Skiers will have no luck at the Town Trailhead in Winthrop, but can find groomed trails elsewhere in the valley. Photo by Don Nelson

Skiers will have no luck at the Town Trailhead in Winthrop, but can find groomed trails elsewhere in the valley. Photo by Don Nelson

By Ann McCreary and Marcy Stamper

Ski trails are often described as the economic engine that drives the Methow Valley, and this year that engine is running low on what fuels it — snow.

Locals whose livelihood is tied to snow and ski trails are doing the best with what they’ve got, and trying to keep an upbeat outlook.

Despite the lowest December snow accumulation in 20 years (as of Dec. 23), the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (MVSTA) is painstakingly grooming about one-fourth of its 200-kilometer trail system.

MVSTA has been able to open almost all of the 35 kilometers of trails in the Rendezvous area, and another 15 kilometers in Mazama.

“We’re lucky to have 55 kilometers of trails open,” said James DeSalvo, MVSTA’s executive director. “I’ve been looking online and I think we’re the only cross country ski center open in the state.”

MVSTA reluctantly made the call Monday to cancel the Ski Rodeo race, scheduled for Saturday (Dec. 28) in Mazama.

“We don’t think we can have a great racer experience and a great ski experience for the public,” DeSalvo said. With fewer trails open, there will be a “higher volume of skiers concentrated on the Mazama trails” and MVSTA wants to preserve the snow for recreational skiers.

Lack of snow also forced cancellation of the popular Methow Valley Nordic Ski Camp at Sun Mountain Lodge last weekend. The camp had 130 people enrolled, but only 14 skiers decided to make the trek for what ski instructor Don Portman called “camp/no camp,” where they offered discounts on individualized instruction.

“This is the least snow we have ever had at this time of year,” said Portman, who has been intimately involved with cross country skiing in the Methow Valley for four decades and owns the Methow Valley Ski School.

While there was not enough snow to set tracks for classic skiing at the camp, Portman and other instructors gave lessons in skate skiing, but worked only two days instead of three.

Many other workers at Sun Mountain were also affected by the cancellation of the camp. Banquet servers and extra kitchen help and housekeepers all lost income, said Sun Mountain Lodge General Manager Brian Charlton. Fewer guests also mean fewer dollars for people who do massages, haircuts and makeup in the spa.

“Obviously, it’s tough — it was a full house,” said Charlton. For the camp, they provide full refunds if there is no snow, said Charlton. Bookings at the lodge for Christmas week have also been lower than usual.

The low snow means only two of MVSTA’s four or five trail groomers are working, and they are carefully trying to preserve the thin snow base on trails.

“Working with less than ideal conditions for grooming — they’re used to it and very good at what they do,” DeSalvo said. He said MVSTA prepares for low-snow years by removing rocks and shrubs near trailheads to make them easier to groom in thin snow.

“A lot of folks honestly do all their skiing within the first 5 kilometers of the trailhead,” he said.

While making the best of the situation, DeSalvo said MVSTA is feeling the pain of the slow start to the ski season. “Last year we started charging for trail passes on Dec. 1, and this year we started charging on Dec. 20. That’s 19 days we’re not taking in revenue. That’s a big hit for us.”

DeSalvo said 70 percent of MVSTA’s trail pass revenue comes from day passes and multi-day passes, and close to half of those sales take place during the December holiday season.

The Loup Loup Ski Bowl is also feeling the hurt, but trying to make the best of the situation, said manager Sandy Liman. The resort is operating its Wild Wolf Tubing Hill and keeping the lodge open for families.

“We had a good crowd at the tubing hill, and people were making s’mores in the fireplace in the lodge,” Liman said Sunday (Dec. 22).

But with only about 5 inches of snow on the ski runs as of last weekend, the ski resort is about 2 feet of snow away from opening.

“The Christmas season is historically about 30 percent of our revenue,” Liman said. “It’s disappointing for us because we’re ready to go and for the skiers because they were ready to go. We’re … concerned at this point with satisfying requirements of frustrated skiers who have season passes and can’t use them.”

