RUMFORD — This winter had all the makings of a mean snow season, starting with the rare Halloween nor'easter that dumped 20 inches on Maine and record-breaking snow for October across New England.
Meteorologists got out their record books then, and again last week as unprecedented record-breaking heat prompted runs on lawn and garden supplies and lumber for home-improvement projects.
The Halloween storm was followed by about a foot of snow just before Thanksgiving. Who knew that was pretty much it? Or that ski resorts would have to make the bulk of their snow to pull a decent season out of warmer-than-usual thin air?
Rumford Town Manager Carlo Puiia said he couldn't remember a winter like this one.
“You know, it's kind of ironic, because we had a snowstorm the day before Halloween and we had one the day before Thanksgiving and we thought, 'Oh, my God, we're in for it,” Puiia said. “This has certainly been an untypical year for everybody, I think. This is the first winter where I can say that it didn't seem long. It didn't seem to drag out.”
Few would disagree, but whether that is good or bad depends on your passion and your profession. Snowmobilers, skiers, other cold-weather enthusiasts and the industries that supply and support them give the winter's mild appearance a chilly review.
But to others, from boat dealers and ATV sellers to lawn and garden shop owners and budget-minded town road foremen, the weather is providing an unexpected, early-season economic boost.
Central Maine Powersports owner Craig Anderson said his Lewiston shop tends to see a shift from winter to spring buying at the end of February; this year, customers were selecting ATVs and motorcycles in mid-February.
He said the mild winter "generated extra business" as people starting thinking about spring weather sooner than usual. In addition, more people seemed willing to spend money this year.
"I think that people are tired of waiting, and I don't know that they have overconfidence, but people are buying new things more this year than they had been," Anderson said.
He said the mild winter resulted in a 10 to 15 percent drop in snowmobile sales, but "it's not like that stopped business."
Sales of ATVs have increased "because we haven't had reliable winters and you have to travel to snowmobile nowadays, and it becomes more expensive," Anderson said. Also, he said, customers are recognizing that ATVs have become more of a year-round vehicle.
Kayaks flying out the door
The warm weather also has brought customers to Al's Sports on Lisbon Street earlier than usual, with an unexpected number of kayak sales this month.
According to owner Kathy Simpson, "We've been a ski and boat shop since 1964, and this winter was dead. We've never had a winter like that. Ever."
But the recent warm weather, she said, has resulted in hot sales. "People are coming in to buy boats because they know they can get out on the water earlier than usual."
Simpson has sold nine kayaks in the past 10 days. In a normal year, people might buy kayaks as Christmas gifts and then not again until mid-February when "they start getting the itch, and we'd sell three or four."
But this year, she's never seen such a rush for boats so early in the season.
"Our front doors have been constantly open for a week," she said. "They're coming here in shorts and they're buying stuff."
Simpson said she closed her shop at 5 p.m. on Thursday, as usual, and was in bed at the unusually early hour of 7 p.m. "I was exhausted," she said.
"This is going to help Maine as a whole," she said, aware that other boat dealers and local bike shops are as busy as she is.
On Friday, most of the ice had melted from Lake Auburn and the public dock was in place, although fishing is not permitted there until April 1.
Records on ice-out dates at the lake have been kept since 1836, and only three times before this year has the ice gone in March (1981, 2006 and 2010).
(For a current list of ice-out dates in local lakes and ponds, go to: http://tinyurl.com/7aoupmk).
Fearing spring cleanup jinx
Despite the recent atypical temperatures in the 80s, Rumford's Puiia doesn't trust Mother Nature not to pull a fast one come April or May.
“We don't want to jinx anything, because we're having our spring cleanup this year and people have been asking us to move it up, and I said, 'I don't dare to,' because if I do, we're sure to get a storm that would need to be plowed,” Puiia said.
Still, the reduced snowfall boosted the Public Works budget by limiting overtime.
But where Rumford has saved money, the Maine Department of Transportation hasn't in western Maine.
Overtime costs are down, Region 3 Manager Norm Haggan in Dixfield said, but material costs rose.
“The winter as a whole, our budget's running about normal because we had so many ice storms and those eat up a lot of salt,” Haggan said. “We spent, I think, $1.4 million on salt, and that's our huge expense.”
He does, however, expect to realize a savings in cold asphalt, which is used to repair potholes and damaged roads from frost heaves.
“The frost is coming out of the ground fast,” Haggan said. “That's going to save a lot on our cold patch this year. I'd say it's going to cut it down by 50 percent if we can keep this weather going."
"Usually, March can be brutal for frost heaves," said Bob Marine, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray. "But it's been uneventful."
Puiia's brother Tom, who owns Puiia Lumber and Hardware in Mexico, said their sales of snow shovels and other winter gear were down.
