Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Adirondack Winter That Wasn’t

Whiteface Mountain with little snow 2016 Mike Lynch PhotoSnow-sport events are a staple of winter tourism in the Adirondacks, drawing participants and spectators into small villages where they eat in restaurants, stay in hotels, and spend money in stores. This winter, many events had to be canceled because of frequent thaws and a dearth of snow.

Among the canceled events were the Lake Placid Loppet, a cross-country-ski race, and a World Cup skiing competition in the Lake Placid region; the annual Adirondack Backcountry Ski Festival, sponsored by the Mountaineer in Keene Valley; and Dewey Mountain Days in Saranac Lake. Dangerous ice conditions led to the cancellation of ice-fishing contests around the Adirondack Park.

In addition, Lookout Mountain, one of three peaks at Whiteface Ski Area, never opened. And snowmobile and cross-country-skiing trails were unusable much of the season. Nordic centers, such as Dewey Mountain in Saranac Lake and Mount Van Hoevenberg, shut down in mid-February and never reopened.

Skier visits were down significantly at both Gore and Whiteface Mountains. Gore recorded 118,127 ticket sales as of April 7, down ninety- three thousand from the previous winter. Whiteface had 165,398 ticket sales, down forty-seven thousand from last season. Van Hoevenberg had 3,733 ticket sales, down eight thousand from the previous season.

“Obviously, we had less visitors, especially to the three ski resorts,” said ORDA spokesman Jon Lundin. “I think we mirrored everyone throughout the entire Northeast in terms of winter and conditions, but I do have to say that in terms of the quality of the snow on our hills, I think they were unparalleled.”

Whiteface opened November 20, a week ahead of schedule, and stayed open into April, far longer than many other resorts in New York state.

Mike Farmer, the town of Webb’s tourism director, said Old Forge received only seventy- four inches of snow, far below the two hundred inches it gets in an average winter. The town-run snowmobile system closed on March 10, and the local ski hill, McCauley Mountain, was open for only about sixty days, roughly forty fewer than normal.

“Except for about three weeks in the middle of the winter, or the non-winter, this season was all down,” Farmer said. “We never had sustained cold. We never had good, sustained snowfall on a regular basis, and that was reflected in both our snowmobile-permit sales and the traffic for winter recreation that comes through in the winter. The numbers were way down: snowmobilers and skiers.”

Webb partners with several other towns to run a snowmobile-trail system that encompasses about five hundred square miles. Sales of passes, which are required, were down about 20 percent this past winter.

Every winter Old Forge hosts a Snofest at which snowmobile manufacturers show off next year’s models and gear. This year’s Snofest took place the weekend of March 11-12, one day after the snowmobile trails shut down. Normally, the trails remain open until April 1. The festival drew about one-third the participants it normally does.“It was the first time [during] Snofest people were rolling in on motorcycles,” Farmer said. “But it’s a dedicated crew.”

Old Forge did see more economic activity in late January and early February, thanks to snow and sustained cold. “We got a lot of people because we had snowmobiling and skiing, and most of the state was not benefiting from that,” Farmer said. “So if they wanted to ski or snowmobile, they came here.”

Farmer also said local businesses got more customers than they could handle over the President’s Day holiday because the state allowed out-of-state snowmobilers to ride without a New York registration that weekend.

Another sign of the unusually warm winter is that the ice had melted on Mirror Lake in the village of Lake Placid by March 28, the second earliest ice-out ever recorded. (In 2012, ice-out was March 23.) The lake was covered by ice for only eighty-three days, which is believed to be a modern-day record, according to Brendan Wiltse, science director for the Ausable River Association. The average duration of ice cover is 140 days.

Lake Placid businesses did not starve as the Olympic Center hosted a number of indoor events, such as hockey tournaments and a Harlem Globetrotters basketball game. Salestax revenue in Essex County during the month of December was actually up $400,000 from the previous year to $1.7 million, according to Essex County Treasurer Michael Diskin. It was down only slightly in January and February.

But businesses that focus on outdoor recreation apparently had a tough winter. “If you don’t have snow, it really puts a kibosh on business,” said Brian Delaney, co-owner of High Peaks Cyclery. “It’s a challenge.”

Delaney said selling winter clothing was especially difficult. “I’m not making any money because everything is half-priced,” he said, adding the he was “trying to pay the bills and trying to keep staff on.”

Fat Tire Bike - Fat Bike - Mike Lynch photoHigh Peaks Cyclery made up for some of the lost revenues associated with skiing by promoting fat-tire bike rentals. Fat-tire bikes are able to ride over a variety of terrain, including snow and ice.

The Mountaineer also saw a slump in sales and rental of backcountry-ski and winter-mountaineering gear. “It’ a major downdraft,” said Vinny McClelland, the store’s owner. “I mean the winter has been bad enough. On top of that you have a really weak Canadian dollar, so all of that traffic has disappeared. It’s been a double whammy.”

Jim McKenna, head of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, said the occupancy rates and revenue of hotels and lodging was down in Essex County in December and January but rebounded in February, due in part to scheduled events such as the Empire State Winter Games.

One positive note: the region saw a good number of winter hikers. A total of 2,149 people signed the Van Hoevenberg Trail register at Adirondak Loj in January, a very high number for the month, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Indoor skating was also up at Olympic Center, where the indoor rink sold 7,333 tickets, up about 2,809 from the previous year.

Photos: Above, Whiteface Mountain Ski Area made snow on many trails, but part of the resort never opened; and below, a fat tire biker (photos by Mike Lynch).

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here

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Mike Lynch is a staff writer and photographer for the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly news magazine with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues. Mike’s favorite outdoor activities include paddling, hiking, fishing and backcountry skiing. In 2011, he paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine. From 2007 until 2014, Mike worked as an outdoors writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake. Mike welcomes story ideas and can be reached at

4 Responses

  1. Avon says:

    I can imagine, if not actually feel, the pain of the North Country in losing both an essential part of the annual experience (true winter) but also an essential part of the people’s livelihood (business.)

    I’ve been aware all winter that I’m part of the problem this winter, simply by not visiting – but it’s really hard to justify spending my one ski vacation where there’s little or no skiing!

    So I just want to let folks know that visitors like me aren’t uncaring; in fact, we’re sorry.

  2. Cranberry Bill says:

    What bothers me is the possible future fire danger. I was in the 5 ponds region last week April, first week May, and two inches under the wet leaves was (were) burnable material. 1960’s back woods ban – watch out.

  3. BillW says:

    I think all the conflict over snowmobile trails is misplaced. If you are anti-snowmobile all you have to do is wait around and they’ll be gone because there won’t be enough snow to use the machines. Of course lots of other things will be gone too, like x-cty skiing, but that is another story.

    The hamlet connectors may be fun anyway, a way to walk or bike thru the woods between hamlets is likely a good thing.

  4. Boreas says:

    Not to appear flippant or disrespectful of the situation, but does anyone know how a warming trend in the park would effect black-fly populations? just curious. I would sure hope it wouldn’t get worse.

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