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Gaylord — What a difference a year makes.

Despite a recent thaw, snowmobilers are flocking to the trails of Northern Michigan this year after sparse snowfall last winter made for a slow season.

“There is a huge difference between snowfall from last year and this winter,” said meteorologist Matt Gillen of the National Weather Service in Gaylord.

“At this time last year, we had 43.2 inches of snowfall; this year our totals are 93.3 inches. Our snowfall record for the month of December in Otsego County was broken, with 60.1 inches falling, breaking the old record of 57.1 inches, which has stood since records began in 1950. Our trails have been fantastic.”

Joanie Moore, executive director of the Mancelona Chamber of Commerce, said people are calling frequently to check on trail conditions.

“Snowmobiling has been great this year, the snow is very welcome, bringing in riders to our restaurants and motels,” she said. “Our businesses are very happy.”

Snow arrived in December in time for the Christmas holiday. Brian DerMiner of DerMiners Parkside Resort in Gaylord rents 53 sleds. He’s had his entire fleet out each weekend.

“Our week between Christmas and New Year’s was absolutely fantastic,” he said. “We had all sleds rented with fresh snow and terrific trail conditions. Our business has doubled over last year.”

The feelings are shared by sledders around Northern Michigan. Ross Bowe of Ypsilanti was riding with friends in the Lakes of the North resort near Gaylord over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

“We are riding about 100 miles a day,” Bowe said. “We have great snow, it came early and has made for some of the best trail riding in the past few years.”

Colette and Kevin Daum of Columbus, Ohio, were refueling at the Alba Min-Mart in Antrim County.

“We traveled to New York to snowmobile, and then came to Northern Michigan where the conditions are far better. The trails are some of the best we’ve seen.”

The couple was staying in Gaylord and traveling groomed trails on matching sleds.

Snow depths in Northern Michigan range from 9 inches to more than 24 inches in the Upper Peninsula.

Lake effect areas around the northern tier of counties usually have more snow on the trails, according to the National Weather Service, and this year has been an exceptional season for snow due to the record warm waters of the Great Lakes, which are producing more snowfall.

Michigan has more than 6,500 miles of groomed trails. Required trail permits for riders help pay for signage, grooming and trail maintenance.

Groomers, usually run by snowmobile club volunteers, spend hundreds of hours each winter maintaining trails. The Jordan Valley Trails Council of East Jordan operates three groomers in the Mancelona/Jordan Valley area; they take care of 90 miles of trails over three counties. The volunteer drivers can cover up to 200 miles a day to keep conditions safe. Trails are groomed through the end of March, weather permitting.

Trail maps, GPS navigation and signage allow for safe and easy travel. Bathroom facilities, some with hot chocolate and coffee, are spaced throughout the trails. The Jordan Valley Fish Hatchery is open around the clock to provide a place to warm up.

A current thaw, around for more than a week, has impacted the state’s trails as of late, but soon should be coming to an end, according to the National Weather Service’s meteorologist Andy Sullivan.

“We’re heading toward cooler temperatures and lake effect snow by the end of the week.” Sullivan said on Monday. “We are down to nine inches on the ground here south of Gaylord, but there is more snow in the woods, the trails have a good base.”

Sullivan said that although it has been an extended thaw, the temperatures stayed in the upper 30s and it remained cloudy, slowing the snow melt. Light rain has also hardened the base, said Sullivan, also slowing the melting snow accumulations.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources warns riders that trails in northern Lower Peninsula are fair to poor but most trails are open and in good shape in the Upper Mitten.

Groomers have been pulled off the trails in the Jordan River Valley and Mancelona areas, preventing destruction of the trail base.

“The groomers will be back as soon as the snow arrives again,” said Mancelona’s Moore. “ We are expecting accumulating snow by the weekend.”

Karl Davenport of the Jordan Valley Trails Council added despite the thaw “the trails are rideable but getting thin in some areas. About 75 percent of our trails are still decent. Grooming is suspended until we get some more snow. The 15-day outlook appears to be more like winter.”

John L. Russell is a photojournalist and writer from Traverse City.

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