The Secret Life of Ski Resort Snowmakers in Northern Michigan

They dress warmly, head into the Northern Michigan winter night and make their own private snowstorms. Ski resort snowmakers in Northern Michigan are passionate about the white stuff, and Northern Michigan’s winter economy rides on their backs. We go to Nub’s Nob Ski Area in Harbor Springs to explore their snowglobe reality.

One night each year, sometime in November or December, my husband gets a big smile on his face, tells me to hop in the car, and we drive to Nub’s Nob’s parking lot to wait for the magic moment. No, not the making-out magic moment. But, yes, this is about romance, our shared love for the moment when our version of winter is about to start, when snow guns turn on for the first time that Northern Michigan ski season, draping one part of our world winter white while all around remains late-autumn brown. We pull up in the lot, right to the edge of the asphalt, as close to the hill as we can get. It feels like the front row of a drive-in theater. We turn off the radio and, as the night pushes on, we watch the temperature drop on the car’s thermometer.

“It has to hit 28 degrees, but the key is really to be 28 degrees with low humidity,” my husband (a die-hard skier who, once upon a time, worked for Nub’s) likes to remind me every year. As the temperature starts its slide—during the 31-, 30-, 29-degree range—we share a Short’s Huma Lupa Licious microbrew. We stare up the hill, sometimes recalling winters gone by, sometimes just soaking in the present moment.

We started this tradition years ago, when we still lived near the base of the Northern Michigan ski hill. Snow guns were our seasonal white noise machines back then, and we celebrated their return.

“What’s it like?” I always asked Justin as we’d watch bundled silhouettes sluggishly traversing the steep terrain amid a man-made blizzard.

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“It’s wild. And a lot of hard work,” he inevitably responded. “But to be part of that midnight crew, the guys who make more snow than you can even imagine in one shift—it’s a big deal.”

Each year when the car thermometer finally registers 28 degrees, movement outside kicks up tenfold. Four-wheelers blast off into the night (early season is too soon for snowmobiles). Improbably bright lights burst on all over the hill. Then, one by one, the guns started blasting white.

“I wish I could do this someday, just to see,” I said many times, never thinking I’d really ever have to worry about dressing like I’d be running (and sweating) a marathon in below freezing temps, as my husband described. After all, Nub’s Nob’s snowmaking crew means serious business. Letting some ski mom tag along would never happen.

Until it did.

One night early last December, I join Nub’s Nob area manager Marty Moore as he prepares to inspect 248 acres of snow gun–bombarded terrain during an epic snowmaking session.
Warm weather had stretched into November, so a run of cold nights—my visit starts at 19 degrees—is keeping Nub’s snow guns blasting, making up for lost days. By the time I arrive for my shift, Nub’s has already transformed into Northern Michigan’s own version of Narnia. The towering overhead lights, blurred by manmade snow, leave a diffused glow on piles of white three times my height. Maples, oaks, aspens, hemlocks become drooping snow-encased skeletons. The 282 snowmaking machines—pumping a total of some 5,000 gallons of water per minute—send a constant hum, low and deep enough to vibrate through land and sky and me.

It is stunningly beautiful, worth a descriptive essay all of its own.

But, as my husband told me when I walked out our back door, the Northern Michigan snowmaking story is one of people as much as place. It’s about a group of guys—still all guys—who gather together, mostly under the cover of the darkest nights, to help Mother Nature blanket 46 of Nub’s 53 ski runs with award-winning snow. My stint is a glimpse into what I like to call the Secret Brotherhood of the Snow Farmers. And it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Picture faces beet red from frigid temperatures, beards, eyebrows, lashes caked with ice. Imagine an arctic explorer making his way through a blizzard. Now make him drag heavy hoses up steep hills, or scale iced-over metal ladders, into the eye of the storm.

“It isn’t easy,” Moore says after snowmobiling down to the lodge to pick me up. He’s dusting three-inches of snow from his hat and mittens while he talks. “It’s not for everybody. But the crew out here, they take a lot of pride in what they do.”

