Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 23, 2014

What a Winter!

Story by staff writers ALLISON BATDORFF, MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS, BRIAN McGILLIVARY, NATHAN PAYNE, MATT TROUTMAN and MICHAEL WALTON

— TRAVERSE CITY — Winter 2013-14. It’s at the tip of everyone’s tongue, and it’s left a tingling sensation on plenty of fingertips, too.

It’s been cold, colder, coldest for months, and there’s so much snow it might be July before it all melts.

Some people love it, others loathe it. But everyone has an opinion, and everyone has a winter story. Here are some from northwest Michigan residents:

 

Costly winter

Sandy Marutz relies on income generated by four of her 14 rental cabins on Arbutus Lake to help pay winter bills. But this year the particularly cold and snowy weather took a chunk out of her livelihood.

“Those places aren’t that well-insulated and the heat is included, so there’s no reason for people to dial down at night,” said Marutz, a Munson Medical Center nurse and a widow who runs Mac’s Landing Resort with her sister. “It’s been a long winter and the colder it is the more propane you use. It seems like every two weeks I get the propane tank filled. Between that and the plowing … We have seven acres. Last year my plowing bill was $450. This year I’m already up to $1,000.”

 

Business booms, parts scarce

Dupuie doesn’t have the parts.

A punishing cycle of heavy snowfall is straining snowblowers across the Grand Traverse region. About 25 broken-down snowblowers are sitting in Dupuie’s Kalkaska business, Dupuie’s Small Engine Repair, awaiting repairs.

“We are busier this year than last,” he said.

Dupuie said snowblower repairs center around auger and drive belts that sustained wear and tear under days upon days of blowing accumulating snowfall. But matching parts to repairs is also more difficult this year; Dupuie said suppliers have many necessary parts on back order, another fact he has no trouble attributing to the harsh winter.

“More people have snow and there’s more demand for the parts,” Dupuie said.

 

In it up to here

Workers at the Goodyear Auto Services Center in Traverse City will have to find a taller ladder when they move the markers on a snow gauge outside their shop.

Workers have been plenty busy this winter replacing batteries, alternators and starters as the extreme cold took its toll.

And they’ve had a pretty normal run on snow tires, said Rich Lundewall, a service writer for the shop.

They’ve also had the frequent task of nudging the snow poll closer to the sky each day.

The twin tallies — one for Leelanau County and the other for Grand Traverse County — both climbed above the 14-foot mark early last week.

“We’re running out of ladder, we don’t have one long enough right now,” Lundewall said.

Leelanau County’s red arrow hung at 16.5 feet while Grand Traverse County’s was at 14.5. And that was before the snow that fell during the week, Lundewall said.

“It should be at probably 18 feet now,” he added.

That means the tally is racing toward the highest mark Lundewall can remember. In the winter of 1995-1996 the arrow hit 19.25 feet, a snow depth he expects northern Michigan easily will surpass with a month of winter still ahead.

It could threaten to exhaust the 21-foot top mark where the sign pole runs out and the sky begins, he said.

And it’s a number that makes last year’s 11.25-foot accumulation appear downright minuscule.

 

Mountains of snow

This winter has been the best in recent memory for Mike Cutler, mountain manager at Crystal Mountain.

The resort averaged 3 inches of fresh powder each day during January, but the wintry conditions were bitter-sweet, he said.

Early snow and no January thaw also helped the resort add a month of skiing to it’s winter season. But despite frequent fresh snow, extreme cold conditions seemed to keep skiers off the mountain some days.

“You can do all the advertisement you want, but 3 inches of new powder every day is the best advertisement you can have,” Cutler said. “But certainly on some days you can’t help but feel the cold chased them away.”

 

Fishermen on ice

Three months.

That’s how long it’s been since Burritt’s Fresh Markets has had a consistent supply of fresh, local lake trout and whitefish for its customers.

“We had some right around Christmas time and that was about it,” said Eric Videan, a fish counter salesman at the Front Street store. “There was a warm streak in there sometime and that was about it since early November.”

November typically is slow because of a moratorium on commercial fishing during the spawning season. But this year, frigid temperatures in December extended the dry spell.

Usually the store can count on a weekly shipment of fish from Carlson’s Fishery in Leland, but this year commercial fishermen have been barricaded in their home ports by icy conditions.

By the beginning of February, a cap of ice on Lake Michigan marched south over the tip of the mitten.

“Usually throughout the winter we get some stuff from them at least once a week,” Videan said. “It’s one of those things nobody thinks about — the impact of the ice.”

