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The snow makers
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Mark Buckman has been making snow at Lutsen Mountains for 15 years. He and other employees make the "snow guns" and "snow sticks" in the shop at the resort. (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
Snowmobilers and cross-country skiers are a little depressed about the lack of snow this winter. But downhill skiers and snowboarders are doing OK. They don't need real snow, because ski hills can make the stuff. Lutsen Mountains ski resort has several feet of artificial snow on the ground.

Lutsen, Minn. — When skiers drive up the north shore of Lake Superior they must get a bit anxious.

There isn't any snow.

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Image The Lutsen sign

Right under sign for the Lutsen ski resort, the ground is absolutely brown and bare. But a couple miles from the highway, it looks like there was a blizzard. Some of the ski hills are covered in six feet of snow. On a few of the steepest runs there's 10 or even 15 feet in places. And this year, Mother Nature didn't make any of it. Guys like Mark Buckman did.

"Snow making is kind of my thing," he says. "And it's been that way for 15 years now."

Buckman stands in the middle of a ski run next to a roaring snowgun. The "gun" looks like a cannon made from an oil drum with the bottom cut out, and replaced with an incredibly powerful electric fan. On the front end of the barrel, there's a ring of water nozzles. The fan blows a mist of water into the air. The water freezes, and lands 100 feet away in the form of snow.

"The more hang time you can get the better," Buckman says. "Then it'll form a better quality snow, rather than being drove right into the ground where it doesn't make for good snow. It's more like ice then."

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Image Winter wonderland

Buckman keeps watch on 20 different snow guns at a time. It takes miles of pipes and hoses to feed water to the guns, and sometimes they freeze. Sometimes there's a leak. Sometimes a nozzle gets clogged with ice.

The snow making crew is constantly moving guns to new spots. Temperatures between zero and 20 degrees are good for making snow, so the guns are running 24 hours a day this time of year. Mark Buckman says he puts in some long hours.

"Whatever you have to do, that's what you do," he says. "You go home and have a couple beers and go to bed, and get up and hit 'er again tomorrow. The days kind of melt together."

The temperature is about 15 degrees, and a stiff wind is blowing, but Mark Buckman isn't wearing a hat. After he's spent a couple minutes standing next to the snow gun, his jacket and blue jeans are coated with a sheet of fuzzy white ice. He says you have to enjoy being outside in the winter to do his job.

He can't just leave the snow in piles in the middle of the ski run, so he fires up a SnoCat to push it around. The machine looks like a bulldozer from Star Wars. He'll spend a while "pushing snow," and then get back to tending the snow guns.

There's no grass showing on this ski run, but it's still not ready.

"I'd say there's probably about a foot here where we're standing, which isn't very much" says Tom Rider. He's one of the owners of Lutsen, and he oversees the snow making operation.

"This particular run, we have a World Cup race on this every winter," Rider says. "We'll need another four or five feet of snow to guarantee great conditions for the race. We'll make a lot more snow here."

This year, November and December were great for snow making, so about 80 percent of Lutsen is ready to ski, even without natural snow.

The hills at Lutsen are dotted with skiers over the holidays, and the parking lots are full. Phil Due came up from Milwaukee with his family. He says the skiing is great - but it's a little different from skiing on natural snow.

"I can definitely tell the difference - I think," he says as he waits for his companions outside the chalet. "It seems a little bit more sugary. But it's fine with me. It's OK. It works." Lutsen started making snow at the beginning of November. Co-owner Tom Rider says everyone makes snow these days - even resorts in the Rocky Mountains.

"It's essential," Rider says. "We have to. You can't count on Mother Nature."

Rider says skiers and snowboarders expect to be on the slopes by Thanksgiving, and they want to stay on the slopes until spring. Rider says Lutsen will stay open into April, whether or not there's any natural snow this winter.

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