At first, I admit the process conveys more magic when sitting in the cozy warmth of our car than when sitting on a snowmobile freezing amid the white tumult. As we cruise from snow gun to snow gun, Moore hollers explanations of how the technology works. He tosses out words like “high pressure” and “nucleation” while I give up on wiping wet snow from my goggles and instead concentrate on not becoming a human popsicle, unable to stop flinching at the steady pelt of needle-like mist. I find myself nodding just to keep the tour moving: each gun is hand built by Nub’s crews, with patented technology. Snowmakers are most concerned with wet-bulb temperatures, which takes into account ambient temperature and relative humidity. Five high-pressure pumps feed water through 23 miles of underground piping. Each gun—and this is what makes Nub’s unique—has its own air compressor to meet that water upon arrival. Think of it like a carburetor for snow: When the right mix of water mist, air and cold meet in the big barrel of a snow-gun, snow happens.

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Moore’s crinkling eyes are keen though. Even through the swirling white winds, he reads me to be like any other reporter or outsider who lasts 20 or 30 minutes max in those harsh conditions. I decide right there, beside one of the enormous green cylindrical machines, that I’ll have to tough it out.

“Have you seen enough?” he asks, glancing back toward the direction of the lodge.

“Nope,” I say. My teeth-chattering smile must have been convincing, because he offers to take me with him as he checks on the crew.

Back on the snowmobile, Moore cranks the throttle and we zoom up Fun Bowl—a hill I barely recognize in the blizzard’s pelting whiteness despite having skied it a hundred times with my children. We drive across ridges illuminated the color of the moon, and Moore stops to discuss the position of some tower guns with a guy who looks like he just got whupped in an epic snowball fight. They talk about tilts and swivels, about optimizing wind direction, without a single complaint of how cold it is tonight. Moore kindly brushes the snow off my snowmobile seat before we hop back on to investigate growing piles of white on another hill. Lifting his ice-encased goggles, Moore pulls a mittened handful of snow close, inspecting to see that it matches the high quality flake for which Nub’s has won dozens of awards over the years. Every crew member we see looks like a half-frozen yeti, lumbering through the blizzard with only their mouths visible under layers and layers dusted in white. Yet when we stop to chat, every one of them smiles and nods, talking passionately about the evening’s plan of action, without so much as a single cold-induced stutter.

The longer I stay, the more I become transfixed by the process, and most of all, by the camaraderie it creates. “The crew always goes out in pairs, and you have to know where your partner is at all times,” Moore yells over the sound of the snowmobile as we pull up to Chute, the resort’s steepest run. “Everybody takes break together. It’s a good chance to regroup, laugh, pump each other up, and see that everybody is accounted for.”

I ask about the dangers of the job, and Moore acknowledges they are real and plentiful. Sometimes, crew members are out in single-digit temperatures (or colder) for hours at a time. They climb slick ladders to bang off any iced-over guns.

“Every snowmaker carries a custom-made wrench. They keep it on a rope on their wrists, and not just because they’d catch a ton of grief for losing it [the wrenches turn on each gun’s water, adjust nozzle flow based on air temperature, and bang ice off when necessary]. Those things can get swinging when climbing up the tower, and a wrench to the mouth isn’t high on anyone’s priority list,” Moore says with a knowing grin.

We are high on the top of the ridge, the front slopes of Nub’s Nob falling away before us. The biting wind quiets for a moment and snow is showering down upon us, and I can’t stop blathering about how magical it all feels, like I’d stumbled across the Frozen Forest in my own backyard.

“Want to do something really cool?” Moore says, reaching for his radio. I’m impressed with how easily he handles it, because my own hands—snug in mittens and gloves—are chilled to the point of non-functioning. He hails Greg Martin, a top snowmaker who has been at Nub’s since I was first in high school 21 years ago, maybe longer, to please come get our snowmobile. Because he says, we’re walking down Chute.

