Just when many Chippewa Valley residents were warming to the idea of skating through a mild winter, Mother Nature unleashed her fury on the region.
The one-two punch came in the form of a historic cold snap in the last days of January, with temperatures plunging as low as minus 35 degrees in Menomonie and wind chills reaching minus 54 in Eau Claire, following by a blizzard of snowstorms last week that dumped more than a foot of snow on parts of the Chippewa Valley.
But as many shivering residents dig out and trade weather horror stories, some local businesses and outdoor enthusiasts are celebrating the belated arrival of an old-fashioned cold and snowy winter.
Mike Sell, owner of Green Thumb Landscaping & Excavating, falls squarely in the latter category.
In the midst of a dry December, with landscaping work mostly done for the season, Sell recalls looking at his shed full of snow-removal equipment and wondering if it would ever get deployed this winter. So, yes, he’s not afraid to admit he was happy to see the snow coming down Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, even if he’d prefer it not come all at once.
“It’s a tremendous boost for business,” he said. “It’s been really good for a lot of the landscaping companies because it’s pretty much all we do in the winter.”
Green Thumb, which plows solely for commercial clients, expected to have crews plowing all night after both Tuesday’s and Thursday’s storms to enable businesses to stay open and be safe for customers.
“I would say this has been a big week. We usually don’t get back-to-back storms like that, and now it sounds like we have another big one coming next week,” Sell said, referring to the forecast calling for snow on four of the next five days.
“When this is over, we’ll all be pretty tired, but we’ll be smiling,” he said.
The attitude is similar at Barstow Auto Service, which sells and repairs snowblowers.
“It’s a zoo around here today,” co-owner Troy Gruhlke said Wednesday, the day after the Chippewa Valley was hit with between 7 and 11 inches of snow.
While the shop sold several snowblowers in the aftermath of the storm, the repair business is what really accelerated, as many people found out the hard way that their machines weren’t up to the task of clearing that much snow.
“Some people haven’t started their snowblower since October, and others just spring into action when they need to spring into action,” Gruhlke said. “They don’t break ‘em until they use ‘em.”
Barstow Auto was nearly caught up with repairs when the recent snowstorms hit but now is about a week and a half behind. With limited staff, that means deliveries have been suspended because the workers don’t have time to leave unless they’re going home to bed, he said.
“It’s bittersweet,” Gruhlke said. “We know the snow is good for business, but you put in 12 to 14 hours here and then still have to go home and deal with it.”
Likewise, the folks at Chad’s Towing & Recovery were snowed under last week. With the Eau Claire Police Department alone responding to at least 21 crashes and 66 vehicle assists/slide-ins after the twin snowstorms, towing companies were called on to winch a lot of those vehicles out of snow banks and ditches.
As of Thursday afternoon, office manager Leah Brindle described the company’s towing crews this way: “They’ve pretty much been busy day and night since Tuesday.”
The polar vortex of the previous week also generated a boost in business for vehicles that needed jump starts or had to be hauled to a mechanic because they wouldn’t start in the big chill.
“Vehicles do not like that kind of extreme weather,” Brindle said.
Snowmobile trails open
While plenty of businesses earn cold cash by helping people remove snow or recover from snow-related incidents, some Chippewa Valley residents simply want to go out and play in it.
Those who own snowmobiles, for instance, hadn’t been able to use the roughly 180 miles of trails in Eau Claire County all winter because of a lack of snow. That finally changed at noon Friday when the Associated Snowmobile Clubs of Eau Claire County announced that all of the trails were open, groomed and in good condition. What a difference a week makes.
“Everybody is excited to get them opened up,” said Chuck Rau, president of the Pleasant Valley Rough Riders, part of the Associated Snowmobile Clubs that groom the county trails. “The trails are going to be busy all weekend.”
For his part, Rau, who recalls years when a shortage of snow prevented local trails from opening at all, hasn’t been willing to wait for snow to fall. He has traveled to northern Wisconsin to snowmobile the past four weekends, explaining, “You’ve got to chase snow when it’s not around.”
Still, Rau said he was looking forward to being able to enjoy the sport right in his own backyard.
‘Too late’ for skiers
The same principle holds true for cross-country skiers, who have had little or no access to local trails for much of the winter.
Ted Theyerl, coach of the Chippewa Valley Nordic Ski Team for middle and high school students from across the Chippewa Valley, had mixed emotions when he saw the heavy snow coming down Tuesday.
