Deep Snow

Jeremy Smith of Chippewa Falls, an employee of Natural Touch Landscaping, slowly cuts his way through drifted snow in February as he clears a sidewalk in front of a Madison Street business.

“Harsh, cold and long” were a trio of words that 55% of people who took a survey earlier this year selected to describe Eau Claire’s winters.

But a local group looking to boost physical and social health during the coldest season found hope in the next most popular answer describing winter as “beautiful, lovely and amazing,” which was selected by 23% of the 471 people who took the survey.

The local Wintermission team met on Tuesday to review data from community meetings, focus groups and surveys that happened in March through May — during the tail end of one of the most brutal winters to hit the Chippewa Valley.

“This probably would’ve looked different if it was after a winter where we got minimal snow,” Eau Claire City Councilwoman Emily Berge remarked upon seeing the survey responses.

An average winter brings 46.8 inches of snow to Eau Claire, but this past winter dropped 98.8 inches on the city — more than half in February alone — according to the National Weather Service.

Eau Claire’s Wintermission team is comprised of city officials and representatives from the local health department, Visit Eau Claire, UW-Eau Claire and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, said encouraging more social interaction in winter helps address two areas the community has named as priorities — addressing mental health and dealing with chronic diseases.

“Those priorities don’t end in the winter. We’ve got to work on them all year,” Giese said.

The social isolation that happens in winter can add to mental health issues some residents already experience. For example, Giese said 15% of the population reports getting seasonal affected disorder during wintertime.

Physically, the reduction in activity for most people — 85% of those in the survey said they get outside less in winter — exacerbates conditions including obesity and hypertension.

Survey results reviewed on Tuesday will help the group refine ideas for pilot programs and long-term strategies to reduce social isolation and increase physical activity during winter.

The top survey response for what people would like to see in winter was better snow management with 19% of the vote. Following right behind with 18% was more affordable activities and then 17% would like to have more opportunities to be outside in winter.

Those surveyed also generally indicated that Eau Claire’s parks are still usable in winter, but reaching them can be tougher — especially for children and seniors — due to snow and ice posing a challenge for travel.

“We’ve got good parks — if you can get to them,” said Jacob Wrasse, UW-Eau Claire’s government and community relations specialist and member of the Wintermission team.

As its top priority, the Wintermission team selected snow and ice management and came up with a few potential pilot programs, including a volunteer corps to help those with difficulty shoveling their sidewalks or driveways. The group also expressed interest in how the city prioritizes its snow clearing of streets and recreational trails.

Other priority areas were improving mobility, increasing outdoor events and activities, and boosting the area’s winter culture. Potential ways to address those are winter-proofed bus shelters, shuttles to events, making fire pits available in parks and a mentoring program to teach winter sports.

But Wintermission has limited resources of its own, with just $15,000 to support pilot programs this upcoming winter. So the group’s roles will be more geared toward providing data and expertise, analyzing potential costs and revenues, and bringing together local government, organizations and private sector partners that already have some stake in winter-related issues.

New projects and events are expected to be launched this coming winter on a trial basis and their impacts will be evaluated, according to a Wintermission news release. Following that, the team will develop long-term ideas intended to continue in future winters.

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