Home / News / ‘It was fun growing up here’ – Chicago Tribune

‘It was fun growing up here’ – Chicago Tribune


When Mary Lou Wehrli grew up in Naperville, winters were magical.

Hikes to neighborhood sledding hills that look like mountains to a kid and his sled. Ice skating wherever it freezes; sidewalks, homemade tracks, the DuPage River. Even the way the sun hangs low in the sky and reflects off a pillow of freshly fallen snow.

He misses.

“There were snowstorms and there were river walks and it was amazing,” said Wehrli, who is now in his 70s. “It was fun growing up here.”

But winters are different now, he says.

“I think we’re on a different path,” said Wehrli, a former DuPage County Forest Preserve District Board commissioner. “I don’t think we’ll see this kind of snow again. It doesn’t seem like part of the season anymore.”

Chicago had its warmest February and fifth warmest winter in history, according to the National Weather Service. Between Dec. 1 and Feb. 29, monitoring data from the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the NWS reference point closest to Naperville, reported 12.4 inches of snowfall. Totals were similar last winter, ending with 14.6 inches total.

The average snowfall during the meteorological winter for the Chicago area is 30 inches. Average normal temperature 28.1; almost 7 degrees lower than the 34.9 average cataloged last winter.

But are winters, as Wehrli remembers, really a thing of yesterday?

Ice harvest in Naperville

Naper Settlement/NOTIFICATION

In this undated photo from the 1800s, men use a ramp to transport blocks of ice collected from a Naperville quarry onto horse-drawn wagons. Ice harvesting was common in Naperville and throughout the Midwest because blocks could be stored in icehouses during the winter for use the rest of the year. (Naper Settlement)

Over the past 45 years, winters in the lower 48 U.S. states have been an average of 2.2 degrees warmer than in 1980, according to an Associated Press analysis of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.

Temperatures around the world reached new highs last winter, according to the European Union climate agency Copernicus. Recent above-season temperatures have also been exacerbated by a natural climate phenomenon known as El Niño, a warming in the Central Pacific that alters global weather patterns. For the Chicago area, this means the last few months have been generally milder and drier.

But what to expect in the long term from the coming winters is something scientists are still trying to figure out.

“From a broader perspective, I would say climate change is uncertain,” said Brett Borchardt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Romeoville. “Climate change causes greater extremes with temperature shifts from hot to cold. … So I think the jury is still out on what will become the norm.”

Zachary Yack, also a meteorologist for the weather service in Romeoville, added that “it’s difficult to discern how climate change contributed to a single winter or a single record.”

But for Wehrli, there is an undeniable change in today’s winters compared to the winters of his childhood.

“There was always a good reason to be outside,” he said.

He recalled looking for the “smoothest, slipperiest” part of the DuPage River when it froze and floated. Sometimes he would seek out the place where the river’s icy cover was thin enough for him to crack and jump. He called it rubber ice.

As he got older, Wehrli said he loved watching generations of families go down the snow at Rotary Hill, Naperville’s premier sledding spot.

“But now,” he said, “everything is left to the grass. And if it snows, it won’t be cold enough to stay there for long.”

During the winter months, the Naperville Park District has eight sledding hills, including Rotary. There needs to be at least two or more inches of visible snow for the hills to open. District spokeswoman Sameera Luthman said sledding is offered during the 2023-24 winter season, weather conditions permitting. Luthman did not specify how often this happens, but noted that ice skating is a rarer option.

Sam Hayes, 14, Calum Baham, 15, Julian Thomas, 15, Blake Highhantes, 15, and Jack Libeo, 14, went sledding down Naperville's Rotary Park Sled Hill as a winter storm nearly hit the Chicago area. First they pile up on top of each other.  Snowstorm conditions on Friday, January 12, 2023.
Sam Hayes, 14; Calum Baham, 15; Julian Thomas, 15; Blake Highhantes, 15; and Jack Libeo, 14, rode each other on a sled down the hill at Naperville’s Rotary Park on Jan. 12 after a winter storm dumped several inches of snow. (Trent Sprague/Naperville Sun)

The park district operates four outdoor rinks from approximately December 15 through February 15. However, these only open after sufficiently sustained cold weather.

“This has been a challenge the last few years,” Luthman said. He pointed out: Severe cold in mid-January In fact, it is the only time the region can maintain its rinks throughout the winter.

Still, he assured that as a district, staff are “prepared for anything” so they can meet current conditions.

“We just need to be flexible in hot weather,” Luthman said. “If we are not experiencing a typical winter, we have 138 parks and over 70 playgrounds. People were playing golf in February.”

