As predicted, it starts snowing in Madison around 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 18. Forecasters are expecting between three and five inches overnight but Yuriy Gusev, co-founder of Madison’s Winter Festival, isn’t taking any chances.
Gusev says that when it comes to making snow for winter sports, humans have improved on Mother Nature. So two weeks before the winter festival, he’s out at Elver Park, monitoring the city’s snowmaking equipment as it sprays artificial snow onto a mound that, after 15 hours, is 5 feet tall, 50 feet long and 30 feet wide.
“It’s so much easier to work with the man-made snow,” Gusev says. “And you can count on it. It’s going to be there for the rest of the season.”
Gusev, who also serves as executive director of Central Cross Country Skiing (CXC) — an organization that promotes cross-country skiing through events and education — planned on making snow from Jan. 17 until the morning of Jan. 20. But he needed some cooperation from the weather: it has to be below 27 degrees to make snow.
The snowmaking machines do most of the work, but they require regular monitoring. When a snow pile gets big enough, volunteers use grooming machinery to spread it around the park. The ski trails are groomed almost daily.
Pushing on the machine, or “snow gun,” Gusev changes the direction of the pressurized stream of ice pellets now mingling with the natural snowflakes swirling through the air. Gusev grew up in Russia — “south of Moscow” — where he started cross-country skiing as soon as he learned to walk. After skiing the Birkebeiner (the largest cross-country ski race in North America, which takes place in February in Hayward, Wisconsin) for the first time in 2002, Gusev moved to Madison. Gusev started with CXC in 2005 and co-founded Madison’s Winter Festival that same year when he wanted the city to hold an Olympic qualifier ski race for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. The first festival — which consisted only of the ski race — was held on the Capitol Square with snow that was trucked in from the parking lot of the Alliant Energy Center, where it was made, and later trucked away.
As the festival grew to include more activities, including snow tubing and snow carving, Gusev says the logistics of moving snow downtown became more complicated. In 2017, the festival moved to Elver Park. “The Capitol was a great backdrop,” Gusev says. “But Elver Park has many advantages, including the ability to make snow that can be used all winter long.”
Making snow at ski resorts became widespread in the 1970s. Snowmaking for cross-country skiing is now becoming common in the upper Midwest, including at Blackhawk Ski Club in Madison. Madison’s Parks Division had plans to make snow at Elver Park for at least a decade — and even purchased snowmaking equipment — but lacked the staff to make it happen. When Gusev decided to move the Winter Festival to Elver Park he realized there was an opportunity to make snow that could be used by skiers all winter long, not just for the weekend of the festival.
So with a group of volunteers and funding from both the city and private sources, the city’s snowmaking equipment is now getting used.
And while Gusev prefers the artificial snow over the natural stuff, he’s always thrilled at the prospect of new snow. “It mixes in with man-made snow, gives it a little more freshness and breaks up the density,” he says.
Plus, it gets people in the mood to ski and be outside.
“I think a big part of Wisconsin and living in the northern part of the United States is winter,” Gusev says. “Enjoying being outside in cold weather makes a big difference.”
Snowmaking equipment used at Elver Park: Four fan snow guns and three stick snow guns (which allow for greater precision when blowing snow in the woods), high pressure water hoses, air hoses, air compressor, an ATV.
The “jacket test”: How to determine if the conditions are right to make snow. If you stick your jacket sleeve in front of the pressurized stream coming out of the snow gun and your sleeve gets wet, it’s not cold enough. “If you see snow bouncing off your sleeve, then it’s good to go,” says Gusev.
First resort in the world to use artificial snow: Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, Liberty, New York, in 1952.
By Erica Krug, Isthmus