The Times photo by Betsy Reason
Brian Cooley of Noblesville, owner of Outdoor Excursions Inc., has been in the snow-making mode since Wednesday, getting ready for snow-tubing season at Koteewi Run Seasonal Slopes at Strawtown Koteewi Park in Noblesville. Here, he oversees one of four snow guns that combine air and water and make artificial snow, which is blown by the machine onto the snow-tubing hill at the park.
The Times photo by Betsy Reason Brian Cooley of Noblesville, owner of Outdoor Excursions Inc., has been in the snow-making mode since Wednesday, getting ready for snow-tubing season at Koteewi Run Seasonal Slopes at Strawtown Koteewi Park in Noblesville. Here, he oversees one of four snow guns that combine air and water and make artificial snow, which is blown by the machine onto the snow-tubing hill at the park.

While snow is forecast for today in Noblesville, the white stuff is more than knee deep at Strawtown Koteewi Park.

I could see the big snow-tubing hill covered with snow as I entered the park on Thursday morning.

I had layered up and put on my snow pants and warm down coat just in case one of the tubing lanes was ready for this anxious snow tuber.

But, at the time, the hill was still days away from being tube ready. The hill, which reaches 70-feet high when fully covered, needed more snow and the tubing lanes still needed to be created.

“Gotta have the lanes because you don’t know where that tube’s gonna go,” said Brian Cooley, president of Outdoor Excursions Inc., which operates Koteewi Run Seasonal Slopes at the Hamilton County park. It’s Central Indiana’s only specialized snow-tubing hill and located less than a 15-minute drive from downtown Noblesville.

Cooley tried out the hill when Koteewi Run opened for just five hours earlier this season. It’s the only time that the tubing hill has been open so far, due to unseasonably warm temperatures.

”We anticipate making snow 14 of the next 15 days based on the current forecast,” he said.

Cooley started making artificial snow at 2 a.m. Wednesday and continued around the clock through Friday afternoon. 

He drew attention to four giant snow guns, or snow cannons, that use electricity to push water into the air to make artificial snow, which blows onto the snow-tubing hill at the park. The snow guns are often used at ski resorts to supplement natural snow.

“We’re sending super high-pressure air through these snow guns,” he said. As he got closer to one of the guns, his voice was drowned out by the sound of the huge machine that stands taller than Cooley.

“Right now, we’re pushing about 380 gallons (of water) a minute through those four snow guns,” Cooley said. “The water attaches to itself in the air and, with some hangtime, you can kind of see the fog out there. That’s snow fog.”

The water is pumped from the park’s manmade lake, created over the past several years. He learned about the park’s venture the first week in October 2017 and talked to parks director Al Patterson about his interest in operating the tubing hill, which was originally to be operated by another company. He had a week to think about it and 73 days to build a business, which would open Dec. 16, 2017, and modeled after Perfect North Slopes in Lawrenceburg.

Koteewi Run was open the first season from Dec. 16 through the end of February 2018 and served about 7,000 to 8,000 guests. This season, he expected the attendance to grow. Although the warm temperatures haven’t been favorable to snow making. For the mere five hours that the tubing hill was open this season, “we pumped 2.5 million gallons (of water),” he said. “That took a little over a week to create.” About 50-60 people came out for that one night.

It will take 2.5 to 3 million gallons of water to create the optimum snow-tubing hill again, he said.

“Every minute that we’re standing here right now, there’s 80 gallons of water coming out of the pipe right there, and it’s going up that line and underground and feeding out of the yellow fire hoses there,” he said, pointing to the snow-making system.

“Current conditions and the forecast are favorable for opening soon,” said Cooley, who’s in his second year operating Koteewi Run.

The work is physical. Cooley, wearing his bright-orange parka, must dress warm for the optimum snowmaking temperature, which is 25 F or colder. He wears a warm hat, coat and boots, but his toes are quickly getting cold. He takes his turn, for several hours, overseeing the snow guns, which have to be moved every so often to fill the snow-tubing hill.

Through the night, his employee, Matt Minatel, 27, of Brisbane, Australia, oversees the snow making. Minatel comes from a company that Cooley contracts during Koteewi Run’s season. Minatel works in the Australian winter, which is opposite ours, in an Australian resort, and normally would have been working in a ski resort in Calgary, Canada, at this time of the year.

Making snow isn’t as easy as sitting in a warm truck or at the weather station, with a portable heater, watching the snow pile up. 

Although their job is mainly “to make sure that nothing goes wrong.”

Every condition has to be just right to make the snow.

As the humidity comes in and the temperature increased for the natural snow expected today, that meant less-than-perfect conditions for artificial snow making. More humidity means more water, and the guns don’t perform as well.

“We’re looking forward to this snow coming in because it’s going to give us more (snow) on the ground faster,” Cooley said.

Plus, he said, “It’s cheaper for it to fall from the sky than for us to make it,” due to the electrical power. He didn’t share the cost of the electricity or the park’s utility bill.

With the natural snow that’s falling today, the sledding hill will soon be ready for tubers.

“It’s got to be deep enough to get the snowcat on and run without digging dirt,” he said, pointing to the bright-red enclosed-cab, truck-sized fully tracked vehicle that’s used to create the snow-tubing lanes. There has to be enough snow to create burms, or raised banks, on either side of the lanes.

Tubes are already stacked neatly near the bottom of the hill near the base of the ski lift, which takes about 55 seconds to ascend to the top, where guests get situated on their tubes and ride “or fly” down the hill in their designated lane.

How many times has Cooley ridden down the hill? “Not enough,” he said. But he knows the trip down is very fast. His son, who does triathlons and marathons, clocked his tube descending the hill at 52 mph.

Cooley also showed me a video that his wife, Lesa, took of herself riding down the hill on a tube, laughing and screaming, all the way to the bottom. Cooley said the lanes, at night, as temperatures go down, get iced up and make faster rides. 

After riders get stopped at the end of their lane, which has a raised bank, they walk back to the lift line or just walk up the hill. There is a small kiddy hill for those not able to ride the lift up the hill by themselves.

Koteewi Run guests check in at the same building used during the summer for Aerial Adventures. The back porch of the building has since been enclosed for Koteewi Run users, and have big propane heaters keeping the area warm. A hot-chocolate station, with hot dogs and other concessions available, also keeps guests warm and their bellies full. Visitors can complete their safety waivers online before they arrive. Then once they’re checked in, they get their lift passes, which permit them to ride the ski lift up to the top of the snow-tubing hill. Tickets are available for two- or three-hour or all-day sessions, with adult and children and family pricing, and season passes available.

So the “$64,000 question” that snow tubers want to know this weekend: When will the slopes be ready for riders?

“Current conditions and the forecast are favorable for opening soon,” Cooley said.

Just before my newspaper deadline, Koteewi Run announced the park would not open today. He also said, “Sunday is doubtful, and we will make the call Sunday morning after we work with what we get from the storm.”

Cooley said, “We’ve had a good run of making snow the past couple days, but there are still a lot of very thin areas we’ll damage if we try to work with them. We can say that, given the forecast, we’ll be in good shape to open mid-week, if we don’t open Sunday... We’re close. Watch for the update…”

-Contact Betsy Reason at betsy@thetimes24-7.com