Winter sports take on a new twist when there's no snow

Sunday, December 12, 2004

MINNEAPOLIS - From snowmobiling on alfalfa to strapping on cross-country skis with wheels, Minnesotans are finding ways of coping with a frustrating lack of snow.

It's been a mostly brown December in the southern half of the state, and northern Minnesota hasn't recorded snow depths of more than 8 inches this season.

"We're not living up to our winter reputation," said Joan Hummel, a spokeswoman for Explore Minnesota Tourism, the state's tourism office.

It snowed Friday morning in southern Minnesota, but the flakes were quickly melting, so residents will have to keep waiting for a thick snow cover. Meantime, they'll keep pretending it's there.

"People are getting creative," said Bob Sass, manager of Midwest Mountaineering.

Getting out of the house

At the Minneapolis outfitter, winter sporting equipment has taken on a snowless twist: People are skijoring (cross-country skiing behind your dog) with mountain bikes and roller skiing (cross-country skiing on wheels).

Also growing in popularity is Nordic walking, which involves using poles and basically imitating a cross-country ski stride.

"People just need to get out of the house in the winter," Sass said. "They'll find ways to do that even if the weather's bad." According to state climatologists, brown Decembers aren't that unusual.

"December's usually not your best snow month anyway," said Pete Boulay, assistant state climatologist.

Peak snow depths rarely occur before late January, and Boulay likes to remind people that winter doesn't officially start until Dec. 21.

Still, Boulay gets e-mails from depressed snowmobilers and other winter-lovers who have high (and maybe too high) expectations for a white December.

Eager for snow

In northern Minnesota, where there's less snow than usual, people are learning to cope.

"As soon as they see a couple of flakes fly, they really get excited," said Jenny Moorman, director of Lake of the Woods Tourism. Most of northeastern Minnesota has 3 to 6 inches of snow. A foot is needed before snowmobile trails can be groomed, but people are out there anyway, she said.

In southwestern Minnesota, some snowmobilers have decided they don't need snow at all.

Snowmobilers raced on alfalfa at Luverne's Winterfest last weekend. It's coarser than grass and doesn't cause the snowmobile to dig into the dirt, said Lyle Stroeh, president of the Rock County Sno-Masters club, which hosted the drag race.

"They were ready for winter, so we did it anyway," Stroeh said. The club had already bought insurance to race during Winterfest and couldn't postpone it. Keeping the race short prevented the slides on the bottom of the snowmobiles from overheating and melting.

"The bottom line for snow lovers is that we're still in early December," Hummel said. "Anything can happen."

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