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On the Plains, some embrace cold weather's touch

December 6, 2013
Associated Press

Winter's first real foray into the Plains this year is bringing temperatures that can feel like a fist in the face, but not everyone sweats the cold — or the snow that comes with it. Here are a few of their stories:

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Far up Minnesota's North Shore of Lake Superior, the bitter cold is nicely timed at Lutsen Mountains, the largest ski resort in the Midwest. Crews plan to take advantage of it to run the snowmaking machines 24/7 for the next 10 days, said Jim Vick, Lutsen's marketing manager. The resort has invested $3 million in snowmaking technology over the past five years, and it's going to get a workout. Snow is easier to make when it's cold, and won't melt, of course.

With 94 runs on four interconnected mountains covering 1,000 acres and 820 vertical feet, Lutsen needs plenty of snow. It got a blanket of close to 2 feet of natural snow in this week's storm.

That snow is generating a lot of enthusiasm but it's not enough, Vick said, because 10 inches of natural snow packs down to only about an inch worth of base on main runs.

"This helps but it doesn't get us all the way there. So we will continue to make snow on our primary runs. The weather being cold coming forward is ideal for that," Vick said, explaining that snowmaking machines operate most efficiently between zero and 10 degrees.

Lutsen, which is about a 240-mile drive from Minneapolis and 90 miles from Duluth, currently opens only on weekends, but Vick said he expects to have excellent conditions this coming weekend with 22 to 25 runs open — including a couple runs that are about a mile long — and more than 50 runs open when it starts daily operations the weekend of Dec. 14.

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Sled dogs love snow, and so do sled dog racers. The 2 feet-plus that fell along the North Shore of Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota, plus the cold, are fueling optimism among organizers of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. The race was canceled due to a lack of snow in 2012 and had to be postponed from January until March earlier this year. The 2014 edition is due to start Jan. 26, and race spokeswoman Linda Nervick said this harsh weather bodes well for staying on schedule.

Two-time Beargrease champion Nathan Schroeder said he's looking forward to defending his title next month, but the snow and cold came at just the right time for his main task — training his dogs for the Iditarod in Alaska in March. Schroeder said he got 12 to 14 inches of snow where he lives north of Chisholm, so training conditions are now ideal. Until now his dogs had to pull a four-wheel cart to simulate a sled. Now his team is getting a more realistic test.

"I've been training my dogs for the Iditatrod on my four-wheeler, dreaming of the ground to turn white, and it finally turned white. Now we're able to get on the sleds, which is the true part of the sport. I'll be ready to give her 100 percent all the way to the Iditarod now," Schroder said.

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Jason Zahn has been cattle ranching in northern North Dakota for 20 years and shrugs off bitter cold weather — as long as it's not accompanied by gusty winds. And in North Dakota, the two often go hand in hand.

"I don't mind 5 below temperatures," Zahn said Thursday while out caring for his hundreds of cows near Towner. "But when you get those 30 mph winds, it really takes it out of you."

The actual temperature in that part of the state was a few degrees below zero, but wind chill pushed it to nearly 40 below in some areas.

When extreme cold and snow hits, ranchers must do chores such as moving snow, finding proper bedding for calves and putting out extra hay. And while they're doing all that, they must deal with farm equipment made stubborn and lethargic by the cold.

The first priority of ranchers is to make sure water supplies for their animals aren't frozen up or shut down by power outages.

"The main thing is we've got to get water going, hay put out," Zahn said. "What they're going to eat definitely increases as it gets colder."

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National Park Service law enforcement officer Megan Kinkade hails from the warmer climes of Texas, so she bundled up in long johns, a sweater and a heavy winter coat as she patrolled the grounds of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, where temperatures hovered around zero.

"It's very cold. There are no other words to describe it. It involves a lot of pouting about how cold it is. It's been very difficult for me especially," the 28-year-old said Thursday, laughing.

Kinkade said she and other staff tried to stay indoors as much as possible, but their jobs required them to be outside much of the time to make sure visitors were safe at the mountain carving of four U.S. presidents high in South Dakota's Black Hills.

"We did see a gentleman walking around in shorts. That was a little weird, a little strange," she said.

Maureen McGee-Ballinger, director of interpretation and education, said Mount Rushmore attracts 2.5 million or more visitors a year, but only 100-300 a day during the winter. She saw four visitors about 9:15 a.m. Thursday, far below the 50 that would normally have visited the park by then.

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Associated Press writers Chet Brokaw, Steve Karnowski and Blake Nicholson contributed to this report.

 
 

 

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