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Snow piles up in Iron County

GILE, Wis. -- Kelli Stutz was leaning into a snow scoop on top of a flat-roofed garage, trying to push through snow that had settled 30 inches deep. "I'm not very tall, but still, it's up to my waist," Stutz said, half smiling and half in exasper...

Snow in Hurley, Wis.
A snowplow drives through Hurley, Wis., where snow piles already are higher than many vehicles. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

GILE, Wis. - Kelli Stutz was leaning into a snow scoop on top of a flat-roofed garage, trying to push through snow that had settled 30 inches deep.
“I’m not very tall, but still, it’s up to my waist,” Stutz said, half smiling and half in exasperation. “And it’s not even Thanksgiving yet.”
Wednesday was a digging-out day in Gile and just about everywhere else along the South Shore snow belt of Lake Superior. Only light snow was falling between a nearly
2-foot storm that ended Tuesday and another foot or more expected today. Last week, Gile saw more than 50 inches of snow in less than four days. More than 81 inches have fallen so far this snow season, which started the day before Halloween.
Front-end loaders, giant truck-mounted snowblowers, graders, Bobcats, John Deere lawn tractors and just plain old shovels were out in force as city and county crews tried to widen roads to make room for the next dollop. Businesses plowed parking lots with snow piles already reaching 15, even 20 feet high.
“What are you going to do? We shovel out. That’s what you do when you live in God’s country,” Stutz said. “Bring it on.”
Just down the road and across the state line, Ironwood, Mich., set a daily record for snowfall at more than 15 inches through Tuesday morning. Yet only about 6 miles away, in Peg Sutherland’s backyard in Gile, she recorded 23 inches in just 18 hours.
“When Ironwood and Hurley get a foot, we get 18 inches. When they get 18 inches, we get 2 feet,” said Sutherland, who has lived in Gile for 35 years and has been keeping snowfall records here for the National Weather Service in Duluth for about nine years.
Her reports add up to by far the snowiest place in the Northland.
“Before I started calling in, I don’t think they had any idea there was this little snow hotspot here,” Sutherland said as she walked out to the cleared, flat space where she uses an official National Weather Service yellow yardstick to measure.
“A half-inch so far this morning,’’ she said with a smile. The snow around her measuring spot had settled to about 30 inches deep, already approaching a ribbon Sutherland had tied to a metal pole to mark the deepest spot last winter.
“It settles fast; it’s pretty fluffy stuff. But when you measure it a couple times each day, the new stuff really adds up,” she said, noting she’ll soon have to use snowshoes to get to the measuring spot. “That doesn’t usually happen until January.”
Sutherland routinely reports winters with more than 200 inches of snow. But this winter the snow has come sooner, faster and deeper than just about anyone can remember.
perfectly situated
Nestled in a valley between old piles of mine waste and tall, natural hills, Gile appears perfectly situated to capture the most out of every lake-effect snow squall that comes through.
And this season has seen many of those. Whenever cold north or northwest winds cross the relatively warm waters of Lake Superior, it causes moisture to evaporate. That moisture forms into clouds that blow ashore. And when the clouds get over the hills of the South Shore, they let loose the moisture as snow.
“The clouds just seem to wring out right over us,” Sutherland said.
The snow is welcome news for a region that depends heavily on winter tourism for its economy, especially snowmobilers, who spend big money on motel rooms, meals, bar tabs, gasoline and more.
“It’s why we moved up here. But I don’t think anyone was ready for this much,’’ said Ricardo Luna, co-owner of Burgers Bar and Grill in Gile.
 Luna, a native of southern Texas, had never seen more than a dusting of snow before moving to northern Wisconsin from Houston less than three years ago.
“It’s our second winter,” he said. “I’m still getting used to it.”
At Northwoods Rental and Sport Center in Hurley the phone has been ringing often since news of the big snow spread around the Upper Midwest last weekend.
“We’re getting a ton of people calling wanting to rent machines, but we can’t do it. The trails don’t open until Dec. 1,” said Brittany Lehto, office manager at the snowmobile shop.
Curt Myers, a volunteer snow groomer driver for the White Thunder Riders snowmobile club, said he can hardly keep up with the deep snow on the trails. And the snowmobile season doesn’t even start for another 10 days.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been out on the trails this early. But if we don’t get on this and stay on it, we won’t get the trails done,” Myers said. “It seems like every time we get a section done we get another 14 inches and we have to start rolling again.”
The deep snow has made it difficult for Chatsie and Mimi Moncher to get balsam boughs for their wreathmaking business in Gile. The local residents, who trek into the woods to cut boughs, simply can’t get through the snow, the Monchers said. Many forest roads are impassable, and the snow is too deep in the woods for people to walk.
“We keep getting orders, but I don’t know if we can fill them,’’ Mimi said. But Chatsie said he’ll drive as far as needed to find fresh boughs.
“I was way over past Duluth, near Virginia, buying boughs the other day,” he said. “We just have too darn much snow around here.”

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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