While there’s a perception among some that parks and recreation departments are inactive during the winter months, that couldn’t be farther from the truth – especially the winter this region has experienced.
Though some parks take advantage of the snowy surfaces by offering activities such as cross country skiing and sledding, the winter weather can present many challenges to parks departments.
“The heavy snow this winter has made it difficult for our maintenance staff to keep up with the plowing of National Lakeshore parking lots and sidewalks,” said Bruce Rowe, supervisory park ranger and public information officer for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Though the snow has been welcomed on the trails that are used by snowshoers and skiiers, Rowe said cold temperatures have presented other problems for park staff and visitors.
“The severe cold has caused waterlines to freeze up in some park facilities, including the Lakeview restrooms and at the Dunewood Campground,” he said.
For Jennifer Nelson, park manager at Stoney Run County Park, preparing for winter weather starts before the first snowflake hits the ground.
“When it looks like we will get enough snow to accumulate about a 4-inch base, we use a leaf blower to clear the trails so snow will fall on a clean dirt trail,” she said. “After it snows, we pull a heavy metal chain link-like grid across the trail.”
Continued grooming is more an art than a science for parks staff because too much grooming can wear down the base, Nelson said.
Crews, which include volunteers, knock off ridges and fill holes throughout the season in an effort to keep the trails in good order.
“We’ve had a great season this year,” Nelson said. “Having an extended period of snow helped, and I think people have been encouraged to give cross country skiing a try after watching the Olympics.”
Sometimes weather is too severe for fun in the snow, and often involves parks staff taking on different responsibilities and facing even more difficult choices.
“You want people out at the parks, but at some point, it becomes a public safety issue,” said Jenny Orsburn, superintendent of the Portage Parks and Recreation Department.
With 13 parks and 10 miles of paved trails to maintain year-round, the weather produced a winter wonderland several times this season for park goers. Orsburn said two sledding hills have been very popular this year as well.
However, with record temperatures and snowfall, parks employees found themselves stepping up and helping out in other areas of the city this winter.
“Because the parks staff is so integrated with the street department, my staff would help plow streets,” Orsburn said. “The priority would be access to homes. Everything got pushed to the side to get streets cleared.”
Once people were able to access their streets, parks staff returned their focus to clearing the city’s trails and parking lots in the parks, she said.
When weather conditions were at their most severe, Orsburn said the department was faced with the decision of whether to close the parks. Working with police and fire departments, the parks department opted at times this winter season to shut down the parks and cancel events.
“Usually we can stay on top of whatever Mother Nature throws our way,” she said. “But our services needed at times to go to the street department to make sure the greater community is served.”
For Lake County Parks, the ice skating plaza at Deep River Waterpark is designed to take Mother Nature out of the picture as much as possible, said Sandy Basala, superintendent of Visitor Services.
“We still need cold temperatures, but the ice is maintained through a freezing system buried below the concrete,” she said.
This year, however, the snowfall has added to the equation. Each time the region experienced snowfall, the ice had to be cleared by shovel and snow blower, similar to the Zamboni used at professional hockey games, in order to condition the ice.
Recreation isn’t the only thing taking place in the freezing temperatures, however.
During the winter months, parks staff are responsible for managing a natural area’s transition, from eradicating herbaceous invasive species to treating woody invasives, Basala said.
“This entails using chain saws, brush cutters and other tools that need to be taken into hard-to-reach areas by hand,” she said.
Sometimes, however, it’s helpful to work in colder months.
“In the winter, due to frozen ground and ice, we are able to work in areas that are inaccessible in the warmer months like swales and wetlands,” said Katie Molchan, natural areas manager with Lake County Parks. “Not to be overlooked is the added benefit of no ticks or mosquitoes.”