The ice may have turned off commercial fishing, but it has given recreational fishermen a chance to get to places less traveled.

Dan Balchunas stood one night last week on 12-inch-thick ice near Clinch Park as he fished for perch. The last time he remembers thick, reliable ice on Grand Traverse Bay was in the 1980s, shortly after he moved his family to Traverse City.

“There were years that I didn’t go out fishing because ice wasn’t good,” he said. “We’ve had weak winters for the past four or five years.”

 

Cracked up

How cold was January?

So cold that chickens stopped laying eggs. Sure it sounds like a joke, but Lynn Groleau saw the phenomenon firsthand when her 100 laying hens went on strike for about four weeks.

“We have close to 100 chickens and we were getting one egg per day,” she said. “They tend to slow up production in the winter anyway. Because it was so cold, they weren’t laying at all.”

Groleau sells the farm-fresh eggs at her family’s market on Hammond Road at its intersection with Four Mile Road. The egg drought meant she lost customers and business for those weeks. Her hens produce as many as 100 dozen eggs during the summer, she said.

She hopes to get her regular egg buyers back, now that a feed adjustment and more lights helped bring her chickens’ production back on track.

The bitter cold has been especially tough on livestock and outdoor pets, and animal shelters and rescue facilities handled more than their usual number of weather-related cases. In Traverse City, AC Paw rescued a cat whose ears were so frostbitten that the tips virtually fell off and another was found trapped in the walls of a house after apparently climbing up through a crawl space to find warmth — both in just the last few weeks.

“The winters can be harsh and a lot of animals don’t make it,” said June McGrath, the rescue organization’s director. “I think people trick themselves into believing that they’ll be just fine, and sometimes they are. But we see over and over again the results of being outside and not having shelter.”

The week of Jan. 20 was one of the most challenging for Marty and Cherry Scott and their Black Sheep Crossing animal sanctuary in Northport. Temperatures hovered near zero degrees with wind chills as low as minus-12, making barn chores an exercise in endurance.

“You’d go out, take care of one group of animals and come in and put your gloves over the register and your hands in water and then go out and take care of the next group,” said Cherry Scott, 69. “It was an all-day thing on and off, just trying to cope. We have animals on medications and special feeds and some of them are special needs so you can’t just say, ‘I don’t feel like going out today.’”

Scott said the couple gives extra straw bedding and extra rations to their 75 animals during especially cold snaps to make up for the extra calories they burn to maintain their body temperature. Still, they lost two peacocks so far to the extreme weather.

“I go up to a shelter door and stop for a minute and say a little prayer that everyone’s still there when I go in. It’s been nerve-wracking,” she said.

It’s not just frigid temperatures and gusty winds that are threatening animal safety. Deep snow is making it hard for animals to move, soaking their bedding, beating down fences and piling so high that animals are escaping their enclosures said Jaime Croel, supervisor of the Benzie County Animal Control department.

“We found one dog running at large whose pads were all broken open and bleeding and that was from running on ice on the pavement and the snow- and ice-covered roads,” Croel said. “At our own shelter we have 6-foot fences and a cape and we have some animals here who could go over because the snow’s that high. We’re looking to shovel our roof for the second time this winter and we hadn’t done it at all in the six years I’ve been here.”

 

Tough sledding for livestock

It’s not the snow, but the cold that will ding profits for most livestock farmers this winter.

Harold Sheffer’s 80 head of beef cattle lay in the snow when the sun shines, and chew their cuds on his 325-acre family farm in South Boardman. During the colder days they huddle around feed troughs. Sheffer estimates the animals munched through about a third more feed than normal this year, and he’ll have to buy hay and more feed to hold the cattle and his three horses over until grass begins to grow.

Cattle spend winters outside and grow a heavier coat to deal with the cold. They travel in each other’s footsteps, Sheffer said, so they don’t have a problem with deeper snow. They’ll follow a path cleared by his tractor to get to water, feed, and into a stand of pines that acts as windbreak where they take shelter from winter storms.

Freezing water and frozen pipes creates the most extra work for him. It’s also more expensive to run 1,500-watt tank heaters. His electric bill has more than tripled this winter.

"It’s going to cut into the bottom line,” Sheffer said. “When it takes extra money to keep things going it just means we won’t have as much to live on.”

The one positive comes from the snow, which will add needed moisture to the sandy soil if the winter breaks up gently.

