Making winter

(First published in the February 7, 2019 issue of City Pages)

The Wausau Nordic Ski Club is looking into making snow at Nine Mile Forest


Skiers at the Snekkevik Ski race at Nine Mile in 2016. The race has been canceled for the past two years because of a lack of snow, but there’s now a plan for snow-making at Nine Mile to ensure snow conditions all winter

Cross country skiers in central Wisconsin haven’t had much to be happy about this year. Decent snowfall came late, and the famed trails at Nine Mile Forest Recreation Area didn’t open until a few weeks ago—and then closed shortly afterward because of the extreme cold temperatures.

They can’t do anything about the cold, but members of the Wausau Nordic Ski Club have been working on a potential plan to bring snowmaking to Nine Mile Forest. Under the proposal revealed this week, club President John Burke says it’s feasible that snow could be made so the season starts in mid-December on at 3.7-kilometer loop with an 18-inch base that would last most of winter, even if warmer temperatures melted snow on other parts of the cross country ski area.

The plan is still preliminary but so far three studies the club has conducted, including economic feasibility, show the proposal has promise, Burke says. Installing the equipment would cost roughly $1.5 million, he says, which the club hopes to raise.

Snowmaking at Nine Mile would not only allow for a longer season and help retain season pass holders, Burke says, but could attract more skiers from the southern part of the state, who now travel to ABR in Ironwood, Mich. for early season skiing (the area tends to be the first to get snow). Wausau would be closer for those travelers, Burke says, drawing their spending to the Wausau area instead of to the north.

The past few years have been challenging overall for winter recreation, says County Forest Administrator Tom Lovlien; cross country ski trails didn’t open until Jan. 24 this year, and opened in mid-January last year. So far three of four ski races have been canceled at Nine Mile Forest in the past two years. The Snekkevik Ski race in early January has been canceled in back to back years; and this year’s Badger State Games race Jan. 26 was canceled. The snowmaking could allow the forest to hold additional early season races or even hold a demo day, bringing in major vendors into the Wausau area, Burke says.

Seasonal ski passes were at a low last year, with only 294 being sold for Nine Mile, according to data provided by the Parks Department. That’s down from 370 in 2016-17 and 332 in 2015-2016. Revenues were only $27,720 last season, down from $35,780 in 2016-17.

Parks staff are still reviewing the studies and proposal, says Parks Director Jamie Polley. There are still many details to potentially work out, including whether parks staff or club volunteers or seasonal staff hired by the club would operate the snowmaking equipment, and when. The proposal is expected to come back through parks and forestry committees.

Although a date isn’t set in stone, Burke says the snowmaking wouldn’t likely be operational until the 2020-21 ski season at the earliest.