Midwinter Report: So far, not so hot. But not so cold, either, and that's the problem.
Much like last year, the snowsports season got an early jump and roared into the holiday season with momentum. That's the assessment of most ski area managers in the Northeast, and at this point everyone has gotten some taste of January's roller-coaster thaws, ugly rains, and freeze ups that create glaciers under whatever powder falls on the top.
It's New England, what are you going to do but wait?
In fact, when Jay Peak had its annual Farms Day last week -- a local promotion at which all the farms in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont are each given a half-dozen lift tickets -- the managers at Jay got some down-home advice.
'' 'We're used to this weather stuff," they said, according to Jay Peak spokesman Steve Wright. ''Just show up every day and it'll come around."
According to ski country weather gurus, there may be reason for optimism, though no one's popping corks yet. Tony Vazzano, who owns North Winds Weather based in Sandwich, N.H., predicts ski conditions should improve over the second half of winter if only because nature loves averages.
''The pendulum always swings," said Vazzano, who does weather advisories for 19 ski areas in New England, including Killington and Wachusett. ''I'm somewhat optimistic about the February vacation."
Vazzano says he sees some minor changes coming in the next couple of weeks.
''We're not going to get hit with the real cold typical temperatures of late January into early February," he said. ''The temperature will be in and out. But I don't see the kinds of rains we've had in the next two weeks."
As if any skiers, snowboarders, or snowmobilers need to be reminded of the record snows that were followed by rain -- two big days of it -- right smack in the middle of Christmas vacation. Then, after most areas had clawed back with snowmaking, the Saturday of Martin Luther King Day weekend saw rising temperatures and a drenching rain. The next day, cold winds blew in and a deep freeze was put on all the rain. If the pattern seems dismally reminiscent of last season, Vazzano calls this year, ''A disaster. It's the timing of the rain," he said. ''And the fact we can't seem to get out of this pattern. It baffles me. And it's now very late [in the season] for so much damage to be done."
Jay Peak, which is 90 miles south of Montreal and markets itself to the north, boasts a natural snowfall of 340 inches, historically the most in New England. So its current offering of 65 open trails of 76 is not typical of ski areas farther south. But more than the poor snow surfaces, which are reparable, says Wright, the market trend is quiet.
''Certainly there's a lack of stimulus right now," he said, ''but we're keeping our fingers crossed. It looks like there will be several small snowfalls into [today]. But we're still waiting for that big Jay event."
Big event weather (blizzards), or just significant accumulations, are more common in February and March in normal years. But who says this year will be normal, especially when throughout northern New England most ice fishing waterways are not safe to tow out the ice huts or even snowmobile on.
''It's almost never like this," said Larry Carney, who snowmobiles in Maine's north country and enjoys the lakes around Rangeley. Not this year, he says, though he's keeping the faith. ''Oh, it'll be coming. Winter will be coming sometime."
Another longtime weather guru, Herb Stevens -- ''The Skiing Weatherman" on Providence television and other markets -- says change is under way, ''slowly but surely." Stevens has skied the mountains of the Northeast for more than 50 years and is never surprised by what the season throws at him. In his latest weather outlook, Stevens said, ''During the next week I think we're going to see temperatures start to trend down, and snow cover over the northeastern quarter of the country will be expanding."
How much and how fast are part of the same question: Can the season be saved for ski areas? Most areas are pointing to the February vacation with nervous expectation. If the weather simply stays seasonally cold and allows the snowmaking guns to whir for the next three weeks, most operators believe the second half will be better than the first.
''If you ever had any doubts about the resilience of machine-made snow," said Stevens, ''the past three weeks have provided the best example in recent memory as to just how tough the stuff really is. The bases in the East have been rained on repeatedly, been enshrouded in fog on a number of occasions, been glazed by freezing rain and sleet, and every so often refreshed by either light snow or an overnight coating of new machine-made crystals."
Despite the damaging conditions, the trail counts for machine-made snow have held roughly to what they were before the onslaught of rain and fog. However, that is not the case on non-snowmaking trails. At Wildcat, in the heart of the White Mountains, Irene Donnell skis almost every day. With just about 25 trails open (half the offerings), Wildcat is concentrating on the snowmaking trails.
''Every time it's rained it has finished with snow," said Donnell. ''After the last rain, the surface got pretty hard, but then they worked on it [with tillers and groomers] and now it's pretty great packed-powder -- much better than dust over crust."
Stevens remains optimistic for the next couple of months in the mountains. ''This season is about to get off to a flying start, and I'm bullish about the winter overall," he said. ''In the end, I think skiers and riders will conclude that the winter of 2005-06 turned out just fine."