Data courtesy of NOAA. Chart by Darla Hussey

Data courtesy of NOAA. Chart by Darla Hussey

Lodging fairly steady 

Local lodging establishments say the lack of snow may have some impact on occupancy, but because many have cancellation policies that require two weeks to a month’s notice, they expect guests with reservations to show up.

The busiest time for most overnight accommodations is the week between Christmas and the New Year, said Mary Milka, assistant manager of the Mazama Country Inn. “We’re almost full,” she said.

Skiers on the trails near the Mazama Country Inn said the conditions were “surprisingly good,” Milka said Sunday. “The field out here looks like a freeway. People are spinning around like crazy.”

The Freestone Inn in Mazama also had a few more vacancies than normal last week, but is booked for the week following Christmas, said innkeeper Kerry Kozuki.

“A few people have expressed interest in canceling, but for the most part people who come around Christmas come because they want to be somewhere where it’s snowy,” Kozuki said.

Steve Mitchell of Rocking Horse Bakery in Winthrop said the bakery’s morning breakfast business is slower than usual for this time of year. “Local skiers, ski buffs are staying hunkered down,” he said.

He predicts that local businesses will still reap the benefits of holiday visitors to the valley, regardless of snow conditions. “For the traveler, they’re looking at this week away as a week away, not so much a hard-core ski week. People spend time with family and relatives, whether there’s snow or not. I don’t think it is as critical,” said Mitchell.

Cold December weather allowed the Winthrop Ice and Sports Rink to open Dec. 13, a week earlier than last year, said manager Kurt Meacham.

The weather in early December was actually too cold for a while, making it difficult to build a smooth layer of ice because the water was freezing before it could be evened out, he said.

While the winter has been good for skating, Meacham said the rink is “tethered to the ebb and flow of visitors to the valley” like every other part of the local economy.

“We’re all exposed to the same thing. You go through a series of years that are ideal and then one that’s not, and it’s really humbling,” Meacham said. “At the end of the day none of us can control the weather, so we’ve got to look on the bright side.”

 

Moving snow — and dirt

Things haven’t looked bright for people in the snow-removal business. In Mazama, Isaac Buzzard of Snowtime Removal sent out one plow earlier this month to clear eight inches of snow in Mazama and Lost River, and they have had to sand some icy driveways, but Buzzard typically has four employees moving snow, in addition to himself. “People are not paid if there’s no snow to move,” he said.

While accumulation is unusually light this year, variations in when it falls are not atypical. In 2011, Snowtime plowed three times in November but then not again for 25 days. “There was no snow before Christmas that year, then it snowed on the 28th, 29th and 30th, dumping about 20 inches. I don’t think any of my guys got any sleep at the end of the month,” said Buzzard.

On the other hand, the lack of an insulating layer of snow, coupled with sub-zero temperatures earlier this month, has meant work for those with other equipment and skills.

Buzzard — who also has an excavating business — was staying busy. “What’s lacking in snow, we’re covering in frozen sewer lines,” which, being shallower than water lines, are more prone to freezing, he said.

The ground is so frozen that even heavy equipment cannot penetrate it. They had to build a fire to thaw the ground on top of a septic tank, said Buzzard. “It makes for quite an ordeal,” he said. It took them two days of digging, whereas in the summer, a job like that would have required only a few hours.

Many of the problems connected with septic systems and cold weather have to do with deferred maintenance or lack of use, said Jim Wright of J.A. Wright Construction, who pumps septic tanks. Wright said problems are more common in homes that are used only a few times a year, since the tanks don’t stay as warm without the regular infusions of hot water.

But since the very cold temperatures in early December also froze local lakes, it prompted some folks to experiment with an unusual form of entertainment — fat biking on lakes. A recent dusting of snow provided enough traction on Patterson Lake for people to ride their bikes on the ice. “It looked kind of weird to see people bicycling across the lake,” said Portman.