Young snowboarders ride a quad chairlift Tuesday at Shawnee Peak in Bridgton. If the snowstorm predicted for Thursday materializes, it will likely bring a strong end of the school vacation week for snow industry businesses and provide a good base for the rest of the season.

Young snowboarders ride a quad chairlift Tuesday at Shawnee Peak in Bridgton. If the snowstorm predicted for Thursday materializes, it will likely bring a strong end of the school vacation week for snow industry businesses and provide a good base for the rest of the season. Photos by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine’s snow sports industry is hoping that this month’s cold and snowy weather foreshadows the kind of old-fashioned winter that can help it forget the lackluster season last year.

“You can hear the relief in everyone’s voice,” said Greg Sweetser, executive director of the Ski Maine Association.

There is snowpack across most of the state and people are excited to get onto the slopes and trails, Sweetser said. A significant storm is expected to drop fresh snow in the mountains and foothills Thursday, in time for families enjoying school vacation week.

That’s a stark contrast to last year, when unusually high temperatures and a lack of snow dampened the season. Big resorts can make enough snow to stay open even through unseasonable warmth, but it doesn’t beat natural snow on the ground, Sweetser said.

“That allows even the cross country centers to be skiing and keeps snow in people’s backyards,” he said. “People have to see it. The public understands that we make a lot of snow now, but the emotional factor, it just puts people so much more in the mood, that is a real important thing.”

This December is shaping up to be more of an average one and has been far colder and snowier than last year, according to data from the National Weather Service in Gray.

The weather service calculates the average daily temperature by determining the midpoint between the high and low for the day. So far in December that midpoint has averaged 27.5 degrees in Portland, slightly below the normal average for the month of 28.8 degrees. Last year Portland had its warmest December on record, averaging 37.9 degrees.

A snowboarder takes a run at Shawnee Peak in Bridgton on Tuesday. Ski resort managers are cautiously optimistic that snowfall totals will beat last winter's. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A snowboarder takes a run at Shawnee Peak in Bridgton on Tuesday. Ski resort managers are cautiously optimistic that snowfall totals will beat last winter’s.

Meanwhile, 11 inches of snow have fallen in Portland this month, approaching the average of 13.2 inches for December. Last year there was no significant snowfall until after Christmas, and Portland ended up with 7 inches for the month.

Maine’s ski industry employs thousands of people and generates an economic impact of about $300 million a year, Sweetser said. Ski Maine lists 17 downhill and Nordic ski areas statewide. Maine’s two biggest ski resorts, Sugarloaf and Sunday River, are the largest private employers in Franklin and Oxford counties, respectively, with more than 2,000 workers, according to industry data.

Snowmobiling is estimated to have a similar statewide economic impact and is a winter lifeblood for stores, inns and gas stations in many rural towns – when there is enough snow on the trails to lure winter tourists to the state.

The early winter weather is lifting spirits for areas that depend on natural snow, including the Nordic ski center at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. Pineland’s network of Nordic trails was open just 46 days last season. This year there is a 3-inch base, and even though snow on the center’s 19 miles of trails is thin and icy, people can still ski on them, said outdoor center manager Deven Pendexter.

“Everyone is really excited to be skiing in early December. That is something we haven’t been able to do for the last few years,” Pendexter said.

If the storm predicted for Thursday materializes, it will be a strong end to school vacation and a base for the rest of the season, he said.

Even though the state’s large ski resorts also are looking forward to more snow to open up new trails, business already is looking up compared with last year.

Sunday River, in Newry, had 54 of its 135 trails open Tuesday, but skiers could access all of the resort’s peaks and access its largest terrain park, said Darcy Lambert, director of communications.

The mountain actually had consistent business last year because it had terrain open when other areas didn’t, but cold weather and natural snow make a difference, Lambert said. Reservations for the two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s are up 20 percent from last year, she said.

Andy Biggs takes a late-day run Tuesday at Shawnee Peak. The day was warm, but snow was in the forecast. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Andy Biggs takes a late-day run Tuesday at Shawnee Peak. The day was warm, but snow was in the forecast.

“To be open across all eight peaks with snowmaking and more snow on the way, it definitely feels like a different winter than last winter,” she said.

Business at Sugarloaf, in Carrabassett Valley, is just about where it was last year before the season “totally went off the rails,” said Ethan Austin, director of marketing. “The winter never really got going last year.”

Not only did that hurt the ski resort last year, it also made people less confident about this season, Austin said. For example, the mountain sold 10 percent fewer season passes than it usually does in September, when most people buy passes, he said. Sugarloaf sells between 9,000 and 10,000 passes a year, he said.

“A lot of times in the ski industry you have a hangover effect – people are hesitant until they are confident this winter will be different,” Austin said. Some cold weather and a few snowstorms have grown that confidence – guests have been “gobbling up” last-minute hotel bookings and lift tickets, he said.

Early snow also is a boon for the state’s snowmobile industry. Last winter’s meager snowfall was especially hard for the small communities in northern Maine that depend on snowmobile traffic.

“We have seen right from the get-go this year there is an awful lot of enthusiasm,” said Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association. Northern and central Aroostook County got a lot of early snow, and local clubs have been busy grooming. The coming weekend is typically when the snowmobiling season really kicks off, Meyers said.

“I think everyone is optimistic and upbeat,” he said.

Local snowmobile clubs are getting ready for a busy season, too. Shawn McBreairty, from the Moonlite Sno-Skimmers club in Cumberland and North Yarmouth, said the group only groomed the club’s 33 miles of trails twice last year and has already been out at least three times this season. The club asked riders to stay off the trails Tuesday to prevent damage in the warm weather, but it is looking forward to more snowfall later this week, McBreairty said.

“Generally speaking, most folks around in southern Maine know that trails are in good shape in mid-January,” he said. “If we have a couple whopper storms, that would set us up pretty well.”

 

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