

Indeed, six of the 10 hottest years on record globally were in the last decade. Research indicates rising global temperatures will likely increase the number of ice-free winters for lakes across Michigan, and decrease the amount of snow cover in North America.

In Presque Isle County in the northeast Lower Peninsula, the Presque Isle Sno-Trails, a snowmobile club, is also struggling.

The group partners with the state to maintain over 130 miles of snowmobile trails, and club president Dave Campo said they can’t care for the trails consistently until weather cools down.  

“We can’t groom when the temperatures are above 32, 33 degrees. The snow [is] too wet,” he said.

Minnows are for sale at Lyman’s on the Lake, a bait store in Houghton Lake. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

Business is down 30 percent at Peegeo’s, a bar popular with snowmobilers in Grand Traverse County, because of reduced trail traffic, said George VanKersen. The long-time owner spoke to Bridge Magazine before selling the bar to a local restaurant last week.

“I have pictures of this parking lot where you can’t park your car in it, and it’s all snowmobiles,” he said.

“Snowmobilers would literally be lined out outside the door waiting to get in here,” he said. “We don’t have any snowmobiles here now.” 

“Our economy up here relies on snow for guys to make a living,” said VanKersen. “They haul it, they push it, and they’re not doing it, so then they're not coming in for lunch. It’s just a whole big circle ….”

Northern quest for ice

The warmer weather this year is pushing outdoor enthusiasts farther north. 

Some 75 miles north of the Saginaw Bay, sales are up at Lyman's On the Lake, a fishing shop on Houghton Lake, and fishing enthusiasts from as far south as Ohio and Indiana are calling in search of ice.

“We’ve seen a lot more people this year because they’re searching for ice,” said Wayne Jaworski, a sales representative.

Even Houghton Lake’s ice isn’t as steady as usual, he said. The lake has thawed three times when it normally stays frozen all winter, and the ice is thinner than last year.

The winter doldrums, though, ease the farther north enthusiasts go in Michigan.

Susan Estler, executive director of Travel Marquette, said weather is cooperating in the northernmost reaches of the state. There was plenty of snow for the 22nd annual Noquemanon Ski Marathon, and she said great conditions are expected for upcoming winter fun such as Polar Roll biking event, Honey Bear Classic ski festival and UP200 dog sled race.

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Jen Powell
Mon, 02/03/2020 - 8:58am

The top half of Michigan is sure not having a mild winter. We have tons of snow up here in the U.P. Don't forget about us when you're writing about Michigan. I noticed we only get a footnote at the bottom.

Le Roy G. Barnett
Mon, 02/03/2020 - 9:10am

This was a good piece. Now, balance it by writing a positive article on the benefits of a warmer-than-usual winter: fewer heart attacks from shoveling snow; fewer school closings from snow days; fewer accidents on the highways; fewer traffic deaths; tax dollars saved by MDOT and road commissions not having to salt and plow so often; fewer flights cancelled; more deer survive the winter; fewer slips and falls; walking and jogging trails remain open longer; no ice dams on roofs; economy unaffected by severe cold or blizzard; etc.

Ted B. Davis
Mon, 02/03/2020 - 9:49am

More prevalent and a higher quantity of ticks is also a result of milder winters. We actually don't need more deer to survive the winter...we have too many already.

Denial. It ain't just a river in Egypt.

Le Roy G. Barnett
Mon, 02/03/2020 - 4:57pm

Not to mention less salt being spread along roads, thus reducing contamination of the environment; less fuel being burned for heat, thus lowering carbon emissions; fewer incidents of mood disorders due to brutal cold; building construction remaining high during what is usually an off-season; etc. And, rather than having deer die a slow starvation death in a cold deer yard with deep snow, warmer winters allow them to survive until autumn, when their harvest adds millions of dollars to the Michigan economy.

Wed, 02/05/2020 - 8:37am

I think you made some good points and you failed to note no one freezes to death during a mild winter. There are multiple benefits to a mild winter (though more deer is not one of them IMO) with the major benefit being fewer fossil fuels being burned -- which means a huge decrease carbon and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

This is rarely, if ever acknowledged when discussing climate change and when brought up, a person will simply pivot to another talking point.

If there is to be honest discourse about changing climate, there needs to be honesty about all pros and cons.

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 1:50pm

There is a nonprofit advocacy called 'Protect Our Winters'. Please Google if you are reading this. Don't think I can post links in comments here.

Jerrold Harris
Mon, 02/03/2020 - 4:23pm

I definitely agree! Even from a selfish standpoint, I prefer the winter to be more cold and dry, with little as little wind as possible. And if you think about people that are relying on snow when doing their business, as some of the examples in your article - it is definitely a huge concern for the economy of the northern region and people operating and living there. We had an every-year activity at my job https://rfcfinancialplanners.com/ but now it was moved from our local skiing/snowboarding area to a more remote place where it's snowing. It is definitely not good for the local economy and business but what can we do to improve the situation? Look at the Temperature Change in the last 50 years on the Wiki page - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming. I really hope we can start working on this together.

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 11:27am

The previous 50 years was a long decline in global average temperatures. The previous 100 years to that was a gradual warming. This trend has been going on for thousands of years.

Stella Hagerman
Thu, 02/06/2020 - 12:37pm

The. Temperature records go back About 100 Years, not 1,000 years.
This is the best winter in a long time the last two were brutal.
If you miss snow, take it from a former Yooper, there is plenty of snow as soon as you cross the Mackinac Bridge.

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 11:24am

Some winters are colder, some are warmer, some have more snow, some have less snow. It has been this way for 10,000 years.

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 4:44pm

What you are describing is weather NOT global warming. And the trends you describe do not take into account the rapid rise in CO2 emissions in the last 50 years. So you actually just debunked hundred of thousands of pages of data and analysis with conclusions that very nearly all scientists confirm in theory with a couple of sentences. Congratulations. Go find yourself a honorary doctorate from an internet college.

Charles Buck
Tue, 02/04/2020 - 3:04pm

Changing climate, tastes and culture are weighing on traditional winter sports. You can see the stark contrast between summer and winter tourism in Mackinac Bridge crossing statistics. If you compare May through October (Summer) crossings since 1999, you'll see the Dotcom Bubble/Great Recession and then high fuel prices knocked off about 23% of Summer bridge trips. As of 2019, there has been about a 12% point recovery in Summer trip numbers toward the period of peak historical bridge crossings in 1999. We're still 11% below the peak. The picture is different, however, for November through April (Winter) trips, which represent roughly a third of annual total bridge trips. There was deeper fall off after the 1999 peak and significantly weaker recovery. Winter bridge trips bottomed out 27% below their peak and have recovered only 7% points as of 2019.