ARBOR VITAE, Wis. — The winter balance of the kingdom we call the North Woods is out of whack. So the queen, at least of Slo’s Pub on the southern shore of Big Arbor Vitae Lake, isn’t pleased.
For Sue Slominski, peace for her, and scores of others who rely on winter’s wrath in this part of the state, can only come with a healthy dose of snow.
Snow depths vary throughout the region, ranging from 4 to 10 inches, according to the National Weather Service.
So just a few inches of new snow won’t do.
A solid 6 inches or more are needed for any hope of salvaging February for the winter tourism industry that typically attracts thousands of snowmobilers and cross-country skiers to Northern Wisconsin.
“I think it’ll come around. We just got screwed this year,” said Slominski, who has owned the bar with her husband, Greg, for the past nine years. “I’m not giving up. I’ve worked too hard.”
And so have lots of others.
The summer drought may have left some lakes lower and more difficult to navigate, but it still allowed most the opportunity to fish, water ski, swim, camp, bike and cruise the shops of Eagle River, Minocqua and other classic summer destinations.
A winter drought, with its sparse snow, offers little reason to venture up Interstate 39.
Downhill ski hills make their own snow and there is plenty of ice to set up a shanty and jig for crappie and walleye.
But for those who snowshoe, cross-country ski and snowmobile, it’s been a frustrating season. For businesses that rely on the tourist traffic, the ongoing drought has been a financial nightmare.
Slominski’s revenue is down 30 percent. When photographer John Hart and I stopped in for a burger and free, freshly popped popcorn, Kathy Liebenstein was at the bar sipping a Diet Coke. Had there been more snow, she would have been back at her own business, the Sayner Pub, nine miles to the northeast, on a primary snowmobile trail.
“There’s plenty of days you can barely pay the bills,” said Liebenstein, who estimates her January revenues are down 70 percent. “I don’t think there’s any recovering from this winter.”
Snowmobile trails are open in 13 of the state’s 72 counties but only two have trails that are in good condition. Trails in the remaining 11 counties are either in fair or poor condition, according to the state Department of Tourism.
In Cable, the BirkieTour event on Jan. 19 had to be scrubbed due to poor trail conditions but 3 to 5 inches fell on the 50-kilometer American Birkebeiner course late last week. Organizers expect 10,000 skiers for the 40th annual event Feb. 23 that includes the 23-kilometer Kortelopet and the 12-kilometer Prince Haakon ski races.
“The base is still in great condition,” said Susan Kendrick, a spokeswoman for the events. “If we can get a few inches at a time, it creates a really good trail.”
The lack of snow has also adversely affected snow plow operators, grocery stores, gift shops and gas stations. Rural homeowners with septic systems have also been forced to take action. Larry Krznarich, who lives east of Park Falls, recently spent three hours taking what little snow was in his yard and putting it on his septic mound and drain field. He topped it with 10 bales of hay to prevent freezing.
“Hope it works,” he wrote in an email. “I don’t need to put up with a frozen septic system for the rest of the winter.”
At Minocqua Yamaha & Marine, owner Jeff Weisman calls this the worst winter in 23 years. Between Christmas and New Year’s, he lost 50 two-day snowmobile rentals. So far this month, he’s had 200 customers cancel or move their $175-per-day rentals to February.
He normally has five employees at this time of the year. The two he hasn’t laid off are working on boats.
“It’s stuff I would have had them do in March,” Weisman said. “I’m really sick of talking about it. There’s nothing you an do.”
On a drive last week on Highway 47 between Rhinelander and Woodruff, we encountered few snowmobilers. The trail was open but showed sprigs of brown grass in some places. At J&J Sports in Lake Tomahawk, shop owner Jeff Smith, who caters primarily to ice anglers, had sold just four snowmobile trail passes all season. Last year at this time, he had sold 20.
Down the street, we ran into Cathy and Bill Duerr of Dyer, Ind., as they were filling the tanks on their sleds at the BP station. The Duerrs have been coming to the area since the late 1970s but didn’t ride as much on this year’s six-day trip. They didn’t consider canceling because some in their party couldn’t change their vacation schedules.
“A bad day in Wisconsin is better than a good day sitting home,” said Cathy Duerr, who may have just come up with the state’s newest tourism slogan.
Bill Duerr was riding his new $10,000 Arctic Cat 1100 for the first time, hoping not to damage his sleek machine.
“They’re not good at all, there’s not enough snow,” he said of the trail conditions. “But I’m trying it anyway.”
The drought of visitors was easy to spot. Parking lots designated for snowmobiles were empty and many hotels had plenty of rooms to rent. At the Thirsty Whale, a regular pit stop for snowmobilers on Lake Minocqua, we were the only ones keeping bartenders Brenda Michelson and Brittney Borowczyk company as “First Blood” played on the flat-screen television above the bar. It was 5:30 p.m. More snow would have meant a different atmosphere.
“This wouldn’t be happening here,” said Borowczyk, pointing to the empty bar. “It’s not been a great winter.”