LAKE SHORE -- Though they probably wish they could, area snowmobilers can't mass produce snow for the many miles of snowmobile trails found throughout the Brainerd lakes area.
But Ski Gull can.
In a surprising twist, the lack of snowfall this winter has meant the hills at Ski Gull, the Brainerd area's only ski hill, are bustling with skiers and snowboarders. Resorters have been sending their winter guests and families out to the ski hill since they aren't able to snowmobile on the trails as they have in the past, said Gregg Settergren, executive director of Ski Gull.
The ski hill has had to produce a lot more artificial snow this winter than in previous years, but they've been able to open seven of the hill's 12 ski runs and the snowboard park as a result of the hard-working snow-making machines.
Settergren said an average of about 400-500 people visited Ski Gull on its busiest days during the recent holiday season. The non-profit ski hill also sold double the amount of season passes this year.
The news comes at a time when the organization has been struggling financially.
Mary Claire Ryan, coordinator of Ski Gull's Learn to Ski program, gave skiing directions to Washington Middle School sixth-graders at the non-profit hill Friday. Ryan and other volunteers teach area sixth-graders how to ski each winter. For many, it's the first time they've been on skis.
In November, Ski Gull faced a $40,000 debt left over from last season. The debt was a result of decreased revenues earned last summer from the ski hill's lawful gambling operations. The organization lost two of its high-volume charitable gambling booths and gaming proceeds are down 40 percent state-wide as well.
Kelly's in Lake Shore hosted a turkey dinner benefit in November and Ski Gull's largest fund-raising benefit was held that month at Grand View Lodge. The two events, along with donations and the sale of season passes, helped the non-profit organization pay off most of its debt, said Settergren.
Settergren said the ski hill is close to paying off its $40,000 budget shortfall from last year. They still owe about $10,000 for new ski rental equipment purchased last year and some additional debt on an electric bill, but have established a payment schedule to work off the remaining debt. Settergren said he is also working to obtain grants to keep the ski hill up and running.
The 36-foot by 36-foot addition to the chalet is finished except for the bathrooms. The space is used for the ski rental equipment. Settergren said the ski facility needs about $10,000 worth of parts for the snow groomer machine, which has seen its share of better days.
However, so far this winter, he said the skiing has been excellent. The ski hill opened Dec. 14. The runs have about six inches to a foot of snow. Last year the ski hill closed mid-March, which is likely the time it will close this year.
The Learn to Ski program, where volunteer ski instructors teach area sixth-graders to ski, started last week. Sixth-graders from Brainerd, Pequot Lakes, Pine River-Backus, Crosby-Ironton, Pillager and Staples-Motley school districts, as well as area parochial schools, spend a day at the ski hill learning how to ski properly and safely.
Gregg Settergren (right), executive director of Ski Gull, discussed maintenance issues Friday with Chuck Dullum, operations manager at Ski Gull.
Most of the children have never been on skis, said program coordinator Mary Claire Ryan, who has taught the program for 16 years. While the program has always been free, this year Ski Gull was forced to charge $10 per student enrolled in the program for the ski rental, lessons and lift ticket because of its financial situation.
No students will be turned away because of an inability to pay, however, said Ryan. The students in one day learn how to do wedge turns and stops and straight runs, how to ride the ski lift and tow rope and, most important, how to fall down.
"We know how to mass produce skiers," said Ryan with a laugh. "It's a great sport and it's great to see the kids have a fun experience."
"It was fun but then I got tired," said Julia Celley, 12, a Washington Middle School sixth-grader who skied with her Brainerd classmates last Friday. She said the hardest part was getting off of the ski lift.
"It was really fun," added classmate Mikala Doughty, 12. "We got to bomb the last hill."
This is the second year the snowboard park has been open. It's become a popular area at Ski Gull. Settergren said about half of the young people who frequent Ski Gull are snowboarders, not skiers.
Jarod Carlson, 20, works at Ski Gull and often can be found skiing at the hill in his spare time. He said despite the artificial snow, the ski hills were in pretty good condition.
"The blizzard is coming. You gotta have faith," said Joe Kavanaugh, 16, also a frequent skier.
"I love winter and this is terrible," Ryan said of the lack of snow. "This is the 16th year I've been out here and this is by far the most artificial snow we've had out here. But we're still skiing."
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