Lack of snow a sticking point for some Maine businesses

Posted Jan. 07, 2012, at 4:58 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 08, 2012, at 5:30 a.m.
Julian Kelly of Belmont (left) skates with his mother Gale Kelly at a public ice rink at the old Anderson School in Belfast on Saturday. Julian said that not having any snow is not at all fun as he can't build a snow fort or throw snowballs.
Julian Kelly of Belmont (left) skates with his mother Gale Kelly at a public ice rink at the old Anderson School in Belfast on Saturday. Julian said that not having any snow is not at all fun as he can't build a snow fort or throw snowballs. Buy Photo
Skiers at the Camden Snow Bowl Saturday morning. The facility opened this weekend after making enough snow for a few trails. The cold weather allowed ski areas with snow-making equipment to open trails even though there is no natural snow.
Skiers at the Camden Snow Bowl Saturday morning. The facility opened this weekend after making enough snow for a few trails. The cold weather allowed ski areas with snow-making equipment to open trails even though there is no natural snow. Buy Photo

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Christmas has come and gone. So has New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

And, to the consternation of many in Maine, what little snow has fallen in the state hasn’t stuck around either. Between 1 and 2 inches of snow fell Friday in southern Maine, with trace amounts elsewhere, but still the amount of snowfall for much of the state is below average for this time of year.

“It’s Mother Nature. She’s playing tricks on us, or something. Now it’s getting nerve-racking,” said Terry Hill, whose cash flow is nonexistent because her rental cabins are empty at Shin Pond Village, north of Baxter State Park, normally alive this time of year with the buzz of snowmobiles.

Nationwide, the lack of snow is costing tens of millions of dollars in winter recreation, restaurant, lodging and sporting goods sales, according to experts. In the West, a lack of snow could result in less-than-normal water being added this spring to the region’s reservoirs, which last winter benefited from above-average snowfall, some experts said.

The biggest factor so far this winter in Maine, however, has been the above-average temperatures. According to meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Caribou and in Gray, the average temperatures for the past two months have been roughly 5 degrees higher than historical averages in Bangor, Caribou and Portland.

For most of Maine, that difference has meant that temperatures for much of the young winter have been above 32 degrees, above the freezing mark.

The timing of the temperature changes also has played a big factor in the overall lack of snow cover during the past two months. Though several inches of snow fell around Halloween, and then Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, soon after each storm there have been warmer temperatures that have melted the white stuff or washed it away with rain.

Mike Kistner, a meteorologist at the weather service office in Gray, said Thursday that snowfall in southern Maine has lagged behind the northern part of the state. Only 9 inches of snow have fallen at the Portland Jetport since late October, he said, which averages about 18 inches each fall through December.

“We’re about half of average right now,” Kistner said. “Any snow we did get at the end of November melted really quickly.”

According to weather service meteorologists in Caribou, this winter’s dominant weather pattern has had storms tracking northwest of Maine, over the Saint Lawrence River valley. As a result, more warmer air has been tracking inland from the Gulf of Maine, which has kept temperatures above freezing more frequently.

“It’s pretty significant,” weather service meteorologist Todd Foisy said Thursday. “It’s not the warmest [November and December] on record, but it’s close.”

In Aroostook County, some business owners who depend on skiers and snowmobilers as customers say they have been hurt by the lack of snow. Snowmobile industry officials elsewhere in Maine and other northern New England states have indicated that the sooner snow builds up on the ground, the better.

Though not dependent on snow, the winter pastime of ice fishing has been hampered by temperatures that have prevented solid layers of ice on lakes and ponds.

Home heating fuel dealers also have been affected by the mild weather. Jamie Py, president of Maine Energy Marketers Association, said Friday that the sale of home heating oil has been relatively low, and not just because some people might be weatherizing their houses or using wood or pellet stoves.

“This is definitely warmer than usual,” Py said. “It’s actually helpful for the consumer that the temperature has been warm.”

Other businesses, however, can make do without snow from Mother Nature, and some even have benefited from the warmer temperatures. Some ski resorts and alpine recreational equipment retailers have said their sales have been good and others who work outdoors, such as landscaping firms, have said they’ve been able to extend their seasons because of the lack of frozen turf.

“Last week, we were still planting trees,” Sarah Stanley, a designer with Atlantic Landscape Construction in Ellsworth, said Thursday. “There’s been very little frost in the ground.”

Stanley said the firm usually can keep its seasonal employees busy each year until early December, when the ground typically freezes. This year, those employees were able to get in an extra month’s work.

“All work is good work,” Stanley said. “Hopefully, in the spring, we’ll be a step ahead.”

John Rock, owner of all three Arlberg Ski shops in Freeport, Scarborough and Gilford, N.H., said Thursday that his business has been doing well despite the lack of snow.

“We’re exceeding last year’s numbers,” Rock said. “It’s a passion. [Our customers] need to get out there on the mountain.”

Rock said die-hard skiers and snowboarders who frequent his business don’t need to see snow in their backyards to know that alpine resorts have been making their own snow and that lifts are open, he said.

“Snow making is here to stay. It’s incredible what they can do,” Rock said.

Bill Whitcomb, owner of Hermon Mountain in Hermon, said Saturday that his staff was having a busy day but otherwise they have been “losing their shirt” due to a lack of business, even though the mountain has been open. He said they can make snow at Hermon Mountain and have been doing so whenever they can. They’ve been using snow makers around the clock this past week.

“We started Tuesday at noon and never shut them down,” Whitcomb said.

For snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, however, there is no backup plan for lack of snowstorms.

Greg Tevanian, co-owner of West-Port Motorsports in Westbrook, estimated Thursday that business at his store has been down about 50 percent so far this season. Snowmobilers travel dozens of miles in a day, he said, and there is no snowmobile trail network in the state that has the resources to cover that kind of distance.

But it is early yet, he added. If “something comes out of nowhere,” he said, his business can still pick up.

“We’ve got the snow on order,” Tevanian said. “At least the cold is here.”

At Carter’s Cross-Country Ski Centers in Bethel and Oxford, about 45 miles of ski trails remain closed due to lack of sufficient snow, co-owner Anne Carter said Saturday. Not only do they not have snow or skiers, she said, they haven’t had customers at either of their retail shops.

“It’s very slow,” Carter said. ‘When you don’t have the snow, you don’t have the customers.”

Associated Press writer David Sharp contributed to this report.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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