Jim Blaise had almost a full parking lot Sunday at his Royal Mountain Ski Area in Caroga Lake. It was the same on Friday and Saturday and Monday and Tuesday. It is amazing what a couple of snowstorms will do to bring out a crowd.
For much of the day, Blaise had to take the word of others about the crowd. He didn’t have much of a view from the grill in the lodge where he was busy flipping burgers — lots of burgers.
Do you think the chief executive at Aspen or Stowe were cooking hamburgers in the lodge over the holidays? But Blaise is living the life, just like the owners at other ski areas. Only in his case, and at hundreds of other small ski areas around the country, doing what has to get done on a busy day often means pitching in and doing it yourself.
This is an ode to local ski areas, the ones you don’t read about in the glossy magazines, but where the majority of people in our area learn to ski and have fun in winter when it snows. Royal isn’t alone around here. Willard, Maple Ski Ridge, West, Catamount, Plattekill and Oak Mountain have been hosting skiers for years.
“It looks like people here are having fun,” said one out-of-town guest from New Hampshire who happened to be visiting at Royal last week. “Nobody seems to be complaining.”
Blaise is clearly delighted.
“Two years ago, we had so much snow we were sick of plowing,” he said. “But every day over the holidays last week was better than any day last season.”
Blaise has been doing this since he bought Royal 40 years ago. For Laura O’Brien, whose family bought Oak Mountain in Speculator last summer, it is her first season. The holiday week?
“Awesome!” said O’Brien. “We had more than 30 inches of new snow, and we are at full operation.”
This is a great sign for the future. Small areas are where people learn to ski and board. It is where parents can bring their children on a winter day to learn that there is fun to be had year-round outside. Chances are, these smaller areas are closer to home, are less expensive to enjoy because of their size and offer an easy refuge inside if there is a need to warm up. And chances are, you’ll meet friends and neighbors there, which makes the whole experience even better.
Now glowing reports are not limited to small areas. The holiday storms were perfectly timed to provide great conditions when people had time off to enjoy them.
And enjoy them they did. At Gore Mountain, for instance, Emily Stanton, who has been in charge of marketing for the past 14 seasons, says it was the best holiday she can recall in her tenure.
“The holidays, the new snow, the stars were just aligned for us this year,” she said.
“On Friday, we had people parked all the way down our access road, and then we filled the lot at the North Creek Ski Bowl and ran shuttles to our main base area. On the mountain, our lift system and trail layout spread out the crowd. Conditions were great. The challenge was finding a parking spot.”
For one area winter enthusiast, the holidays this time around were unusually relaxing.
“I didn’t have to worry about the snowstorms. This time, I got a chance to enjoy them,” said former CBS6 meteorologist and winter sports enthusiast Neal Estano.
While many on-air folks in our area begin moaning about the coming of winter in October, Estano in his years on local television never made any bones about looking forward to skiing and other seasonal activities to come.
Last spring, he resigned and since then, the New Hampshire native has been a real estate representative in the area. He recalls what would happen at the station when a storm was projected.
“Our computer models would get early indications of a storm as much as a week in advance,” he said. “As it got closer, especially if it was a big storm that was expected mid-week, it would be full alert. Memos would go out, schedules would change. We would be staffed 24 hours a day.”
According to Estano, despite some “best of breed” promotional claims, all of the area stations are about the same when predicting storms.
“Everyone uses the same computer models and rely primarily the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] data,” Estano said. “There is an art to it. But overall, everyone does a good job.”
And what happens if you miss?
“If you are right, te glow lasts about a week,” he said. “If you blow a forecast, they remember forever.”
At this time a year ago, John Napier was back from a tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and driving the USA 2 sled on the World Cup bobsled tour. At 26, he had already competed in one Winter Olympics, and with one World Cup victory under his belt, he was widely believed to be an important part of the future of his sport in the country.
Then he had a change of heart. Last spring, he announced he was retiring from the sport and would commit to the military, where he wanted to be a member of the elite Army Ranger or Navy Seal programs.
It hasn’t happened.
These days, Napier is living in Schenectady and using military benefits from his first tour of duty to study at Schenectady County Community College.
While awaiting a military assignment last summer, Napier suffered a major injury while waterskiing. He ruptured his hamstring, ripping the tendons off his hip. He had surgery within a week and spent six weeks in rehab, where he could only stand or lie down — no sitting.
“The extent of my injury is rare,” said Napier. “The big question now is, can I be fit enough to do what I planned in the military? If not, I won’t do it where other lives may be on the line.”
And what about a bobsled comeback? After all, he is still a young man in a sport where the top drivers are often well into their 30s.
“I won’t rule it out. I am training just in case to see if my body will hold up. But right now, I have no plans to return to competition.”
Kikkan Randal, the “Kikkanimal,” turned 30 on New Year’s Eve, and the three-time U.S. Olympian with 17 national championships and five World Cup victories already under her belt, is already the most accomplished cross country ski athlete in U.S. history, certainly since Vermont’s Bill Koch won a silver medal at the 1976 Winter Olympics.
But talk about flying under the radar. Even veteran cross country aficionados in our area, when asked, draw a blank when her name is mentioned. I guess she’ll have to win a medal at Sochi next year to get the general recognition her achievements deserve.
Just a suggestion to the fast-talking young blonde snowboarder who replaced Herb Stevens as the weekly snow reporter on a local channel this winter: Please wear a helmet, at least while on air.
Halley O’Brien’s reports are seen by a lot of viewers each week, and if she can help deliver the safety message by wearing this proven piece of protective gear, then she will be providing a service to all who take to the slopes.
All savvy skiers and riders know that the best way to save money is to check online before heading to the slopes. General sites like Liftopia and SnoCountry are good places to look, while just about every area has a website that lists special deals.
Two to check out this week are “Super Sunday” at Whiteface, where a day ticket is just $40, and “Take Your Kids to Gore” week, where kids ski free (no limit on numbers) when accompanied by a parent who buys a full-price lift ticket. The promotion starts Monday and runs through the following Sunday.