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No snow, no fun
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The Snowflake Nordic Center in Duluth has no snow, and no skiing. (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
Minnesota's having another mild winter. The grass is showing in most places, and the temperature keeps poking above freezing. That's great news if you dread winter as a time of windshield scraping and sidewalk shoveling. But some people are itching for a good blizzard. They love the snow. They want to play in it. And they're suffering.

Duluth, Minn. — Downhill skiers can always count on artificial snow, but cross country skiers need the real thing. Serious cross country skiers in Duluth train at Snowflake Nordic Center on the edge of town. But the parking lot at Snowflake is mud, and the only snow in sight is against the sides of buildings and in the shadows of trees.

There's a speed skating oval, and a couple weeks ago the skiers scraped enough snow onto the ice that they could ski loops on the ice rink. But even that's melted now. The team from Marshall High School still shows up for daily practices. They show up decked out in ski clothing and running shoes.

Dave Johnson is the coach. He says Ely and a few other towns have enough snow to ski on, but his team's stuck with "dryland training."

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Image Snowless cross country ski practice

"Dryland is running," Johnson says. "It's playing soccer. It's doing the stuff you don't usually do in winter."

It keeps the skiers in shape, but it's not the same as ski-ing. Johnson says a basketball coach asked him how the season was going.

"And I said, take away your basketball court, your basketballs and your hoops," Johnson remembers with a chuckle. "Then practice basketball and you'll know how it's going for us."

Human athletes aren't the only ones wishing for snow.

Matt Rossi and his dogs lives a few miles outside of Duluth. He's a musher - a dog sledder. He's getting ready for several races later this winter. He and his wife have 35 dogs, and they run the dogs several times a week. These days the Rossis hitch a 10-dog team to an ATV for a training run.

If there were snow, they'd run 50 or 60 miles - and they'd take different trails every day. But there's only a thin, icy crust on the ground, so the Rossis run the dogs on the shoulder of the highway. That's hard on their feet, so the dogs can only run about 15 miles. And Matt Rossi says the dogs get tired of running the same stretch of highway.

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Image Snow-less mushing

"If we can go in the truck and go out on the State Trail and go 60 miles, or the other logging roads and stuff, it's something different every time," Rossi says. "When you the same thing, it gets boring to them. They don't like it."

Down in the heart of Duluth, there's no sign of snow at all. And that's a problem for Harry Welty. He's something of a local legend for the snow sculptures he builds in his front yard here on Woodland Avenue.

"When my daughter was very little, after we moved to this particular intersection about 17 years ago, she asked me to make a snow dinosaur," Welty says. "I've been making snow creatures ever since."

These aren't your average neighborhood snowmen. Harry Welty says some of his sculptures have weighed a couple tons. One dinosaur reached 18 feet from head to toe.

People come from all over town to see Harry Welty's creations. He's gotten so good at snow sculpting that folks have booked him to make sculptures for special events. If there isn't snow on the ground, these folks go and get snow for Harry Welty to work with.

"Sometimes," he says, "I've had to work with snow that was scraped up from parking lots and was a little bit dingy, unlike the pristine stuff that I prefer to use."

Welty doesn't haul snow to his yard. He waits for the natural stuff. But he's had offers; or maybe they're threats.

"I just had somebody tell me that their husband said that he was so frustrated that I didn't have something that he's going to scrape something from the snow rink and dump it in my yard," Welty says with a grin. "I haven't seen it though."

Harry Welty says he's never been shutout for an entire winter. He always gets enough snow to work with - eventually. In recent years he's had to wait as late as March for a good snow. He's hoping this year will be different.

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