Special Report: Part 1: The Winter That Won’t Let Go

This past winter is one you won’t easily forget. If it wasn’t the cold, it was the snow or just the wind.

The brutal winter had a direct impact on Northern Michigan. Chief Meteorologist Tom O’Hare is here to explain.

It didn’t matter where in the state you went, the cold rarely eased up. And that had profound impacts on everyone and everything.

It seemed like the brutal cold would never let up. Temperatures dropped to 20 below and wind chills were over 40 below at times.

“When the snow first started everything was going great, until it started getting bitter cold,” said Mike Nygren.

Mike owns the Iron Skillet in Mancelona, where so much of his winter business comes from snowmobilers and skiers. The problem this year was it was too cold.

“As soon as it got cold, it died right off. We saw fluke weekends when it got busy, what it would normally would be, but for the most part it wasn’t as good.”

Almost any business that relies on out-of-towners didn’t fair so well.

“The snow was fluffy, dry and wonderful for those who did come out.  It was a challenging year,” said Chris Hale of Shanty Creek Resorts.

It really came down to being safe and staying warm for so many people.

“You know parents don’t necessarily want their kids to be out especially when meteorologists are telling everybody to be careful of frostbite.”

The snow meant fun for some, but work for others. Plowing, a business you’d think thrived.

Josh Johnson of Double J Lawncare Plus explains, “the cold weather, we had a to have extra guys working cause the guys couldn’t be outside for long periods of time shoveling and then I mean metal parts on loaders and trucks we just went through a lot of maintenance.”

Extra expenses really took a big bite out of plow companies bottom lines.

The arctic air turned the Great Lakes into a sheet of ice, getting thicker and thicker as the season went on. By March, there were reports of ice of at least 5 feet thick.

Coast Guard cutters are still breaking ice!

The ice was so thick the first cargo ship to pull into the Soo Locks for this shipping season was delayed by more than a week. A trip across Lake Superior normally takes about 26 hours, this year it initially took more than 8 days.

“Right now, it takes 2 lockages for every down-bound vessel, so the vessel pulls into the lock, pushes in a load of ice in front of it then the vessel has to back up, then we’ll lock that load of ice down then we can bring the vessel in,” explains Kevin Sprague, a Soo engineer.

Even so, the ice adds up in the lock.

“It’s fairly common for it to hit 20 feet thick right now.”

It means a 90% drop in cargo through the locks in the opening months and don’t be surprised to see ice in the St. Mary’s River in June!

From the water to the air, ice brought a quick boost for local pilots as Mackinac Island needed supplies. The harbors were still frozen solid.

Paul Fullerton of Great Lakes Air said, “in the middle of winter we may take 20-30 packages a day and now we are doing 5-7 hundred a day, it’s that huge of an increase. It’s great for business but you never know, we are just like farmers, you never know what you’re gonna get.” 

In the fields, farmers got one of the coldest winters on record. A winter with single digits temperatures more often and lasting longer than normal.

“There’s some damage out there, we’ve seen it when we look at the canes but I’m fairly positive we can prune around those and we’ll have a slightly less harvest but nothing disastrous” said Sean O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse. 

That’s great news to hear as grapes, apples and of course cherries mean so much to Northern Michigan. But what about other farms?

The dairy industry is one that never shuts down as cows need to be milked and fed every day.

“Feed intake was up 10-15% and while we’ve looked ahead over the years and got feed on hand we did see that intake go up.””

Jim Winkel from Winkel Farms in Marion says they milk 1000 cows, 3 times a day, every day. It’s a 24 hour operation that can’t stop due to the cold and they have expenses just like you and I do at home, but on a much larger scale.

“This parlor behind you, I mean its got 2 furnaces, got 2 hot water heaters, it’s got a boiler, I mean it’s got to run. It runs 24 hours a day. It’s gotta run.”

That means they use a lot of propane. But luckily it’s the cows that helped salvage a tough winter.

“Production stayed good. Cows do very well in cold weather, actually cows milk very well in the cold.”

The price of milk went up as well, near all-time highs. So the business did fine. However, many smaller farms with less than 300 cows and didn’t fair as well. Some had to resort to selling some of their herd, getting good prices at auction due to the rough weather across the country.

Jim Jenema of L&J Meats said, “a lot of it started out west with the drought in California, the winter up to the Midwest out west, where they couldn’t get feed to the cattle, there were a lot of cattle who died in the snow.”

And for you, that means you’ll see the lasting effects of a cold winter at the supermarket meat counter through the summer.

So let’s break this down for you, tourism was down, shipping was hurt, snow removal did about normal or better, agriculture had some damage but not disastrous and dairy and meat processors did well in part to other factors across the country.

Now the question is what’s the summer looking like? I’ll answer that question Friday night on 9&10 News at 11:00.