Weather disrupts recreation activities

Region's ski resorts struggling, golf courses busy

Slow business for snow business

January 06, 2007|By Candus Thomson and Roch Kubatko | Candus Thomson and Roch Kubatko,Sun Reporters

From the bottom of Dipsy Doodle to the top of White Lightning, crowds are as scarce as snowflakes at Liberty Mountain ski resort, an hour northwest of Baltimore.

Since the start of the season last month, it has been all downhill for Liberty and its nearby sister operations - Ski Roundtop and Whitetail Resort - and not in a good sense.

No rail jams. No hot dog races. No learn-to-ski days.

"I've been in this business nearly 30 years, and I've never seen anything quite like this," said Eric Flynn, Liberty's general manager. "It's a strange cycle, and it's gone on longer than any I can remember."

Amateur and professional athletes nationwide have had to adjust after getting the warm shoulder from Mother Nature. Fishermen on the Chesapeake Bay are still reeling them in. Ice-fishing tournaments in the Midwest have been canceled. East Coast golf courses are packed, and joggers who normally cut back in the winter have no excuses.

Unseasonably high temperatures - it could top 70 degrees today - and a paucity of snow have kept most ski areas along the Eastern Seaboard from filling their chair lifts.

With the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday next weekend, traditionally one of the busiest for the area's ski areas, operators are standing by with one eye on the thermometer and a finger on the trigger of the snow-making guns.

Flynn says his idle mountain crews are ready to roll the second the temperature drops below freezing.

"Everybody's champing at the bit," he said. "They want to show what they can do."

Right now, Steve Peterson could use some of Flynn's hired hands.

The general manager at Bay Hills Golf Club in Arnold sent his staff home in December, figuring he wouldn't need them until spring. But the year that began warm only got warmer, and golfers sprouted like fairway grass.

"It's absolutely great for business," Peterson said. "Operationally, it's difficult. We plan on not being busy."

Bay Hills, which usually has 30 golfers a day playing this time of the year, had about 120 Thursday, a number more in line with a crisp, sunny day in October, said Peterson.

It has been the same elsewhere.

"These people are coming out of the woodwork," said Jerry Davis, a pro at Mount Pleasant Golf Course in Baltimore, who estimated a 45 percent to 50 percent increase over the norm. "We were booked solid [Thursday] from 7:30 to after 1. There were no open times. We're getting a lot of walk-ons. They want their last hurrah of the year."

This weekend's tee times at Diamond Ridge Golf Course in Woodlawn are booked solid until after 1:30 p.m.

"It's been ridiculous," said club pro Frank Blind. "The regulars never stay away. But now you get that warm weather, and there's everybody that has their Christmas presents and they can't wait to try them."

Granted, conditions aren't like a summer day. Frost on the fairways and greens delays the first tee times until about 10 a.m., and the days are shorter, so it's more difficult for players to find time.

"You only have three or four hours to get people on the golf course," said Hank Majewski, the owner of Wakefield Valley Golf Club in Westminster.

But pity the folks who got skis or snowboards as presents and families that head for the slopes during school vacation.

"We've got some white, but nothing you can get to," said Katrina Gayman, director of marketing and sales at Whitetail, in Mercersburg, Pa. "The little piles of white don't connect anymore."

A little farther north in Lewisberry, Pa., Ski Roundtop has tried to open evenings for skiing and snowboarding despite "thin areas and bare spots," as its Web site warns. To compensate, the resort dropped the price of an adult night lift ticket from $29 to $25.

Farther west, Wisp Resort at Maryland's Deep Creek Lake has had at least a dozen trails open since Dec. 8, but that's because of cooler temperatures there and the foresight of the mountain operations crew, said events manager Lori Epp.

"A big shout out to our mountain ops guys who stockpiled snow in December. They're the ones keeping us alive," she said. "We're extremely lucky."

Location is everything at Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort, just outside Cumberland. Situated in one of the state's driest areas, the resort doesn't count on the vagaries of winter weather. Any minimal drop-off in lodging by the ski crowd passing through has been more than offset by the prolonged golf and outdoor recreation season, said Lyn Locke, director of sales and marketing.

"In December 2005, we had 90 rounds of golf. Last month we had 710 rounds, an 800 percent increase. The trend is continuing in the first four days of this month. People are golfing and hiking and horseback riding," he said.

Some long-range forecasts show Mid-Atlantic temperatures starting to slide by midweek.

"We're far from saying we're done," said Whitetail's Gayman. "Unfortunately, when we can start making snow, we'll be starting from scratch."

Beginners' slopes need less than a foot of cover; expert trails require closer to two feet.

"Once the temperature drops, it will take two to three days to open a significant number of trails," said Liberty Mountain's Flynn. "You'll be surprised how quickly we can go from green to white."

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