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Snow Sports

Up north, ski areas have plenty of snow

Bare backyards hurt ski resorts

A skier enjoys the terrain at Maine’s Sunday River, which is nearly 100 percent open.
A skier enjoys the terrain at Maine’s Sunday River, which is nearly 100 percent open.Photo courtesy of Sunday River

During a low-snow winter some 25 years ago, Les Otten filled a few dump trucks with snow from his ski area, Maine’s Sunday River, alerted the media he was coming, then dumped the snow on Boston Common.

With this piece of folklore in mind, Barry Hallett Jr., owner of the Funky Red Barn restaurant in Bethel, Maine, had in mind to possibly do the same thing.

It’s not that there’s no snow at Sunday River - in fact, it is nearly 100 percent open. But, as in the year of Otten’s stunt, ski areas are not the problem. It’s the bare grass in the backyards of skiers.

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“I heard about what [Otten] did,’’ said Hallett. “It’s been on my mind, so I’m organizing the same kind of trip. We have to show people how much we have going up here.’’

Waterville Valley in New Hampshire has made TV commercials for the Eastern Massachusetts market depicting skiers on snowless terrain around Boston, then cutting to images of those enjoying its snow-covered slopes.

One of the ads shows Fenway Park, with former Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg (a passionate skier) making the point that while there was no snow at the ballpark, there was plenty on the slopes. Another ad used Hampton Beach as a backdrop.

These messages were aimed at motivating skiers and boarders as the February vacation weeks approached, one of the more important stretches of the snow sports season. By mid-February, while snow came in small amounts and snowmaking guns worked whenever it was cold enough, most ski areas could offer skiable, if not top quality, snow - especially compared with the last two stellar seasons.

And when a mild, snow-starved winter in the Boston area added the “backyard syndrome’’ to the mix, the season for some was off.

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“Last week [school vacation in Massachusetts], we were probably off 10-15 percent,’’ said Bob Fries, president of Waterville Valley. “That was pretty consistent every day, just below the same number last year.’’

Waterville Valley has a mix of vacation skiers and day trippers, mostly from Boston and its suburbs. Fries said vacation bookings were up this year by about 5 percent, and season pass-holders were also coming up.

“It’s the day skiers that are a little more fickle,’’ he said. “And when you lose the day trippers, the rentals and ski schools will also be down a bit. You lose some beginners.

“Waterville Valley’s average natural snowfall is around 135-150 inches. We’re at around 75 inches so far this year, so by closing day April 8, we’ll probably be around 100 inches. But it depends on when it comes.’’

And despite the marketing efforts, it’s hard to break through the backyard syndrome. “I took a drive down to the Cape the other day and coming back I noticed that even in Concord [N.H.] it’s bare ground,’’ said Fries. “You have to get pretty close to here - Ashland or someplace - before you see snow on the ground.’’

After little snow and moderate temperatures in most of the Northeast from Christmas through the first three weeks of January, winter descended in the northern mountains, with the most snow in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Jay Peak has had nearly 50 inches of new snow since last Friday, and all 77 trails are open. In trying to recapture the enthusiasm for snow sports late in the season, Jay is offering up to 25 percent off condo rentals, and many areas advertised leap year and March package deals.

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Many destination resorts known for their ability to produce adequate groomed snow have fared best. Sunday River has hardly skipped a beat.

“We’ve been keeping pace even without Mother Nature’s help,’’ said spokeswoman Darcy Morse. “Sure, we have to battle with the perception that there isn’t any snow, but our reputation for snowmaking helps, and word gets out on the social media what’s going on up here.’’

A storm last week came near the end of school vacation in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but just in time for New Hampshire’s.

“We had made our plans to ski last week,’’ said Linda Ryder of Providence, who skied with her family at Loon last week. “And we were figuring if the skiing wasn’t that good, we’ll find some fun anyway, and get away as we always do.

“But I think we were all amazed to see that even if it wasn’t like the last two winters, it was still pretty good. And then the storm came in for the weekend and that really finished the vacation well.’’

The storm provided little more than a dusting at more southern ski areas, such as Pat’s Peak in Henniker, N.H. And yet since Christmas, according to Robbie Holland, race director at Pat’s Peak, none of the programs has suffered.

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“Thank the Lord for snowmaking,’’ he said. “This has been a good vacation week, but the storm helped get people thinking about skiing again. You know, if people had been thinking about getting out the golf clubs, this storm helped them get back into the mood for skiing.

“And then once they get up here, especially from further south where they haven’t seen snow, they can’t believe how good the snow is.’’

Alice Pearce, spokeswoman for Ski New Hampshire, tested the product at Cannon Mountain in Franconia yesterday and pronounced it in “gorgeous shape.’’

“We’ve been through winters like this in New England before,’’ she said. “Presidents’ Week was solid for [New Hampshire ski areas], though it’s not a season that brings out beginners, so the rentals and lessons were down a bit.’’

She agreed that snowstorms rekindle enthusiasm and may prolong the season.

“I think looking ahead to March, if skiers see snow down in Boston they’ll come skiing because they know we’ll be making snow up here all season,’’ she said. “But if it gets warm and there’s no snow, people may just get onto spring activities.’’

Tom Meyers, director of marketing at Wachusett Mountain, noted that March is often unpredictable.

“Last year by March people had had enough skiing, so the decline was precipitous,’’ he said. “So maybe now that we’re finally getting snow here, they’ll be hungry to come out and go skiing. This has been the winter that never got started, but that could change with this snow.’’

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Most snow sports marketers note that the best month for snow is March, and that’s when the number of skiers drop.

“The last two years,’’ said Fries of Waterville Valley, “we’ve closed the area in early April with all trails open for skiing.’’