Seven Days
January 9, 2013

It’s been a good year — so far — for Vermont’s cross-country ski areas, thanks to the biggest snowfall since March 2011. But a growing number of Nordic centers are betting such snows will soon be the exception, not the rule, in Vermont.

And they’re betting big. In anticipation of climate change, a half dozen cross-country ski centers, from Craftsbury to Grafton, have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in snowmaking machinery. That’s a huge outlay for operations that generally struggle to remain solvent even in snowy winters. The choice, as they see it: Spend today or die tomorrow.

Snowmaking has become “a necessity” for Nordic centers in Vermont, especially those at lower elevations, says Jim Fredericks, director of the Catamount Trail Association. “If you don’t do it, you’re dead in the water.”

Rewards may await those operations that do offer a manufactured surrogate for an increasingly scarce natural commodity (recent snowfall notwithstanding). Snowmaking could eventually enable some cross-country ski areas to enjoy economic benefits similar to those reaped by Vermont downhill resorts following their introduction of snow guns 40 years ago.

“It’s going to pay for itself,” Mike Hussey predicts in regard to the nearly $1 million snowmaking system now being installed at Middlebury College’s cross-country ski area in Ripton. The director of Midd’s Rikert Nordic Center predicts, It will double our skier visits, easily.”

Sleepy Hollow Inn, Ski and Bike Center has already diversified — as its name suggests. And it just added snowmaking equipment. The $60,000 array can’t provide anything close to the coverage Hussey plans to lay down at Rikert. But the capacity to produce only 600 meters of artificial snow could still make a big difference to the Huntington facility, says events coordinator Molly Peters. “We lost at least $60,000 in visits last year due to the poor snow,” she reckons, noting that Sleepy Hollow clocked only a dozen days of good skiing in the 2011-12 season.

The Craftsbury Outdoor Center started making snow 14 months ago and has already registered substantial gains as a result. Skiers were able to glide and skate around the center’s 1.5-kilometer machine-made loop starting Thanksgiving weekend — well before all but a couple of Vermont cross-country centers were able to open.

“Craftsbury is doing a phenomenal job of snowmaking — the best in the state so far,” comments Fredericks, whose 30-year-old Nordic trail association includes 2000 dues-paying members. “They held two races there this season with no natural snow, and every room there was filled. That’s 500 people who wouldn’t have come to Craftsbury otherwise.”

Those guests provide spin-off benefits to other businesses in that corner of the Northeast Kingdom, adds Judy Geer, co-owner of the Craftsbury center.

She and her husband, Concept 2 indoor rowing machine manufacturer Dick Dreissigacker, have put Craftsbury into a league led by the Mountain Top Inn & Resort in Chittenden and Grafton Ponds Outdoor Center, which pioneered cross-country snowmaking 20 years ago.

“We realized in the early ’90s that it would make Grafton unique,” says Wendell Rogers, who works at the cross-country ski center owned by the Windham Foundation. Sure enough, skiers from near and far schuss to Grafton when the ground is bare almost everywhere else.

“People will drive long distances to ski here,” Rogers notes — even though they’ll be confined to a single kilometer of Grafton’s 100-kilometer trail network. That little loop has proved a big money maker. Last winter, which was pretty much a bust at Vermont ski areas dependent on the real thing, “was actually one of our better seasons,” Rogers reports.

Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe began making snow on a thin slice of meadow five years ago. Proprietor Johannes von Trapp says he was persuaded to take the initiative after his son, Sam, told him about snowmaking innovations at cross-country centers in Europe. It wasn’t a self-evident decision for the elder von Trapp, who qualifies as a climate-change skeptic.

“Bill McKibben has whipped up a lot of hysteria,” he says about the Vermont-based prophet of global warming. The shortfall of snowfall in recent winters should be seen as the product of a weather pattern similar to the cold-season droughts that left Vermont bare in the late ’70s, von Trapp suggests. “I can remember some really poor winters 40, 45 and 50 years ago,” he says.

