In a winter with nearly no snow, local ski areas eagerly await Wednesday storm

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

January's lack of snow has put a chill on winter fun in Metro Detroit, but local ski operators and park officials are keeping their fingers crossed that a storm forecast for Wednesday will help get them back on track.

Temperatures in January have been almost 10 degrees above average in southeast Michigan. The region has received just 3.6 inches of snow so far this year, half of what it normally does, according to the National Weather Service.

Unfavorable conditions have made it difficult for local ski resorts to run snow-making machines, open all of their trails and sometimes stay open at all.

Mt. Holly Ski & Snowboard Resort should have 3-4 feet of snow on every trail by this point in the season, but General Manager Mark Tibbitts said it had 18-20 inches as of Friday.

“It's no joke we've been riding a roller coaster since we opened,” Tibbitts said. “Mother Nature's kind of provided extremes. Unfortunately, she hasn't provided the cold extreme quite as often as the spring-like extreme so our ability to make snow is hampered.”

Independence Oaks park usually offers cross country ski rentals and groomed trails all winter but hasn't opened the service once this winter due to lack of snow, said Parks Supervisor Jeremy Brown. He is already preparing the ski equipment and plows and is excited about Wednesday's storm.

"We're ready. ... I'm checking the equipment," Brown said. "If we do get enough snow..., we'll let people know that we are open. Generally the cross-country skiing ... rentals would just be Saturday and Sunday, but people can come in seven days a week to use the trails."

A winter storm is expected to hit southeast Michigan starting Wednesday morning and drop as much as eight inches of snow in some areas, especially close to the Ohio border. The National Weather Service has issued a storm warning for Wayne, Lenawee and Monroe counties beginning at 5 a.m.

Communities in those counties could see 6-8 inches of snow. Cities under a winter storm advisory, including Owosso, Flint, Lapeer, Howell, Pontiac, Warren, and Ann Arbor, could notch 3-5 inches, the weather service said.

"Light snow will develop around 6 am, however, amounts and impacts during the morning commute are expected to remain relatively minor. Snow will then steadily increase in intensity with the peak of the heaviest snowfall rates between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Wednesday," NWS officials said. "Travel conditions will deteriorate considerably during the afternoon into the early commute."

The impending storm prompted several school districts to close Wednesday, including Bedford Public Schools, Dundee Community Schools and the Jefferson School District in Monroe County. Southfield Public Schools moved to remote learning and all after-school activities were canceled, according to the website.

A skier makes her way down a sliver of snow between runs at Mt. Holly Ski & Snowboard Resort in Holly, Michigan on January 20, 2023.

Mt. Holly in northern Oakland County usually relies on man-made snow to build up a thick base on its slopes so skiers and snowboarders can enjoy them no matter what the weather is. Mt. Holly's operators typically run the machines for 16-20 days throughout the 100-day season between November and March, but Tibbitts expects them to go over this soon. 

“We're going to be pretty largely over that number I’m certain. … We're taking every small window and opportunity we can get just to keep it maintained,” Tibbitts said. “We're at 10 to 12 (days) right now, and we’d be more than that if we could get the temperatures we need, but we need colder temperatures.”

The Mt. Brighton Ski Resort in Livingston County similarly has the capacity to pump 3,600 gallons of water through 60 snow-making machines every minute to cover its slopes in man-made snow. The resort can go from completely closed to 100% open in 48 hours if weather permits, but conditions have not been ideal this year, General Manager Mike Giorgio said. 

“We run snowmaking every opportunity we get,” Giorgio said. “Air temperatures (have) got to be cold, so it's got to be sub-freezing. Really, we look for 29 degrees or lower.”

The long stretches of warm weather have made it difficult to maintain skiable trail conditions, he said.

Skiers make their way down snow making machine covered runs, next to bare uncovered areas, at Mt. Holly Ski & Snowboard Resort in Holly, Michigan on January 20, 2023.

“Without the temperatures and with this ridiculously high humidity and rain that we've been seeing, especially this January, it's been quite tough," Giorgio said. “The hardest part is the long stretches of warm-ups that we're seeing… they seem to just be going longer than they have in past years.”

Local parks that offer trails for cross-country skiing or other winter sports also have been affected by the warm January. Several Oakland County parks offer groomed trails for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and fat tire biking in the winter.

"This warm weather or lack of snow ... has not been good for our cross-country skiers. We need a good six inches just to roll the snow and, unfortunately, we haven't gotten that," said Brown, supervisor for Independence and Orion Oaks parks. "Once we can do that, it kind of sets a good base for cross-country skiers."

Independence Oaks in Independence Township usually rents out cross-country skiing equipment on weekends for its 9 miles of trails but needs at least 12 inches of snow on the ground to do this, he said.

Skiers make their way down snow making machine covered runs, next to bare uncovered areas, at Mt. Holly Ski & Snowboard Resort in Holly, Michigan on January 20, 2023.

"We need a good 12 inches of snow for us to compact that down and groom it so that we're comfortable renting out our skis," Brown said. "When you get that two or three inches (of snow) it can be worn down pretty quickly and then you're dealing with gravel and we don't want our rental equipment to go through that."

Brown said the department recently spent $2,300 on new cross-country ski poles to rent out and hasn't offered rentals once this season, he said.

"There is a cost you know, just for having the building open. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to recoup any of that yet," Brown said. "We haven't been able to rent any skis yet because we need that good base. So we're anxious to ... get things open."

Mt. Brighton season pass-holders are still hitting the slopes, and ski and snowboard lessons have continued all season but Giorgio suspects that more infrequent skiers in the area haven’t come out yet.  

“I think the biggest driver for folks wanting to come out and go ski and snowboard is when they see snow in their backyards, especially the Metro Detroit and Ann Arbor area,” Giorgio said. “The person who maybe skis once or twice a year, probably hasn't thought about it yet this season.”

Tibbitts also said natural snow is the best mood-setter and advertiser for ski resorts. 

“No dollar amount can pay for what that does to the industry when you have natural snow in the backyard — quite naturally people think about recreation and snow sports in Michigan,” he said. 

Both resorts have had to close down fully at times this season to preserve snow cover during warm stretches of rainy weather.

“There have been days this season where it's just been torrential rains and 50 degrees and we close for the day to save the snowpack,” Giorgio said. “It just makes it a little bit harder on our teams every night. They have to go back there, go back on the hill, and, if they can't make snow, then they got to try and piece everything together.”

Running snow machines more often can get expensive, but Tibbitts said it typically pays for itself when it attracts more skiers. He is confident that winter will eventually hit Michigan. 

“I'm pretty confident at this point that winter will eventually turn around and look like winter in Michigan again,” Tibbitts said.

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed