Winter Wonderland? Not In New England

fromMPBN

Unseasonable temperatures and lack of snow have a lot of New Englanders singing the blues. In Maine, snowmobiling, ice fishing and Nordic skiing are a big part of the winter economy. Downhill ski areas are making due with man-made snow, but those other industries have no choice but to wait for Mother Nature.

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The mild winter, with its lack of snow and ice, has delayed some of the Northeast region's lucrative cold-weather pastimes. Alpine ski resorts have ramped up their snowmaking, so they're doing OK. But the cross country skiing, snowmobiling and ice fishing seasons are off to a slow start. Maine Public Radio's Jay Field has more.

JAY FIELD, BYLINE: So I'm standing on the edge of Lake St. George. This lake is a prime spot for ice fishing. They're Brook Trout, Landlocked Salmon. And usually at this time of year, the lake is completely frozen over and dotted with ice fishing shacks. This morning, though, it's tiny slivers of ice, but mostly open water, as far as the eye can see.

HANK HOLDEN: There's whitecaps out there, which is unusual - very unusual.

FIELD: Hank Holden sells bait and tackle at Liberty Sports, just up the hill from the lake near Maine's mid coast. Holden, who's a fisherman himself, says this is the longest it's taken for ice to form in the thirteen years since he opened his store.

HOLDEN: Typically, in a normal year, by mid-December some of the smaller ponds are available for ice fishing and they have plenty of ice on them.

FIELD: This year, smaller ponds have only recently started to freeze over into sheets of ice that are thick enough to fish on. It's the same story across much of the Northeast, where people were anticipating a bruising winter filled with bitterly cold days and heavy snowfall, after a couple of late autumn storms. Steve Capriola is a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

STEVE CAPRIOLA: For the most part, the cold air has been staying way up in Canada and it just hasn't had the opportunity to surge southward.

FIELD: The lack of snowfall, at a time when ice is thin, has been a blessing for at least one group of people. Colonel John MacDonald is with the Maine Warden Service, which oversees outdoor recreation in the state's vast northern woods.

COLONEL JOHN MACDONALD: So we don't have the snowmobiles out on the trails and intersecting with the trails that cross lakes and things. So we don't have that traffic to worry about.

FIELD: But one man's peace and quiet is another man's angst.

BOB MEYERS: Well, we're doing our snow dance everyday and we're encouraging everybody else to do the same.

FIELD: Bob Meyers, with the Maine Snowmobile Association, says with little to none of the white stuff, the sport is at a virtual standstill. The industry brings in an estimated $350 million a year statewide. It's an especially big part of the economy in Aroostook County in Northern Maine.

MEYERS: A lot of these small towns that are relying on this activity in the winter time, it's very disappointing for them.

FIELD: Nationwide, the lack of snow is responsible for millions of dollars in lost winter recreation, lodging, restaurant and sporting goods revenue.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER)

FIELD: Hank Holden's cash register hasn't been ringing enough lately. Sales are down around 50 percent. He shows me a popular item during a good year.

HOLDEN: This is made for drilling holes in ice.

FIELD: It's a gas-powered ice auger - a machine with a large spiral blade the size of a jackhammer. Fishermen use them to bore holes through the ice when it gets to be two or three feet thick or more.

HOLDEN: Most people that are ice fishing can get through the three or four inches of ice we've got with hand chisels, hand augers.

FIELD: The last few days in Maine have been colder. But there's little to no snow in the forecast and in some places the mercury tomorrow could top out in the high 40s.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Field.

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