Jim McCullough, whose family has lived in Williston for generations, also recalls a winter so barren in 1979 that his Catamount Family Center managed to support skiing for a grand total of three days. But McCullough doesn’t doubt that climate change is occurring — and appears to be accelerating.

He laments that consistently warmer temperatures and more powerful solar radiation forced him a few years ago to abandon an outdoor ice-skating rink that the center had built, at considerable cost, a decade earlier. Catamount was open to skiers 12 days last season — not nearly enough to cover expenses, McCullough notes. He says he knows that snowmaking could bring salvation for a center situated in Vermont’s most populous county, but the capital expenditure is beyond his means. “Middlebury College can afford to do it at Rikert’s. The Windham Foundation can afford to do it at Grafton. I can’t afford to do it here,” he says.

Rikert director Hussey contends owners of low-elevation centers such as Catamount “can’t afford not to do it.” The market, as well as the climate, will push holdouts into making the financial leap, he predicts. “Cross-country is exactly where downhill was 40 years ago,” says Hussey, who ran a snowmaking business prior to coming to Rikert. “People then were saying, ‘I’ll never get skiers to ski on man-made snow.’ Well, those kinds of skiers can still go to Mad River Glen, I suppose, but most everyone else will tell you they actually prefer skiing on the man-made stuff.”

Leigh Mallory, who’s been a Nordic devotee for many of his 62 years, has come to appreciate not only the availability of manufactured snow but also its texture. “It’s generally faster,” Mallory says of Craftsbury’s machine-produced loop. “I love it.”

He must, given that Mallory made the 120-mile round-trip drive from his home in Colchester six times between Thanksgiving and Christmas. As a former coach of Colchester High School’s Nordic ski team, Mallory also appreciates the opportunities Craftsbury offers to young Vermont cross-country ski-team members who can arrange transport to the outdoor center.

“Busloads” of student skiers do come to Craftsbury whenever it’s the only operating Nordic center in northern Vermont, co-owner Geer notes. An added reason for its popularity is that she and Dreissigacker don’t charge school ski teams to use the 1.5-kilometer loop.

“Our mission calls for us to promote participation in cross-country skiing,” Geer explains. The couple operates Craftsbury as a nonprofit enterprise.

But apart from ski geeks and athletes, who would drive an hour or more to spin round and round a white loop encircled by brown?

“It’s not much fun,” Grafton’s Rogers admits. Hussey adds that skiing in circles in a meadow “isn’t going to attract the people who want to be out in nature and maybe see some wildlife.”

It’s no different than a runner who uses a track, Mallory points out. “You also get to meet people” on the Craftsbury loop, which may contain 50 or more skiers at one time, he says. “You ski with someone once around and then you might ski with someone else another time around.”

For Hannah Miller, another Craftsbury regular, skiing on artificial snow “definitely beats roller-skiing on a road.” Miller, 18, credits Craftsbury with helping her become the state’s high school Nordic champion two years ago. A homeschooler, she has made the trip from her home in Elmore many times — even more frequently now that snow can be found there whenever the temps dip into the 20s.

Craftsbury’s technique may one day be seen as the most primitive method of cross-country snowmaking. The center’s stationary guns spew out enough snow to form a mound several stories high. Mini-bulldozers spread the pile into a loop, which is then packed and groomed.

Rikert’s pricier system — funded largely by an alum of Middlebury College, the center’s owner — is more sophisticated, Hussey says. Electric-powered guns strung along a feeder pipe loft snow into place all along the five-K course.

Snowmaking does use a lot of water as well as energy. And such large-scale consumption of resources may seem paradoxical for a sport that colors itself deep green.

Most centers that have adopted the technology rationalize it on the grounds that the water drawdowns have received requisite state approval and that they’ve all instituted various energy-saving measures.

Craftsbury, however, has gone further; it walks the eco-talk. Waste heat from the center’s biodiesel-fueled generator is being used to warm the center’s biggest building, Geer notes. It’s part of a plan to heat the entire facility without reliance on fossil fuels.

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