Mornings on the Mountain: Making Smiles and Snow at a Local Ski Resort

A big crew and a lot of water.

By Sarah Louisignau

A beautiful thing happens when a child has an ‘aha‘ moment.

After several tries, over and over, to create that classic pizza shape of the skis… ‘stop’ finally happens. As a Crystal Mountain Resort snowsports instructor, I’ve seen my share of ‘aha’ moments. When those big eyes look up to you in search of recognition, and when you are present to deliver that congratulatory high-five, that’s when the joys of instructing really resonate.

Shuffling up to the chairlift for the first time, five little ones follow me with looks of disbelief and awe. Their parents, who have sent them to my lesson, know that being out in the snow on a sunny day is the best medicine for any Vitamin D-deficient Michigander — even the littlest ones.

“It looks like a giant octopus,” one says, offering perspective and a reminder of the great endeavor it is to run a ski resort.

Moments like these are possible because of the orchestration of many design systems within the snowsports industry. Variables like terrain, climate, and clientele dictate the design, but, all in all, one thing determines the success of the whole industry: water — and lots of it.

Michael Call, vice president of mountain operations at Crystal Mountain, is an expert in the correlation between water and recreation.

“There were only two chairlifts and a platter-pull and a bunch of tow ropes — which is a hard way to learn to ski!” Call told me in a January interview, describing the scene at Crystal Mountain in 1974, when he first started working there as night-time snowmaker.

In the early 1970s, Crystal Mountain had only five full-time employees. Thirty years later, the resort has around 600 people on payroll in the winter and around 400 in the summer — about 200 people are on staff year-round, including Call.

“Obviously now the resort is more year-round, with the golfing, spa, and conference center,” Call said. “It’s really been an evolution.”

The resort’s development has been gradual, rather than big leaps of growth. Although there were some big steps involved in becoming a year-round venue, things were added steadily, and the ownership has been careful to think out every move very carefully, Call told me.

“I don’t know if many people think about this, but the ski industry itself is quite a young industry,” Call said. “And it didn’t really take off in the U.S. until after the Second World War.”

A big instigator was the 10th Mountain Division. They were soldiers who had been skiers during the war, Call told me, and they came home wanting to continue skiing, so many of these veterans went on to found ski areas.

The next major jump in popularity came with the advent of snowmaking, when the ski industry became more stable.

People have been making snow since the 1930s, at least experimentally. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s when the industry really took off, when small ski areas like Crystal Mountain could actually afford to do it. Banks would loan money, people who could afford to invested in it, and seasons could be extended.

“Especially in the Midwest, where you can’t count on dependable snow,” Call said. “Sometimes we get great snow, and sometimes we have meltdowns.

There is a lot that goes into snowmaking and how it supplements natural snowfall — in fact, on any given day, 90 to 95 percent of the base snow at Crystal Mountain is man-made.

“If you have 10 inches of natural snow, and you walk around on it and pack it down, you only have about an inch left,” Call said. “So, if we got 150 inches of natural snow in a season, by the time you get it all packed down — especially on our ski slopes — you may only have 15 inches of base.”

Man-made snow is different than natural snow. It starts out denser and makes a lot more base. Whereas natural snow packs down from 10 inches to one, man-made snow only packs down to five.

“Two years ago, we had 198 inches [of natural snowfall] — that was an extremely heavy year,” Call said, adding that Benzie County’s average annual natural snowfall is about 125 inches.

If there is a good temperature differential between the lake and the air — and the winds are coming from the right direction — there will be great lake-effect snow, a phenomenon that happens most drastically in the early season, when the temperature difference is greater.

But as the ski industry has grown, so has the need to make more snow than what lake effect can offer Northern Michigan. Back in the 1970s, Crystal Mountain had three snow guns. Now there are more than 100.

“With those three snow guns, the capacity supposedly was about 600 gallons per minute, [but was] probably more like 300 gallons per minute,” Call said. “Our current capacity is 6,000 gallons per minute.”

So, what’s the math on that work out to?

Well, one acre-foot of snow requires 156,00 gallons of water. So, working at about two acre-feet per hour at 5,000 gallons per minute (about 80 percent capacity)— in three and a half days, the snowmaking crew at Crystal Mountain can cover the entire ski area with two feet of packed-down snow.

This equates to more than 25 million gallons in three and a half days.

Although that seems like a lot, to put this into perspective, residents of New York City use more than a billion gallons of water every day — or 140 times more than what Crystal Mountain uses. And, according to Call, Crystal Mountain is just ‘borrowing’ that water.

“It sounds like an awful lot of water,” Call admitted. “But if you compare that to what a relatively small stream, like the Betsie, has flowing past at a given point, it doesn’t take very long for that same amount to pass by — I’m not saying it’s not a lot of water, but it’s all relative to what you compare it to and its context.”

“We like to say that we are just borrowing the water,” Call said. “We turn it into snow, but then it melts back down and runs, eventually, into Lake Michigan — which is where we got it from in the first place.”

And there are things the snowmaking crew can do to increase the bang for their water buck.

The snowmaking crew puts an additive in the water at a concentration of about four parts per million, but they only use it on warmer days when snowmaking is more difficult. The additive — which has been commercially available for the last 20 years or so — increases water efficiency by allowing a very small water droplet to adhere to what Call described as “the nucleus,” or the part that first freezes. As more droplets fall, they adhere as well, which forms more like a pellet of snow, rather than a flake — in a sense, the additive enhances the stickiness of the water droplets.

The particle, which is a cultured organic bacterial spore, was discovered in California by scientists who were trying to figure out why some vegetables froze while other ones didn’t. The spore occurs naturally in the ground in some regions and has a crystalline structure that is very similar to ice. When it found its way to the leaves of plants, it didn’t take much for water to adhere to the crystalline particle and freeze the plants.

“The same thing happens up in the clouds, too,” Call said. “The snowflake needs a nucleus to start forming the flake. Just like if you have dust particles — say from a volcano or air pollution — you are going to get more snow. We are just kind of copying nature by adding this particle.”

Thanks to Call’s team of snowmakers, spring skiing at Crystal Mountain is likely continue on through April this year — even as winter dwindles down and patches of dirt can be seen in my backyard.

Water — year-round and in all its forms — has a very big impact on our Up North lifestyle, economy, and general well being. And whether or not you ski or snowboard on the slopes of Crystal Mountain or skate at the Benzonia Community Ice Rink, backcountry on the Old Indian Trail or snowmobile one of the many trails in the area, it’s likely that you have your own way of celebrating winter in our unique corner of the globe.

“When I was still in charge of night snowmaking, there would be mornings that were like this morning” Call said, as he looked out the window of his office, smiling at one of the few sunny days we get during a Northern Michigan winter. “We snowmakers would gather at the top of Buck or Loki and watch the sun come up. That was pretty spectacular, especially with the snow that we were making kind of floating through the air. Seeing the sun come up, especially in the winter, is pretty special.”

Sarah Louisignau is a Benzie County native and a member of the Benzie Community Water Council. She is a ski school instructor at Crystal Mountain and a Yoga instructor at the Studio on Main in Frankfort and Yen Yoga in Traverse City.

This article is the part of a new series called The Water Column, as an on-going part of the first annual Benzie County Water Festival, an education and celebration event taking place March 18 through 20. For a schedule of events and more information — or if you’d like to learn how you can become a contributor to The Water Column — send an email.

**Special Promotion: As part of the Water Festival celebration, Crystal Mountain room rental and ski lift discounts will be available to festival-goers. Stop by the BCWC tables at both venues — Frankfort-Elberta Elementary School and the Garden Theater — for more information.

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