"That aspect is good, but other than that there aren’t too many positives,” Sheffer said.

It’s always a little more difficult on the farm with a harder winter, said Jarris Rubingh, a dairy farmer from Ellsworth.

Rubingh put up extra feed last summer for his 300 dairy cows that winter in an unheated barn, and he cut extra wood he uses to heat his milking barn. He burned through more wood to date than all of last winter and his cows are eating about 25 percent more feed. Rubingh, 30, said he wasn’t anticipating the hardest winter of his lifetime on the farm when he increased the size of his stockpile.

"I guess it’s what you call providence,” Rubingh said. “It sure is good that we did.”

The price of feed, wood, and fuel oil or propane are all going up because of the increased demand, Rubingh said.

He expects his electric bill is higher and he’s had to fight through frozen water, but the most extra work comes from the manure that freezes in less than an hour. Normally workers use half a truck tire attached to small tractor to push the soft manure into a trough that feeds into a manure pit.

"Now we have to scoop it up in a bucket and carry it outside, so it takes longer to clean the barns and keep the animals clean and dry,” he said.

 

Hunkering down

Below-normal temperatures throughout lower Michigan have pushed to nearly maximum the Department of Natural Resources’ “severity index” used to monitor weather conditions like snow depths, air temperatures and wind speeds, said Katie Keen, a wildlife technician for the DNR office in Cadillac. But wildlife in the region are managing to adapt, either by burrowing in the snow, which acts as insulation, or hunkering down in areas away from the deepest snow and the worst of the cold and wind.

"Wildlife are very resilient,” Keen said, noting that area rivers still supply open water, while trees and plants above the snow provide fruit, berries, seeds, nuts and woody matter. “They have adaptations to get them through the hardships. Nothing is low in numbers or going extinct. They adapt to what they need to. It’s common on these cold days not to see a lot of wildlife out. They’re not running around, their bodies naturally slow down, they’re caching food. A lot of animals will grow that winter coat to survive.”

 

Burials on ice

Caskets are stacking up in Antrim County funeral homes and cemeteries.

It’s not unusual for burials in northwest Michigan’s winters to be delayed until the frost-hardened soil thaws. Celia Hastings, a self-described “undertaker’s wife” at the Hastings Funeral Home in Ellsworth, said this year the local cemetery’s storage building is filling with stacks of caskets awaiting spring burial.

“It probably won’t run out,” she said. “But they’ll have to be more creative.”

Rachel Smith, funeral director at Mortensen Funeral Home in Mancelona, anticipates a busy spring for burials. She doesn’t know if the punishing winter is to blame for a recent string of funerals, but said it does mean more burials will wait longer.

"I’d say this winter we do have more than we had in most recent years,” she said. “We always have some. It kind of comes with the territory.”

 

Love for the winter

Larry Olson’s whole family loves winter.

“We live for winter as much as summer,” Olson said. “My grandmother was still riding snowmobiles at 92 years old.”

Olson owns Trimmer’s Barbershop in downtown Kalkaska and comes from a long line of northern Michigan barbers. A black-and-white, 1932 photo of his great-grandfather Jesse Trimmer in his Traverse City Front Street barber shop hangs in Olson’s shop.

“You can see the old Packard sitting out there and all the old tonics,” Olson said as he pointed to the photo on a quiet morning in his shop last week.

Olson drives his own snowmobile to work from his home in Traverse City whenever possible. His wife and friends joke that’s the only reason he started his business in Kalkaska last June.

Olson said business gradually picked up since then and it’s been strong this winter. He said Kalkaska needed an “old-fashioned” barber shop. That’s the niche he’s aimed to fill since the opened shop in Kalkaska’s old State Bank building that dates back to the 19th-century.

Customers who stop by for a quick trim love to chat, with weather a popular topic of conversation of late.

“A lot of the middle-aged and younger folks still love winter,” Olson said. “But a lot of the retirees have gotten out of it. The winter, you know, it’s harsh.”

Joe Paternoster, of Fife Lake, visited Olson’s barbershop for a haircut one morning last week before he set about clearing snow off his roof later that afternoon.

“You don’t want that ice to build up,” Paternoster said.

He, like Olson, loves this winter. Paternoster said it reminds him of winters from his childhood.

But Paternoster paid heed to the recent below-normal temperatures when Olson asked him how he liked his hair cut.

“Not too short,” Paternoster said as he settled into a barber chair. “We’ve still got some winter left.”

It’s been a busy winter for Bud Hopkins, who also dropped in to Olson’s for a haircut last week.

