Snow falling on hemlocks at Old Mission this weekend.

Snow falling on hemlocks at Old Mission this weekend.

By MIKE NORTON

Finally, some real snow! I took a long walk along the escarpment above the Mission Point Lighthouse on Sunday afternoon, strolling through the cozy hemlock forest as the snow fell gently around me. It was a profoundly beautiful experience.

But really, winter is such a tease.

One day we’re getting a nice fall of snow, the next day a warm wind comes up from the south and melts it all away... One day it’s cold and bright, the next day it’s muggy and dark…

Obviously, there’s nothing new about any of this – we Midwesterners love to complain about the weather. It’s either too hot or too cold, too rainy or too dry, too sunny or too overcast... We don’t give it a second thought; it’s part of our ritual conversation.

The Cass Street Bridge in downtown Traverse City, on a snowy morning.

The Cass Street Bridge in downtown Traverse City, on a snowy morning.

Frankly, I never thought much about this regional peculiarity of ours until my son brought it to my attention during one of his infrequent home visits. He’d been living in the Seattle area (where the weather doesn’t change very much from one day to the next) and as soon as he was back here in Flyover Country he started noticing what a persistent motif it is in Michiganian conversation.

“Out there nobody talks about the weather,” he said. “Here, everybody has an opinion about it.”

Precisely. Everybody likes to express opinions. But we live in an intolerant age, when you can’t feel safe talking with strangers about politics, religion, economics or history because you don’t know how they’ll react. But weather’s a different story. As long as you don’t venture into the question of why the weather is the way it is, you can express all kinds of opinions about it.

Here in the area around Traverse City, the weather is rarely a life-or-death subject, anyway. I can’t think of a place in the world less vulnerable to Mother Nature’s unpleasant side. No earthquakes, no tornadoes, no hurricanes – just the occasional blizzard or thunderstorm, and the occasional summer drought. It’s a mild place with a mild climate about which we regularly (but mildly) complain.

There’s no denying that the drought thing has been a problem lately. We’ve had some dry summers and  nearly snowless winters over the past few years, and it’s obvious that the water in the Great Lakes is as low as it’s been in a long time. (Of course, I’ve been here long enough to remember when the water was too high – clifftop houses over in Leland were falling into the water, and my neighbors were building huge breakwalls along the shore to keep the same thing from happening to them. And I remember old-timers telling me not to make a big deal out of it, because they remembered when the lakes had been very low and you couldn’t get boats in or out of the harbors.)

Right now, of course, the folks who do the most worrying are the ski resorts. They have to have enough snow to make their slopes look nice and white, but not so much snow that people can’t conveniently reach them by car. And although most of them can now manufacture their own snow, it won’t do them any good if the weather isn’t cold enough to keep it from melting. This past weekend, for instance, the folks over at Shanty Creek Resorts had been hoping to open some of their runs – but they had to delay because the weather had just been too warm. It’s not such a big problem right now, but becomes increasingly critical as we get closer to the all-important Christmas Vacation season, when most people take their ski vacations and ski resorts do 90 percent of their business.

Last winter on Schuss Mountain, at Shanty Creek Resorts

Last winter on Schuss Mountain, at Shanty Creek Resorts

Fortunately, things are looking distinctly snowy this week, so I’m hoping Shanty Creek gets a nice fluffy white Christmas present. Which would be nice, since they’re preparing a nice Christmas present of their own.

Every year, the resort holds a “Ski Free with Santa” promotion where they give away free lift tickets (for a family of four, a $150-$200 value) to anyone who comes to their ski slopes on Christmas Day – but this year they’re asking guests to bring non-perishable food items to the ticket window when they come to get their free tickets. All the donated food will be given to The Father Fred Foundation here in Traverse City, which will distribute it to local families in need.

The Father Fred Foundation is a non-denominational charity providing food, clothing, household goods, and financial assistance to families and individuals in crisis who live in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, and Leelanau counties. Its work is carried out by the efforts of a small staff and more than 160 volunteers. Its funding is entirely dependent on the generosity of the local community, since the Foundation doesn’t accept state or federal funds.

"We have had a double digit increase in the number of visits to our pantry this year. It’s an ongoing trend as families try to make ends meet,” said Joan O’Neill, the Foundation’s communications manager. “When Shanty Creek came to us with the idea of giving their guests the opportunity to help local families in need, we thought it was a wonderful gesture.”

Of course, you can get your free ticket even if you don’t bring anything. But really, who wouldn’t? When somebody does something nice for you, you pass it along, right?

That’s as Midwestern as, well,  complaining about the weather.