“I’m glad it’s here, but I wish it would have come earlier. It’s way too late for us to get ready for a lot of things,” said Theyerl, noting that the team’s state meet was scheduled this weekend near Cable.
The 40-member team has been able to compete in several weekend meets by traveling to locations with snow, but the lack of snow has made practice nearly impossible for most of the winter. Even on the few days there was enough snow, it often was too cold to hold practice.
“At least for my team, it’s kind of like the year without Santa Claus. It’s been the year without ski practice,” Theyerl said.
The team has made the most of the adverse conditions by substituting other training sessions for ski practice to keep the athletes in shape. They have run stairs and used the climbing wall at UW-Eau Claire and tried to do some running when it wasn’t too icy. A side benefit has been that the students from multiple schools have had more time to socialize and get to know each other than if they were skiing, he said.
Even last week, conditions were too dangerous to travel to ski trails on Tuesday, but Theyerl said the kids were excited to practice Wednesday afternoon at Tower Ridge Recreation Area in the town of Seymour.
“It’s definitely been our most challenging year as a ski team to really put any good practice time in,” Theyerl said of the 10-year-old program. “Most other sports don’t have to deal with conditions like we do.”
That pent-up demand paid dividends last week for Spring Street Sports in Chippewa Falls. The shop sells cross-country and downhill ski equipment as well as snowboarding gear and thus is weather dependent.
“Our winter business is 100 percent based on what it does outside,” salesman Cailen Rock said. “The second it snows, we’re slammed.”
As a result, the shop was packed with customers Wednesday buying gear or getting their skis waxed so they could take advantage of the region’s freshly snow-covered trails and slopes.
“It’s definitely good to see it snow,” Rock said. “Before this, we kept wondering when it was going to start snowing. ... Then the snow starting coming down and we had a steady stream of people. It’s that big of an impact.”
Last week’s weather was definitely not fun and games for Chippewa Valley crews responsible for clearing all that snow from city streets and rural roads.
“The last couple of weeks have been an unusual event due to the fact that the bad weather never ended,” said Steven Thompson, street maintenance manager for the city of Eau Claire.
As of Thursday afternoon, he said crews had been working around the clock since Tuesday morning, making it a scheduling challenge to ensure workers got enough rest to be ready for their next shift.
Even before the latest snowstorms, the city faced a situation where it was so cold that it was hard to melt accumulated snow and ice, he said, pointing out that salt loses its effectiveness at about 5 degrees and crews have to add a liquid to get it to work below zero.
To aid the plowing crews, Eau Claire police had issued 751 citations last week for alternate side parking violations citations through early Friday afternoon, said Bridget Coit, public information officer for the Eau Claire Police Department. On Friday officers were called to McKinley Road where cars parked on both sides of the street made it impossible for buses to get through.
In another effort to stop people from blocking plows and obstructing traffic, officers handed out 16 tickets last week for vehicles parked more than 12 inches from the curb.
“We want to work together to get the streets clean as soon as possible so the city can function normally and so everybody can get where they need to go,” Coit said.
About 25 miles to the west, crews also worked through the night to keep the streets clear in Menomonie after last week’s storms, with that challenge coming just a week after several days of unseasonable rain made de-icing streets a priority, which in turn took a huge bite out of the city’s supply of rock salt and and sand-salt mixture, said street supervisor Bruce Heath.
UW-Eau Claire student Marin Killam and 2018 graduate Nathan Ward were among the many area residents and visitors who paid the price for leaving a car in the path of the storm — and city plows.
Ward was in town visiting and and didn’t move his car from its parking spot on Niagara Street for two days after Tuesday’s storm. When He and Killam returned to the plowed-in car, they had to spend 45 minutes digging it out and another 15 minutes driving back and forth until they could move it.
“We are beyond ready for winter to be over, and it’s barely even started,” Killam said. “I heard we may be getting quite a bit more snow next week, and I for one do not plan on leaving my car sitting out in one place for longer than necessary.”
She heard right. The National Weather Service on Saturday declared a winter weather advisory for most of west-central Wisconsin from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. today, with much of the region expected to get another two to four inches of snow. Heavy snow also is in the forecast for Monday and Tuesday, with even more snow expected Thursday.
“Mother Nature is winding up and giving us a good sharp left hook,” Heath said, “and letting us know that she still has control over the whole thing.”