On the path to spring, Laconia High School girls lacrosse players have started training with a run through Laconia Thursday afternoon. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)
By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — "I'm not sure just what season we're in," remarked Chris Haddock of CBH Landscaping Contractors, as a winter that left his snow plows idle for days on end drew to a close and the spring calling for his shovels, rakes and hoes called early.
The impact of the mild winter fell heaviest on winter recreation.
"This year we had the lowest attendance since modern snowmaking began in the 1980s," said Greg Goddard, general manager of Gunstock Mountain Resort. "This was by far the worst season since then."
He estimated that gross sales slid by about 25 percent, with lift tickets, skiing lessons and equipment rentals representing the largest share of the decrease.
Goddard recalled that the season began slowly in December, when warm days overcame snowmaking to thin the skiers on the slopes during the holidays. January he called "sketchy," apart from "a great Martin Luther King Day weekend." February was "OK" and March "the worst I've ever seen." He said that "we made more snow this year than last" to support school groups, racing leagues and skiing lessons, which were paid for in advance. And he said that the resort will be open this weekend for "a last hurrah."
The El Nino, Goddard explained, left New England on the rainy side of storms from the west while fending Nor'easters off shore and out to sea. He said that in the winter of 2011-12, the last year with an El Nino, which spawned the same weather pattern, the resort closed even earlier than this year.
"The only joy in my life, except for my wife," Goddard continued, " is that with the lack of snow and the warm temperatures, construction of the mountain coaster is two weeks ahead of schedule."
The newest attraction at the resort, the mountain coaster will carry riders in carts running on rails up to 30 feet above the ground, relying solely on gravity for speed, 2,660 feet downhill, around two circles and through sharp curves, at speeds up to 25 mph. Originally projected to open in the middle of July, Goddard said that with the short winter and early spring he hopes that it will be up and running by the Fourth of July.
Snowmobilers fared even worse.
"We never even opened the trails," said Jon Bossey, president of the Belknap Snowmobilers Inc. "We did all the pre-season work, putting up signs and stakes and building bridges," he said. "Now we're taking it down and putting it in storage." He said that with the warm temperature neither the ground nor the lakes froze to provide a sound footing for snowmobilers.
Bossey said that because snowmobilers generally do not register their machines until it snows and only then join a club, membership shrank from 480 a year ago to just 249. He said that with frugal financial management and without outstanding debt, the club easily weathered the loss of members.
However, Bossey said that while some 49,000 snowmobiles were registered with the state last year, the number fell short of 20,000 this year. The proceeds from registrations, he explained, fund the state's share of the cost of maintaining and improving the trails in partnership with the snowmobile clubs. Bossey said he anticipates the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department may be compelled to place a two-year moratorium on grants-in-aid, which would be unprecedented.
Lisa Meeken, who manages the HK Powersports dealership in Laconia, said that with strong sales in the fall "we're not sitting on a ton of unsold inventory." But, with so few snowmobilers riding, work in the service department slowed. She said that in a bust season snowmobilers might wait two weeks for repairs, but this year there were several weeks when machines were being serviced on demand.
The slow winter, Meeken said, enabled the dealership to get a jump on the summer season.
"We're two months ahead showing ATVs, motorcycles and even jet skis. She suspected the real impact of the mild winter could appear in the fall when snowmobilers, wary of another slow start to winter, delay their purchases.
The sugaring season was accelerated and foreshortened by the mild winter. Nathan Smith of Smith Farm Stand in Gilford, who taps some 800 trees, said that while some of his counterparts began tapping in late January or early February, he waited until the last week of February and suspects he could have started earlier.
"You've heard of January thaws," he remarked. "This year we've had a lot of them."
Smith said that if trees are tapped too soon, they begin to heal before the sap stops running. On the other hand, he noted that with warm temperatures in March, trees have begun to bud.
"Even if the sap is running, the trees are so far along the taste of the syrup would be affected."
With the long winter a year ago, he produced most of his syrup in April, while this year his season will end before the end of March.
"Its damaging," he said, estimating his output has dropped by a third.
Chris Haddock of CBH Landscaping Contractors said that with such light snowfall there was little plowing for his employees, who he retains on the payroll throughout the year.
"We did a lot of training and education this winter," he remarked. "We do some every winter, but this year we took advantage of the time to take it to a new level."
Haddock said that most often the firm contracts with its clients, mostly commercial enterprises, to plow for a set price for the season, explaining that a long, cold stormy winter works to the advantage of the client while a short, mild, dry winter works to the advantage of the firm. "We find that it all balances out over a three or four year period," he said. Despite less plowing work and lower operating costs, Haddock said the company "took a hit," but much less than other firms that charge each time they plow. f
Meanwhile, Haddock said his crews were still doing landscaping work in December and have gotten an early start this spring. "It's been a little hit or miss," he said, "but we're taking advantage of the weather to do what we can, mostly cleaning up and edging some mulch beds."
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