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ON SKIING

Operating under cover

No snow here, but it's out there

Brown ground. Fast grass.

Except for on the tip of Cape Cod, it doesn't really look like skiing or boarding conditions around these parts.

(And from now on, let it be understood that when the word "skiing" is used here, it means sliding downhill while standing erect, whether the equipment be two pieces of plastic or one, and a skier is a person wearing either hard, uncomfortable boots or soft, comfy ones.)

So any skiers near the dunes of Truro yesterday probably had reason to rejoice and climb up for a few runs as an Atlantic storm just nipped the Cape on its way east. Our region was bathed in chilly sunlight.

Aside from that, regardless of how unsnowy the Boston area is at the moment, there's plenty of snow upcountry and some areas are so plush you can pack the "A" skis, though maybe not take them into the woods yet.

After a warm start around Thanksgiving, with areas forced to play catchup for several nights in a row -- that is, rebuilding terrain where snow had melted -- both cold weather and snow have descended on the north country.

Areas farthest north and at highest elevations -- Jay Peak, Wildcat, Sugarloaf, for instance -- have received nothing but snow, while southern New England got all rain last week.

"We have a record amount of terrain open for this time," said Sugarloaf spokesman Bill Swain. "We had some wet snow and it packed well, and then more snow. Heading into Christmas week, we're in really good shape. For the first time since 2000, we'll be open to the summit, giving us the whole 2,800 feet of vertical."

Most of the off-piste skiing -- glades, trees, and backcountry -- requires true midwinter conditions, for two reasons: no snowmaking and much rougher terrain to get covered. So most skiing in the final week into the holidays will be limited to snowmaking trails.

Yet at Sugarbush, where more than a foot of snow fell last week, followed by a week of snowmaking weather, there is an outside chance that Castle Rock will open by this weekend, according to Dave Dillon of the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

"The real early season was a challenge for us," said Dillon. "There was no natural snow, and it was warm. Several areas managed to open because of snowmaking, but then it got cold and we started to get several small snowstorms. Then we got one [last weekend] that dumped a foot or better at some of the Vermont areas."

Much the same story in the White Mountains. At Wildcat, 30 of the 47 trails were open this week, with more expected to open on the weekend. Wildcat, just across from Mount Washington's Tuckerman Ravine, is open from top to bottom, according to spokeswoman Irene Donnell.

Yesterday, Donnell was talking with a ski patrolman who had been working up on the slopes. "He had stopped to put up some snow fencing," she said, "and was up to his waist in snow. We've been getting natural snow right along, and now we have a great base -- consistently 10-24 inches, a lot more in some areas. Some of our natural snow trails will be open from the top."

At Shawnee Peak in Bridgton, Maine, the season's first Monday Night Madness, scheduled for next week, was in doubt until about a week ago, when the weather took a wintry turn. "It was really tough before that," said area spokeswoman Melissa Rock. "But all week long we've been getting tons and tons of snow, and we've been making it around the clock. This weekend, we'll have 13-15 trails open top to bottom."

The cold weather and snow that have most Alpine areas in good shape also have blessed the terrain for aficionados of cross-country skiing. In Jackson, N.H., arguably one of the prettiest ski towns in New England, the period before Christmas can be scratchy. Not so this year.

"This is the finest startup since I've been here," said Thom Perkins, owner of Jackson Ski Touring. "It's not just the amount of snow we have, it's the type. We had about 5 inches of heavy, dense snow that packed in really well, then it snowed about a foot on top."

In the last 12 days of operation, he said, Jackson has been able to open 86 kilometers of terrain, with 41K trackset and another 43K groomed for skating.

"Last season we had a couple of good snowstorms in early December," said Perkins, "but then it rained Christmas Day and it all disappeared."

Perkins pays particular attention to the quality of snow that a storm produces. "You might get a foot on the ground. If it's fluff, it might pack down to 1 inch, but if it's dense you could get 11 inches out of it," said Perkins, who added that his area, though large and imposing to new skiers, will focus on teaching new skiers how to get started with traditional-stride skiing or the newer, faster development of skating. "Our emphasis is just going to be on excellent recreational skiing," Perkins said.

And with good conditions smiling on skiers in the runup to the holidays, all eyes are on a weather system that could bring serious snow to the region late in the weekend.

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