TRAVERSE CITY — It’s a sunny, still Saturday. The break from winter’s brutal bluster has most Traverse City citizens doing a happy dance.
Yet a sorrowful howl rises in the stillness: “Nooooooooooooo wind.” It’s the lament of the snow kiters.
It’s the Midwest Snow Kite Jam, of course. Over 30 people officially registered for the event in Traverse City. Others casually drop in. But the lack of wind calls for Plan B (i.e. the bar) where snow kiters gather to wait for the wind to blow.
That happens a lot in a sport where “windy” is fair-weather and calm is foul, said Nate Farran. The M22 store manager pointed out that kiters often run toward the wind while others run away from it.
“We literally follow the wind,” said Farran, 32. Or, they wait. Then Sunday in blows gusty and warm, and the skies above East Bay become a kaleidoscope of kites, its frozen surface crosshatched with tracks from the kites’ ski and snowboard-clad cargo.
“It was amazing exposure,” said Eric “Noof” Nuffer, the Midwest Snow Kite Jam’s organizer. “Usually, for safety reasons, we’re out in places where people can’t see us. But the bay’s freezing over was a great introduction to the sport.”
Traverse City is a “playground paradise” for kite sports in all seasons, Nuffer said. Last weekend’s snow kite jam brought folks over from Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, as well as Detroit, he said. The season’s snow dump opened up a number of areas, transforming empty fields into fun zones. Rennie School Road and the Bingham Boat Launch at Lake Leelanau are popular jumping off points, he said.
“We have all this beauty, and with a kite, we can use it,” Nuffer said. Nuffer, 42, owns an aviation business in Traverse City and enjoys playing ambassador to the sport and area.
“You’re never too old to learn it,” Nuffer said. “Any one with a background in snowboarding or skiing makes a good recruit.”
Snow kiting and kite boarding took a hit during the recession and stayed pretty level since then, he said. But Traverse City’s M22 and Broneah businesses are seeing bookings go up again - especially with an epic snow year like this one, Farran said.
Getting a snow kiting rig costs $1,000 to $3,000, but unless you want specialty equipment, one kite weathers all seasons, Farran said. Use the skis or snowboard in the winter and a kite/surfboard in the summer. Body weight is a key component of selecting the right kite along with wind strength, Farran said. Men’s kites are typically 12-meters across; women’s are nine, he said. There are infinite variations, but the basic kite system includes the kite, harness, control bar, and the 70-100 foot long kite lines that connect the human to the wind.
You want to get carried away with snow kiting - wind-assisted air is called “boost.” But getting too carried away is “getting lit,” and that’s bad, said Farran.
“It’s when you’re overpowered and can’t hold an edge,” Farran said. “You can’t control the kite.”
John Heiss was called to kite as snowy gusts erased the Lake Leelanau horizon. Heiss leaves the aerials to the kids, but loves to kite the powder along the lake’s edge, said the Lake Leelanau resident.
“It’s blowing 40,” Heiss said. “It’s going to get beefy out there.”