Hopkins lives in Kalkaska and drives a plow truck for the Kalkaska County Road Commission. He, too, dropped by Olson’s for a haircut.

Olson said it’s his first year on the job as he waited for his turn in the barber chair. He’s surprised by how much people appreciate the work he does.

“A lady came in yesterday to drop off six-dozen cookies just to say ‘thank you’ to all the drivers,” he said.

Hopkins said each county plow driver gets to know the people who live along his or her route. Many drivers work through lunch or throw extra sand down in front of driveways to make sure residents can get around.

“When you work with these people all the time, you want to give them good service,” he said.

 

Even love can grow old

Flo Rose loves winter, too, she said as she sat playing cards at the senior center in Interlochen late last week. The season is beautiful and she doesn’t let the snow bother her as long as her driveway is plowed and the walk clear.

"I still like looking at it. I just can’t play in it anymore because of my physical limitations,” Rose said. “I used to love snow-blowing.”

But the snowblower is gone now. When ice dams caused her roof to she hired the man who plows her drive to clear her roof and traded him the snowblower to help cover the $500 bill.

The snow removal work was scheduled for an afternoon and that same morning her furnace quit and her carbon monoxide detectors sounded. That resulted in another $100 bill for a service call to discover snow had drifted over the furnace vent on her roof.

"If I had known that, I could have waited,” Rose said. “Winter is getting old.”

Winter moves slower as one ages, said Bernie Kuerth, who comes to the senior center once a week for a meal and to bowl on the center’s Wii video game.

"When you get older you can’t do as much and the winters are longer,” Kuerth said. “I’m ready for spring.”

Kuerth’s bowling partner, James DeLong, uses quilting to help pass the time during the winter. He took up the craft after he retired about a two and a half years ago from Sara Lee. A warmer winter would be nice, DeLong said, if it started after Christmas.

"One nice thing about winter is you don’t have to put up with any bugs,” DeLong said.

But DeLong also echoes a consistent lament from the 11 seniors who played games at the center: Snow and ice-covered roads, plus snow banks too high to see over makes driving the worst part of winter.

Several of the retirees at the center said the roads — combined with the deep snow and the physical limitations of age — restrict their movements.

"We used to snowshoe and cross-country ski and do all the outdoor things and now we don’t,” said Shirley Lanckton. “I just don’t like going out on the roads anymore ... and it’s hard to go for a walk when the snow is five feet deep on both sides of the road.”

But the weather hasn’t hurt attendance at Grand Traverse County’s network of senior centers, said Sharon A. Neumann, coordinator of the centers.

"We’ve had good participation all winter long because people are stir crazy,” Neumann said.

 

Heart attack season

Cold, snowy weather sends a jolt through another vocation: cardiology.

The adage about collapsing on the driveway, shovel-in-hand is conceptually true, said Dr. Nick Slocum, medical director at Munson Medical Center’s Structural Heart Clinic.

Cold weather puts more stress on the heart, and it has to “work harder to keep you warm,” Slocum said. Plus, people strain themselves in unfamiliar ways in the ongoing struggle to clear driveways and rooftops.

“A lot of what we usually see is a number of people who get outside and exert themselves trying to do more than what they’re used to,” Slocum said. “We also see this during hunting season.”

Still, Traverse-area hearts are holding up and holding steady, as the number of emergency room visits for snow-related heart attacks are in line with recent winters, according to Munson’s emergency department manager.

Slocum is staying busy with the seasonal “bump” and cautioned residents to dress appropriately for shoveling snow, familiarize themselves with CPR and watch their winter weight gain.

“You can’t control the weather, but pace yourself and take breaks,” Slocum said. “Don’t hibernate, either.”

 

Frosty stands tall

He’s slumping, leaning and leers a bit at passersby, but the giant 25-foot tall snowman in Culver Meadows off West Silver Lake Road is having an abnormally good year.

The tradition, started by Alpers Excavating, was in a three-year slump because of unseasonably warm winters.

“We used to build him by the business, but by now, he would have thawed and melted already,” said Alpers owner Pat Alpers. Frosty was built Dec.14th in time for the holidays. Heavy equipment was a key component in the build, as Frosty required about 200 yards of snow. Culvers Field owner Brad Jewett oversaw and embellished the project this year with his 10-year old son. Don’t take Frosty’s picture right now – he’s leaning and lumpy, said Alpers, but he endures.

“It’s a good year to build a snowman,” Alpers said.