But last week's heat and noticeable lack of biting insects boosted early sales of lawn rakes and lumber for deck packages.
At Aubuchon Hardware in Rumford, clerk Elly Taylor said they were selling a lot of fertilizers and lawn and potting soil.
"Everybody's starting to get the itch," she said.
Ski resorts: Don't count your Easter chickens ...
But some don't believe winter has run its course.
"We've still got a good four weeks of potential storms and we've had pretty big storms in May before, so it ain't over 'til it's over,” Haggan said.
Sugarloaf Mountain ski resort spokesman Ethan Austin agreed.
“If this winter has taught us anything, it's that anything can happen with the weather,” he said. “So, we're not counting out April snow at this point.”
The resort will remain open at least through Reggae Fest, which is April 12 through 15, snow or no snow.
“If it's still ski-able beyond that, we'll stay open,” Austin said. “But one thing I keep reminding people of is, in 2007 we got 95 inches of snow in April. So the season's not over yet, hopefully.”
That snowfall amount could not be verified, but Mike Kistner, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Gray, said it "could have been possible." Nearby Eustis recorded 52.1 inches of snowfall in April 2007, Kistner said.
U.S. Forest Service snow rangers are warning skiers that the current conditions at Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington in New Hampshire more closely match what visitors might expect to see in late April or May, including potential hazards of falling ice, undermined snow and crevices. If there is a late-season snowfall, the hazards could include avalanches.
According to Ranger Jeff Lane, when it comes to falling ice, "we want people to understand that we're not talking about the ice you put into your Ginger Ale. The blocks of ice that fall can be as large as a school bus, and they can explode into thousands of pieces flying in every direction when they hit rocks."
The record heat last week prompted Sugarloaf General Manager John Diller into reassuring people via the resort's Facebook site Thursday that they're not giving up.
“We've never seen weather like this,” Diller said. “While I can't say with any certainty what the weather has in store for us over the next month, I can assure you of this: We are the 'king of spring' and we will do whatever it takes to keep skiing. If temperatures get cold enough, we have not ruled out firing up our snow-making system again."
To date, the Carrabassett Valley resort has received 105 inches and has made snow on about 65 days since opening in November, Austin said. Normally, the mountain sees about 200 inches of snow during the season.
With so little snow in December, the biggest impact on the resort was around Christmas week.
“It was just such a warm month and hardly any natural snowfall at all, so that just put us behind and we've been playing catch-up ever since,” Austin said.
That said, business was great in February and in the past several weeks.
“We actually had our busiest day in the last three years a couple weeks ago on a Sunday, and last weekend it was really busy,” Austin said.
“I think what we saw with the lack of early-season snow, there was a lot of pent-up demand, so any time the weather was nice or we got a little bit of natural snow, people just came out and gobbled it up. We're down a little bit, but overall, not nearly as bad as you'd think,” he said.
Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry also will remain open into April, spokeswoman Sarah Devlin said Thursday morning by email.
At 87 inches, Sunday River received less natural snow than Sugarloaf but made up for it by making snow on 100 days after opening trails in October.
“This means we have enough snow to stand up against this recent warm spell,” Devlin said.
Too late in the season for some
But for snowmobiling and clubs that must groom snow to receive state money two years from now, it's been a bust.
Rumford Polar Bears Snowmobile Club Treasurer Bob Stickney said trails didn't get enough snow to start the season until Jan. 20, about two weeks later than usual.
And it ended all too soon last week, three weeks ahead of the normal time. Additionally, membership was down 15 percent. Stickney attributed that to the snowfall, fuel prices and reduced sled registrations.
Bill Swan at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said the department is estimating that annual snowmobile registrations will total 75,000 for the just-passed season, which is 15,000 less than average.
Stickney doesn't share Austin's or Diller's optimism for snowfall next month.
"It would take a foot and a half of snow before we'd be able to ride again, so I'd say it's done," he said.
Meteorologist Bob Marine attributed the lack of snowfall to a flat atmospheric pattern, wherein most of the polar weather remained far to the north.
And last week, a dome of high pressure stretching as far as James Bay on the southern end of the Hudson Bay in Canada brought in "unprecedented" heat, Marine said.
"There's been summers where we haven't had this many days of 80s in a row and there's been summers where we've never hit 80 degrees," Marine said.
He said Maine's weather for March is stuck out West in a trough that dumped 20 inches of snow on Arizona last week and punched up the ridge of high pressure over New England.
"They're supposed to be warm and we're supposed to be cold, and everything's reversed right now," Marine said. "It's crazy."
But weather patterns can and do change, which is why he's recommending that people wait for April before planting peas.
"If we were to get into the trough that's on the West Coast right now, if that shifted east, we'd be in a really different pattern and things can change dramatically," Marine said.