It has been a quiet time on the Trail lately. The weather warmed up there for a while; the sun and rain melted quite a bit of snow. I haven’t heard snowmobiles for a couple of weeks. Road restrictions have been imposed, which means there won’t be any logging trucks going up or down the Trail until the frost is out of the ground. Many lodges are closed for a spring break; the restaurants at Trail Center and Poplar Haus will reopen in mid-May. Gunflint Lodge and restaurant remain open.
We have stopped feeding the birds at our cabin. I really miss them, but the weather was looking like the kind that makes bears come out of their dens to start looking for food. I love the bears but I don’t want to feed them or have them come to know my cabin as a good place to get grub. So when they finally emerge this spring, they won’t find any seed or suet here. But now when I look out my window at the fresh snowfall from today and yesterday and the day before that … well, if I were a bear, I’d go back to bed. Spring will come, just not today.
It was looking decidedly spring-ish in town earlier this week. The buds on the aspen trees have swelled, giving the trees their characteristic pale green spring aura. The thin whips of new willow growth are a familiar lovely springtime yellow. Those colors usually announce the changing of the seasons, yet as I drove up the Trail toward home, those early signs of spring disappeared before I had passed Hedstrom’s Lumber. The weather in town by the big lake is always different from the weather at the end of the Trail. That fascinates me, and I’ve wondered about what causes it.
Recently, I met a Trail resident who was a career meteorologist. Jim Block worked as a weather expert, providing weather and climate support to business clients in agriculture, energy, and aviation before he retired to live here full-time. He graciously spent some time talking to me, explaining our unique local weather patterns.
The first thing he told me is that, just as I have observed, there is a considerably different climate between the shore of Lake Superior and the Gunflint Trail. The big lake is the primary driver of the weather and the climate along the shore and to the top of the hill — around Pincushion Mountain.
Lake Superior is unique from all other freshwater lakes in a few ways. It rarely freezes to any great extant, though some areas do occasionally ice over for short periods of time. The water temperature remains at a fairly steady 45 degrees F. year round. It is the only freshwater lake in the world with its great volume, equal to the four other Great Lakes combined. It’s like a big heat sink. That warmer water causes the lake effect, and is the reason the town of Grand Marais has a more temperate climate than up the Trail.
Winds blowing over the lake from the North-northeast to the South-southwest push warmer and moister air up the hill. At the top of the first hill, that warmer air is lifted from the lake, and then it meets the cooler air coming down from the Trail and we all know what happens when warmer and cooler air mix: precipitation. Mid-Trail gets more snow than in town, and more than at the end of the Trail. What drives the climate from mid-trail to the end of the trail is the meeting of these two weather systems. The vast continent of North America sends a thousand miles of dry, cold air down the Trail while Lake Superior pushes the moist, warm air up the hill. In between lies the Laurentian Divide. It’s one of the highest points on the Trail, with an elevation of 1524 ft. above sea level, nearly 1,000 feet higher than Lake Superior’s elevation of 600 ft. This combination of lift and distance make the weather over the hill much different from the weather in town, and makes spring show up later as you go up the trail.
That dry cold air from Canada is winning the battle this week, if it is a battle. Maybe it’s a love story about two misunderstood weather patterns who have a stormy (hah!) relationship and when they get together, we get rain babies. And snow babies, lots and lots and lots of them. As of last week, we’ve got about 93 inches of snow babies, according to the Ski Trail Report from Gunflint Lodge. Yowza. It looks like the snowmobile and ski seasons will be extended another week. After that, warmer temperatures are predicted and maybe then I will stop talking about the weather for a while. Dream on.