I’ve been skiing at Nub’s almost my whole life, and I’ve never, ever seen Chute—or any other hill for that matter—ungroomed, without a single track in it. Looking down (and down … and down) to the bottom of this wall-of-a-hill, I’m pretty sure I eked out an “okay!” This wasn’t just a leisurely boot-slide down a mountain though. The ever-vigilant Moore makes the trip down part of his inspection. Moore brings along one of the most coveted tools in the snowmaking world: a snow prod. Snow prods, which are basically long, thin metal rods with handles welded onto one end, measure snow base depth on the hills. At one point on the way down we stop. Moore hands me the snow prod and I push it through the snow until I feel it hit the ground: more than three feet of snow. We hadn’t had a single snowstorm this season. And all around us, the Nub’s blizzard rages on, piling up more.

When we reach the Chute’s bottom, Moore indulges the giddy wanna-be snowmaker in me a little while longer—we climb back on the snowmobile and blast through a few major drifts. Next he gives me a tour of the motherboard of man-made snow operations: the reservoir pond and pump house. Tonight, with temps in the low teens and snowmaking conditions primo, Moore has the water volume cranked up to 100 gallons of water per gun, per minute.

“We have great equipment,” Moore says of the patented fan snow guns, which were invented and perfected on Nub’s own property by then–general manager Jim Dilworth in the 1970s. They are still considered to be the most energy efficient and productive snow guns ever made.

“But,” Moore adds, with a look of seriousness, “the real art comes from our snowmaking and snowgrooming crews.”

Nub’s has a reputation for keeping employees around for many, many years, and the snowmaking crew is perhaps the most shining example of this. Despite the physicality of the work, the overnight shifts, and the near-constant battle with the elements, the six- or seven-person midnight crew boasts 84 years of combined experience. All together, there are 20 snowmakers at Nub’s, totalling 240 years of experience. Moore’s own son, Ryan, has been part of the crew for almost a decade now.

“We’ve had a few guys come and try it, and we could tell right away they weren’t going to last,” Moore says. “The ones who become part of this crew though, they get how important their work is, not just to Nub’s, but our whole Northern Michigan area.”

I thank Moore for the snow-blasted tour and we wander over to the office of General Manager Jim Bartlett, who is working late tonight. I ask him about the secret ingredient that gets Nub’s top snow ratings year after year. Bartlett talks while I peel off wet outer layers and simultaneously try to not break my frozen hair.

“The best analogy I can come up with is every carpenter uses the same tools, but it’s how the tools are used that separates a carpenter from a craftsman. There is no doubt our crew is comprised of craftsmen,” Bartlett says.

“As the winter economy of Northern Michigan revolves around snow, and the responsibility to provide great snow rests squarely on the backs of our snowmaking crew, it is easy to see how significant a role these folks play in our winter economy,” Bartlett says. “The work this crew does affects, in some degree, every single person in the area regardless of how they make a living.”

While I could linger all night, when the temperature hits single digits, it’s time to let professionals get back to work. I start to gather up my gear (which includes two now-sopping wet fleece hats, goggles, a pair of gloves and mittens), and suddenly Moore bestows a gift upon me: the Nub’s Nob Snow Farmer ball cap.

I know this means much more than just receiving a cool navy blue hat. It is like being given the secret handshake or the code to the hidden wisdom of physics or something … at least, it felt like it in that moment.

I keep that hat in the top drawer of my desk. It’s one I use rarely, because I don’t want my kids (or husband) stealing it.

Now, many months have passed, the Nub’s snow melted, summer came and went, autumn has returned and the days are getting shorter. It will soon be time to jump in the car and head once again to the hill. This year, however, as we wait, anticipating that first blast of snowy white, I’ll be wearing my hat, and cheering on the dedication of that merry band of snow farmers … from the heated seats of our car.

Kate Bassett writes from Harbor Springs, where she is news editor of the Harbor Light newspaper. [email protected]

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