While adults dug into the moving snow in Naperville Friday night, kids hit the sledding hill at Rotary Park.  Riley Howard, 17, left, Morgan Maher, 18, center, and Michelle Jurec, 18, right, took advantage of the break from the storms to enjoy the wintry conditions.
While adults dug into the moving snow in Naperville on the night of Jan. 12, kids hit the sledding hill at Rotary Park. Riley Howard, 17, on the left, Morgan Maher, 18, in the middle, and Michelle Jurec, 18, on the right, enjoy the winter conditions. (Trent Sprague/Naperville Sun)

The DuPage County Forest Preserve District opened Hoy Mountain in Warrenville three days later than a possible 37 last season, according to district spokeswoman Beth Schirott.

The county also rents snowshoes at the base when the tubing top is open. Since 2015 Mt. Hoy occasionally offers pipe service from year to year. According to regional data, it remained open for a maximum of 16 days in a year in the 2017-18 season. From 2019 to date, annual openings have ranged from a high of eight to a low of three.

Regardless of the weather, area trails are open year-round, but cross-country skiers equipped with their own equipment can take advantage of the snow-covered roads if conditions permit.

“We take what the winter gives us,” Schirott said.

While local preserves and park districts are prepared for all kinds of weather, longtime residents miss how predictable winter seems.

Naperville City Councilwoman and Naperville native Jennifer Bruzan Taylor said she will look forward to the simple reassurance of knowing how to dress.

“When January and February came around, you always knew it was going to be freezing cold,” he said. “You knew it was going to snow. And you had to dress as warmly as possible. There was predictability in that.”

But in recent winters, Taylor said there has been a different consistency.

“We’d run into each other by chance every now and then, you know, once it was a hot February,” he said. “But for the last three years, I feel like we have consistently had crazy hot days that we should never have had in February.”

Taylor laments what the shift means for the winters her three children, ages 2, 7 and 8, will spend.

“I love all four seasons. “I will always love all four seasons,” he said. “I want my children to experience this, too. To enjoy the snow and not worry after a snowfall that maybe this will be the only time they will be able to enjoy the snow this year.”

Mike Toohey wants this for his kids and his bosses, too.

Toohey is the recreation/area director for Four Lakes Alpine Snowsports, a ski and snowboard destination located at 5750 Lakeside Drive in Lisle, about 10 minutes from downtown Naperville.

Four Lakes, which has been offering Chicago and its suburbs an unexpected opportunity for winter sports for decades, was able to host visitors at the ski hill just 15 days before the season closed in February.

Ideally, Four Lakes is open 65 to 75 days in the winter, according to Toohey. Last year wasn’t much better, opening with 31 people in total.

“(The weather) was incredible,” he said. “I’ve seen a huge decline in the last few years.”

Closed for the season, the ski area and lodge bordering the ski slope at Four Lakes Alpine Snowsports in Lisle sits empty on March 7, 2024.  (Tess Kenny/Naperville Sun)
Closed for the season, the ski area and lodge bordering the ski slopes at Four Lakes Alpine Snowsports in Lisle sit empty this week after a winter season that offered only 15 days of use. (Tess Kenny/Naperville Sun)

Four Lakes offers five different runs just shy of 100 feet vertically. Toohey said the resort hires about 120 people each winter to maintain snow sports activities. They are getting the equipment and grounds ready to open by December 1st. But the weather rarely cooperates, especially lately.

“It’s frustrating because me and the maintainers put in a lot of work,” he said. “So, hire all the staff, do all the training, and then not stay open that long?”

Toohey said his children, ages 10 and 15, learned to ski at Four Lakes. She said they loved going together, but they couldn’t get the chance this year.

“They’re mad at me right now (because) they say I didn’t take (them) skiing this year,” he said. “Well, we didn’t have many ski hills.”

Mike Toohey, recreation/area manager for Four Lakes Alpine Snowsports in Lisle, looks over at the Four Lakes ski trail, which closed for the season on March 7, 2024.  (Tess Kenny/Naperville Sun)
Mike Toohey, recreation/area manager for Four Lakes Alpine Snowsports in Lisle, looks out at the Four Lakes ski trail, which is closed for the season. (Tess Kenny/Naperville Sun)

Despite the disappointing winter, Toohey said he’s already looking forward to next season with a positive outlook. He said it was the only thing he could do because the weather was out of his control.

“Yes, we had a terrible year this year,” he said. “But I’m thinking positive about next year. We’ll turn this around. That’s all we can hope for.”

Associated Press contributed.



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