In late October, it seemed as if the Northland was headed into an early winter, with temperatures dipping into the teens, small lakes freezing over and a foot of snow falling in Duluth, the most ever for the month.

But then November came, with its 70-degree record-warm days. And now December has hit with more above-normal temperatures and virtually no measurable snow so far.

So what's an avid snowmobiler, skier or ice angler to do?

It may be hard to believe now, but Duluth has already received more than 31 inches of snow, more than one-third of the normal amount for an entire winter. Yet, only a few inches remain on the ground officially at the airport, with grass and rocks still visible at some downhill and cross-country ski runs and snowmobile trails.

High temperatures rising above freezing on many days aren't helping.

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Chester Bowl in Duluth had planned to open its downhill runs and chairlift Saturday, Dec. 12, but that won't likely happen. Mother Nature hasn’t offered much snow and it’s been “much too warm for us to make snow,’’ said Sam Luoma, director of programs and operations at Chester Bowl. “We need about 10 days of snowmaking in order to fully open. At this point, we have less than 48 hours of snowmaking completed.”

Nearly all Minnesota and Wisconsin snowmobile trails, which officially “opened” this month, remain impassable due to lack of snow, unfrozen streams and too-soft-to-cross wetlands.

“I do not know of any snowmobile trails in Northeastern Minnesota that are open and safe to ride. Not enough snow yet,’’ said Kevin Johnson, area trails supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Two Harbors.

Staci Graber helps daughter, Lilli, 5, down a run at Spirit Mountain in Duluth on Sunday, Dec. 6. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Staci Graber helps daughter, Lilli, 5, down a run at Spirit Mountain in Duluth on Sunday, Dec. 6. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Spirit Mountain in Duluth was able to make enough snow to open a few downhill runs and one chairlift the past two weekends and big crowds gathered to take the first runs of the season. Lutsen and Giants Ridge also have had several runs open on weekends, thanks to some colder overnight temperatures that allowed more snowmaking. Lutsen hopes to be open every day starting Friday.

Spirit Mountain also opened the oval track of the Grand Avenue Nordic Center last weekend. But temperatures in recent days have been too warm to make much additional snow.

Snowflake Nordic Center in Duluth has been surprisingly busy for weeks with several kilometers of trail open despite the paltry snow cover. But warm temperatures will close the trail from noon Tuesday through Wednesday to protect what snow remains. The trails at Snowflake are expected to reopen Thursday with the slightly cooler temperature forecast.

"We’re lucky that we’re in a little snowier and colder pocket of the city" on top of Duluth’s hillside, Snowflake manager John Graham said. “We also were able to compact the snow down (with groomers and skiers) which preserves it. … And we have good tree cover over one of our trails so that helps shield it from the sun.”

Graham said it’s what little snow remains from a surprise 9-inch snowfall Nov. 15 that has kept Snowflake operating even as skiers on the trail glide past sometimes bare ground in the woods. Since then, Duluth has seen less than 2 inches of new snow.

“It’s been an odd winter so far. We skied for five days in October, which is really unusual, and now we’re well into December trying to keep what little we have going,’’ Graham said. “We’ve been getting tons of people from all over skiing here. … Over Thanksgiving, we had people from Chicago come up here because we were the only groomed trails open anywhere in Minnesota, Wisconsin or Michigan.”

Meanwhile, ice anglers have been eager to get out, with lakes in some areas offering enough ice for walking. Several Minnesota conservation officers on Monday reported most lakes in the region have 3-6 inches of ice. But they also warned that conditions vary not just lake-to-lake, but even across the same lakes.

Larger, deeper lakes are usually slower to ice-over safely, as are areas with any current.

As much as 10 inches of ice has been reported on shallow Upper Red Lake, a popular early winter walleye angling destination. But even there, large cracks have formed in some areas requiring resorts to erect temporary bridges for anglers to cross.

Where ice has formed with no recent snowfall, eager ice skaters have found smooth gliding on some mirror-smooth northern lakes.

Snow and cold coming?

Relief for winter sports enthusiasts may be on the way, according to the National Weather Service in Duluth. A snow event is expected late Friday into Saturday and colder temperatures — cold enough to get snow making machines rolling again — are expected by Sunday.

AccuWeather on Monday said the weekend storm "is expected to unleash snow, rain and strong winds across parts of the central United States," but that it's too early to say exactly where or how much snow will fall.

Some computer models forecast a return to more seasonal temperatures, too, with highs only in the teens by Monday.