Smugglers' Notch is usually a fluffy, frozen meringue of a mountain in winter, but on a Saturday morning in late January, it resembled a warm brownie sundae, with streaks of snow trickling like vanilla ice cream over chocolate-brown bare patches. The parking lot was a muddy mess, and a solitary skier muttered, "Is this ridiculous or what?" Behind the ticket counter, where business should have been booming, a boy in a brown Burton sweatshirt had fallen asleep with a schoolbook in his lap.
It was as if Chicken Little had scared everyone away. But the sky wasn't falling -- and that was precisely the problem. It hadn't dumped in days. Elsewhere, rivers were swollen, trails were slushy and rinks were rained out. Even though temperatures have since dropped, athletes and fitness buffs who rely on snow and ice have been grumbling about more than climate change lately.
"This weather is going to give me a coronary," says Rachael Miller, a Burlington snowkiting instructor whose business, Stormboarding, depends on storms of the snowy kind from December through April. "We need something that at least remotely resembles winter," she says.
Prior to the storm that just socked New York and Boston, but missed Vermont, it seemed that Jack Frost was vacationing out West. In Steamboat Springs, Colorado, snowpack was already at 135 percent of normal in January, leaving city officials scrambling for new places to put the snow. Utah's Alta ski area had 138 inches of snow on the ground. Stowe had 38.
Vermont's mean temperature for January was 26.2 degrees -- not exactly tropical, but way balmier than the average of 8.8 degrees in January 2004. While Punxsutawney Phil may have seen his shadow on February 2, predicting six more weeks of winter, maple syrup producers began tapping their trees six weeks early, thanks to some recent 60-degree days. And last month, Middlebury College students attempted to draw attention to global warming -- and its disastrous effects on the school's beloved broomball tradition -- with an event called "Get Outside Week: Celebrate Winter While It Lasts." Point well taken, as slush gave way to rain; winter seemed to have vanished.
Whether global warming or just a goofy weather pattern, "It's hard to ignore," says Bill Flack, a Hinesburg hockey player who's been forced to move his games indoors. "In the 20-plus years I've been here, I don't remember the warming patterns we've seen in recent years. It's both discouraging and frightening at the same time."
Ice anglers should be spooked, too, says John Hall, an information specialist for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. "This is the wildest winter with the worst ice I've seen in 38 years," he says. "We're urging the utmost caution to anyone considering going out on the ice."
By early February, there was barely enough ice on Lake Champlain for a little bit of snowkiting fun. Miller has lost plenty of opportunities for lessons. "Just the thought of going out in this weird weather turns people off," she says. "I'm usually a pretty steady girl, but I've been having a lot of unsteady moments lately."
Catamount Outdoor Center in Williston has repeatedly closed its kilometers of groomed trails; unlike alpine areas that can usually make snow if the temperature dips below zero at night, nordic areas must bank on Mother Nature.Catamount greets visitors to its website with the message, "Hello, Desperate Winter Sports Fans!" under a strin of "closed" announcements.
"In some places, whatever snow is left is pretty much ice," says Max Cobb, executive director of the New England Nordic Ski Association in Westford. "We were joking that if we could get a big Zamboni out, we could skate."
That's exactly what Jamie Hess and his crew of "nordic skaters" have been doing in the Connecticut River Valley. "We've had some of the best conditions in years," says Hess, who sells skates that clip onto cross-country boots from his Nordic Skater shop in Norwich. He also helps maintain a special, 2-mile-long skating trail on Lake Morey. "As long as it drops below freezing at night, it's ideal," Hess explains. "The biggest problem we usually have is too much snow, and that problem hasn't occurred this winter. And a big lake has its own microclimate, where it can be 10 or 20 degrees colder than it is onshore."
Hess reports that, with cross-country skiers switching gears, the number of nordic skaters has risen this winter. Cobb's crowd is mountain biking with spikes attached to their tires, and running and hiking with crampons. "We're addicted to getting outside," he says. "The Norwegians say there's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing, and that kind of rings true right now."
At the end of January, entrants in the Smugglers' Notch Primitive Biathlon nearly had to wear boots instead of snowshoes while firing their muzzleloaders, but organizer Ray Saloomey gave it a positive spin. "The shooting areas and some of the trails were in pretty rough shape," he says. "But the other side of the weather coin is that folks were able to spend hours at the site without regard to the temperature -- it made for a great social event."
There are 21 snow-going athletes with Vermont connections competing at the Torino Games. But could the warm winter of 2006 inspire outdoor athletes to consider a sport that doesn't rely on the white stuff? "We've been talking about going up to a curling club that's just over the Canadian border," says hockey-player Flack, whose extreme-sledding expeditions have also been wiped out by the weather. "None of us has any idea how to do the sport, but we thought it would be a great laugh to try it out. And there's a bar at the facility." Some winter pastimes never change.
It may be a moot point this winter, but rumors about the City of Burlington possibly plowing its bike path are all wet. "Nothing will happen this year," says Wayne Gross, director of Burlington Parks & Recreation. While he admits there have been discussions about clearing parts of the 7.6-mile recreational corridor, Gross points out a flurry of problematic logistics. In some sections, there would be no place to put the snow; other areas would remain icy, because Parks & Rec will not spread salt so close to Lake Champlain.
But money is the biggest issue: Clearing even a couple of miles would cost at least $10,000, says Gross. He adds that if Burlington voters don't approve the 1-percent sales-tax increase in March, a smooth surface for runners, walkers and bikers will be the least of his worries. "It's hard to think about doing anything new like [plowing] the bike path when we are faced with the possibility of layoffs and such in the coming months," Gross says. Meanwhile, two-wheeler advocate Local Motion is exploring ways to plow the path -- assuming the snow returns.