For those who embrace the elements of the season, there’s a bright side — or two — to this bright, balmy side of winter.
“One thing that’s good from the resort standpoint is at least the heating costs are down,” said Mark Kavanaugh of Kavanaugh’s Resort in East Gull Lake.
Pat Arndt, Minnesota state parks planning and public affairs manager, also sees a silver lining.
“In some ways (there is a bright side). People are getting out and hiking more,” Arndt said of events at Minnesota state parks this winter. “It’s a simple thing to do (as opposed to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing).”
During National Winter Trails Day last weekend, the usually popular candlelight cross-country ski and snowshoe outing at Itasca State Park was changed to a candlelight hike, yet still drew about 70 participants, Arndt said. And slightly closer to home, Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, known for its winter to-dos, has mostly modified events because of poor snow conditions.
Outside the state parks, those snow deficiencies are a bit more serious, though. While Kavanaugh may be saving on heat at the resort, reservations have cooled.
“We’ve operated without snow before,” he said. “We’ve got a kind of a clientele (of regulars). And we get a lot of women’s groups (in the winter). But to have a real good year you have to have snow. There’s no getting around it.”
Kavanaugh is also president of the Crow Wing County Snowmobile Trails Association and an avid snowmobiler, and the effects on the popular recreation in the area and beyond are obvious.
“We had a monthly meeting last night (Tuesday) and it was a pretty gloomy room,” Kavanaugh said. “They’re not only guys who like to go snowmobiling. They do all the grooming and all of that. That’s their hobby. If they’re just sitting there and looking at the trails and can’t go out on them.”
Still, Kavanaugh is expecting the usual 125 or so attendees for Sunday’s 15th annual fund-raiser at the Old Waterfall on Highway 371 north of Brainerd. A buffet dinner ($15 per person) is scheduled to start at 1 p.m., with raffle drawings — the real draw of the event, Kavanaugh said — starting at 3 p.m. The grand prize is a 2012 Arctic Cat F570 snowmobile, first prize a 2011 Arctic Cat 450XC ATV and second prize an Aluma 8610T snowmobile trailer, with 50 other prizes donated by area businesses. The goal of the event is to raise $30,000 through the raffles and sponsorships for the association’s grooming efforts.
“Last year a lot of people rode (snowmobiles) up. This year they’ll have to drive (their automobiles),” Kavanaugh said. “But we’re expecting the same number of people (as last year). People in the clubs are diehards and stick with the sport no matter what.”
Kavanaugh said ice conditions are mediocre near Kavanaugh’s on Lake Sylvan — 10 to 15 inches of ice in places, he said. And just down the road at Gull Lake, the annual Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Thursday was postponed from Jan. 21 to Feb. 11.
“We had a vehicle go through Sylvan over New Year’s,” Kavanaugh said. “It’s the first time in our 43 years that we can ever remember any kind of vehicle going through the ice. There’s only eight to 10 inches in front of the resort. There are (ice fishing) houses all over. But I’ve only seen one or two automobiles driving out there.”
Back at Mille Lacs, reservations — of camper cabins — have been brisk.
“We’re full every weekend for the month of January,” Ron Jones, park manager at Kathio and Father Hennepin State Park, said of Kathio’s five camper cabins.
Jones said ice fishing activity has been solid on the lakes in and around Kathio — including, of course, nearby Lake Mille Lacs. Weekly winter events at the park have been a bit iffy, however.
“We canceled Introduction to Winter Camping, and some people have been hiking, but that’s about it,” said Jones, adding that this Saturday’s Snowshoeing for Beginners will likely be canceled. “But people use the cabins for whatever. If they (camper cabin guests) had planned on snowshoeing, they have to go hiking instead.”
As of now, Ice Fishing 101 and Snowshoeing to the Stars are scheduled next Saturday, Cross-Country Ski Lesson and Trail Tour is scheduled Jan. 28, the always-popular Candlelight Ski is Feb. 4, Snowshoeing into the Past is Feb. 11 and Winter Geocaching Adventure for Beginners is Feb. 25.
While the state parks centralized reservation system is being upgraded and will be down until March 1, the DNR recently announced that state parks that have camper cabins will accept reservations for them throughout the winter. The DNR said to first check availability at www.mndnr.gov/reservations and then call the park directly to book. Availability reports will be updated and posted online by noon Monday through Friday. This applies only to arrival dates up to March 31 and only to cabins and lodging.
“We’re hoping they will fill up,” Arndt said of camper cabins. “It’s not the winter getaway with the cool little snowshoe along with the camper cabin, but it’s still fun to stay in a camper cabin. We’re starting to see them fill up.
“People are still showing up (at state parks despite the lack of snow). We’re asking people to check and see if (events) are canceled. There’s been a slight downtick (in parks attendance), but we’re hoping people will be getting out and enjoying the weather, and in different ways. Snowmobiling is one thing that has been affected. There’s not much you can do to adapt to that. But we’re trying to adapt right now and the programs are a little different.”
South of Brainerd, a Candlelight Ski, Snowshoe and Hike is scheduled from 6-9 p.m. Jan. 21 at Charles Lindbergh State Park in Little Falls. If snow is still lacking, it also will become a candlelight hike. Regardless, the ski, snowshoe or hike will feature candle-lit trails, with refreshments in the rustic, wood-heated 1938 Works Progress Administration shelter building afterward. Ski rentals are available in Little Falls and vehicle permits and Great MN ski passes will be available at the park office. Call the park at (320) 616-2525 for more information.
“It’s a great way to take in the park,” Lindbergh park manager Ty Gangelhoff said of the event. “It’s a very peaceful atmosphere at night and the luminaries definitely add to the experience.”