Feeling Minnesota, Looking Nebraska

Illustration by Christopher Henderson

I’m going to miss Minnesota—not because I’m going away, but because Minnesota is. The north woods? There’s a fairly good chance I will outlive them. A walk through the spruce, the cry of a loon—a lot of experiences we think of as quintessential Minnesota may disappear. Or emigrate to Canada.

In February of 2000, the American Birkebeiner, the largest cross-county ski race in North America, was canceled for lack of snow for the first time in its 30-year history. Although the region of northwest Wisconsin that’s home to the Birkie received 16 inches of snow in the week leading up to the race, that winter wonderland was liquefied by four subsequent days of rain and warm winds. Pastor Lynn Larson of Cable, Wisconsin, remembers the week well. “We had a snowman holding a pair of skis outside our church at the beginning of the week,” he says. “By the middle of the week, we replaced the skis with an umbrella.”

A direct son of Norway via eight immigrant great-grandparents, Larson has skied the marathon 17 times. That year, he watched thousands of crestfallen skiers—nearly half of whom had come up from the Twin Cities—trudge around Hayward with a sour look on their faces. “That really got the wheels turning for me,” he says. “I’m convinced that this is all related to climate change—the greenhouse effect.”

Worried that the Birkie was in jeopardy, Larson started a group called Cross Country Skiers for Global Cooling. To join, members must take “the patriot’s energy pledge,” vowing to conserve energy and do whatever they can to minimize their own greenhouse emissions. Forty people have joined this very loose club, which, as it turns out, is mostly about the nifty T-shirts.

Many winter-lovers in the upper Midwest believe that the halcyon days of consistent cold and snow in the region are behind us. The state of Wisconsin seems to agree; Tourism Secretary Kevin Shibilski recently announced plans for a program that will offer loan guarantees to businesses that depend on snowmobiling or cross-country skiing in low-snow years.

Ahvo Taipale has run a cross-country ski shop in the Twin Cities since 1973 and is widely seen as the dean of Minnesota cross-country skiing. He says that Minnesota and western Wisconsin used to get fairly consistent snow. Until the mid-1980s, when warming spells began forcing event organizers to cancel ski races. “In particular, the last five years have been very weird,” he says. Another telling phenomenon: He says he can be fully stocked with new equipment an entire month and a half later than he could 10 or 20 years ago.

A look back at the record with longtime Birkie staffer Shellie Milford seems to underscore Taipale’s anecdotal and personal take on the trends: Half of the races in the last ten years have been characterized by challenging snow conditions. In the previous decade, four races lacked snow or cold compared to only one race in the Birkie’s first decade.

It’s not just the carbo-loading set that’s starting to worry. On the motoring side of things, it’s also been tough sledding for the past five years. Pete Bohlig sells recreational vehicles for the Hitching Post in South St. Paul. With the less reliable snow he’s seen lately, he sells a lot more four-wheeled ATVs than snowmobiles. “If I had a nickel for every time someone tried to trade in a sled for an ATV, I’d be a rich man,” he says.

John Prusak, editor of several national snowmobiling magazines, says one should take such doom-and-gloom talk with a grain of salt, noting that the industry has gone through six distinct boom-bust cycles in the last 30 years. Snowmobile sales follow snowfall more closely than they do the economy, and the industry did very well in the upper Midwest as recently as 1998, he says.

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