Dan Nielsen: Some seasonal intersections offer surprise

Dan Nielsen

Traverse City has a long history of spinning along in sync with the changing seasons. Summer tourism isn't our only lucrative pursuit up here, but it remains a shining star of our economy. Summer brings out spoke wheels, sunscreen, sails — and sales.

Local commercial activity peaks on sunny summer days. There are other peaks throughout the year: autumn color season, holiday shopping season, any extended holiday weekend. Economic valleys occupy spaces in between: rainy days, blizzards, those periods on the calendar marked by nothing particularly special.

Residents and local business owners are used to the rhythm of wet and dry, hot and cold, economic peaks and valleys. We build special activities around our weather patterns, events designed not only to get us outside and moving, but also to keep our local economy rolling.

— Participants in the annual Mud, Sweat and Beers Fat Tire Fest, held last Saturday at Mt. Holiday, thrive on changeable spring conditions.

— The Bayshore Marathon, coming up in a couple of weeks, is perfectly timed for an outdoor event in northern Michigan. It probably won't rain that day (It rains an average of just eight days each May in Traverse City) — but if it does, it should still be a pleasant temperature for running.

— The Grand Traverse Yacht Club will host an event in August expected to attract Melges 24 sailboat competitors from across the country. Racers use identical Melges 24 boats so competitive variations in hull design and sail rigging are eliminated — winners are determined by sailing skill alone.

— Ironman, the world's best-known triathlon brand, is coming to Traverse City in late August.

— The White Pine Stampede and Vasa Festival of Races make use of what most years is plenty of snow each February.

Those and dozens of other events large and small help keep our economy moving forward — and help keep us from spending too much time on the couch. The calendar goes round and round, and where she stops ... well, she never stops.

Michigan's changeable weather is one of the reasons many of us live here. Change is good. People who live in Hawaii don't experience the march of rotating seasons like we do. They must get bored with their nearly endless string of 78-degrees-and-sunny days. The temperature variation in Honolulu is a monotonous flat calm compared to the wild weather waves Michiganders surf around the calendar

But unusually wild weather can throw a monkey wrench into plans any time of year. Lack of snow can make a cross-country ski race impossible. A storm can force the cancellation of an outdoor event. Rain has dampened more than one NMC Barbecue in May.

Changeable weather once interrupted my sleep, and perhaps endangered my life, during a solo backpacking excursion in a different, but also weather-variable, region — the Rocky Mountains.

I'd heard about a rustic hot spring eight or nine miles up a hiking trail near Wolf Creek Pass. All of my acquaintances were busy that weekend in October, but I wasn't — and the weather forecast was clear and dry. So I tossed together an overnight pack, drove 90 miles to the trail head and hiked up into the mountains. The only humans I saw afoot were a father and son, rifles strapped to their backs, returning from an unsuccessful early-morning hunt in the high country.

I located the spring and set up my discount-store pup tent near a stand of pines 50 yards away. Then I spent a pleasant couple of hours soaking in warm water while pondering the beauty of the mountains, the forest and the tumbling waters of the west fork of the San Juan River. The setting was beautiful, the hot spring delightful, the wilderness peace heavenly.

Exploring the nearby forest kept me busy until I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep, miles from any other human being.

I woke in utter darkness with a heavy, wet, cold feeling. The weight turned out to be dense snow that had slowly and silently collapsed my cheap tent until it fit my body like a glove. Body heat already had melted enough of the white stuff to completely drench sleeping bag, pack, clothes, everything — and there was still a foot of heavy snow pressing down on every square inch of my body. The clear-sky forecast had been very wrong.

I slithered out of the canvas-and-snow cocoon like a shiny pink nightcrawler, then stood, shivering and helpless, nearly knee deep in the winter's first mountain snowfall. I pulled on soaked boots and made my way through the dark grove and down the steep embankment to the hot spring. Off came the boots, and in I plunged. The shivering eventually subsided.

Heavy clouds kept the sky dark and ominous for hours. Water that had felt deliciously warm at 3 p.m. felt barely above not-shivering at 3 a.m. I hunkered down in the rocky cauldron until just my nose and eyes were exposed to the frigid air. Giant snowflakes swirled in the darkness.

The clouds eventually dissipated to reveal a twinkling field of high-altitude stars. They were beautiful, but I contemplated mortality just as much as I contemplated the universe. Body temperature hovered on the edge and I wasn't comfortable enough to devote full mental energy to philosophy.

The grimace frozen on my lips cracked into a smile, sort of, when I finally glimpsed a fringe of dawn over the tree line. But it was hours more before direct sun began to melt the tangled mat of frost in my hair.

Solar energy slowly warmed my clothes, arrayed on nearby shrubs, from frozen stiff to dripping to merely wet. By the time I pulled on still-very-damp attire and scrambled up the slope to camp, bright sunshine had melted some of the white stuff . But my tent and sleeping bag still drowned under a foot of wet snow. I punched everything into my backpack and headed down the trail, wet boots squishing all the way.

I was never so glad to get the heater going in my car. Or to crawl into a warm, dry bed back home.

Like the Rocky Mountain region, Traverse City gets an occasional seasonal weather surprise that stumps even meteorologists. But that's just part of the fun of living in a four-season climate.

Contact Business Editor Dan Nielsen at 231-933-1467 or dnielsen@record-eagle.com.