DANVILLE, Vt. – Jane Larrabee didn’t have to shovel snow off the roof of her cottage for three years.

Maple sugar maker Burr Morse Jr. can no longer predict when the sap will start running in his farm’s 3,000 maple trees. In recent years, warm weather has tricked trees into believing it’s springtime, prompting runs in January instead of March.

Janisse Ray, 45, an outdoor recreation buff, was so frustrated by winter’s late arrival this year, she organized a water-borne Jan. 5 protest, joining three friends in wet suits and inner tubes to float down the West River, under a sign saying “Where’s winter?”

Whatever the cause, winter isn’t what it used to be in this part of the world. Erratic weather in recent years has wreaked havoc on New England and its outdoor culture, turning tradition on its earmuff. Ice festivals have been canceled, ski seasons delayed and snowmobile races scrapped for lack of snow.

While winter’s fury hasn’t abandoned New England entirely – witness the Valentine’s Day snowstorm that dumped up to three feet of snow on Vermont and areas of Maine, and Friday’s winter storm that swept across the Northeast – many folks still say winters are changing.

And for those used to 10 months of winter and two months of bad sledding, it’s a jolt.

“People are really scratching their heads, wondering what’s going on,” said bait vendor George LeClair, 59, who sells to ice fishermen.

Historically, winter arrives in New England well before the calendar says it does, with ski resorts opening in mid-November and staying open through April. But warm weather on both ends of the season spelled trouble last year, with rains washing out trails last spring and 40-degree weather forcing Killington, Okemo Mountain Resort and other resorts to postpone their openings.

Many Maine resorts postponed their opening this season to mid-December, as mild temperatures forced snow-dependent industries into an agonizing waiting game. Sugarloaf/USA and Sunday River churned ahead with November openings, largely due to their arsenal of powerful snow-making equipment.

This season at 4,350-foot Mt. Mansfield, home to Stowe Mountain Resort, only a half inch of snow fell in the entire month of November, a record. December wasn’t much better, with Burlington posting the second-warmest December on record and ski resorts suffering through a green Christmas.

Winter didn’t arrive in earnest until the last week of January, plunging much of the state into single-digit cold. The area’s first major snowfall came in February, not December, which ski areas around Western Maine toasted as “champagne snow.” Open trails at some resorts doubled with the snowfall, while others – like Mt. Abram, in Greenwood – could boast the opening of its entire trail network for the first time in two full years.

Reverse cabin fever

Warmer temperatures are part of the reason for these snowy celebrations.

The average winter temperature in New England as a whole increased by 4.4 degrees between 1970 and 2000, compared with a 0.1 degree increase in the average temperatures of the other three seasons, according to the 1National Climatic Data Center.

That, in turn, has helped stifle big snowstorms – the mother’s milk of outdoor sports.

All the inconsistency has had an effect – on people and tradition. For some, it’s like cabin fever – in reverse.

“I’m an outdoorsy person, very physical,” said Ray. “To me, winter is outdoor snow activites. This year, it’s been heartbreaking for me.”

This year, people were golfing in December and January in Maine.

On Jan. 6, the temperature reached 67 degrees in Portland – an all-time high for the month.

“We haven’t had cold weather for so long that it feels cold,” said Mark Gatti, who sells hot dogs from a cart in downtown Portland.

This year, he worked full-time right through January, missing nary a day due to weather.

Lack of snow kept Arnold Rainville off his Polaris Super Sport until February.

“Usually, we’re out December 15th, that’s when the season starts,” said Rainville, 64, of Lyndonville, while heading out with his wife, Sherry, from a snow-covered parking lot of Martin’s 1st Stop. “We’re typical Vermonters. We love the snow.”

In Brookfield, organizers had to postpone the annual Brookfield Ice Harvest because the ice on 21-acre Sunset Lake was only six inches thick, not enough to support the hundreds of people who come to see ice-cutting contests, ice-sculpting displays and ice-hauling competitions.

It was the third cancellation in the 27-year history of the event, and the second in 10 years.

Winter’s slow start also had folks guessing at Joe’s Pond, the site of an “Ice Out” contest each spring. In it, people pay $1 to guess the date and time when a cinder block placed on the frozen lake will fall through.

“We were beginning to think we might need an ice-in contest,” said Jane Brown, secretary of the Joe’s Pond Association, which runs the event. Last year, the cinder block fell through April 16, tying for earliest ever in the 20-year history of the event.

Larrabee, 58, who runs Hastings Store nearby, doesn’t miss having to shovel snow from her summer cottage’s roof. But she misses the winters of yore.

“They haven’t been up to snuff,” she said, standing in the store one day before the Valentine’s Day blizzard. “We haven’t had one of those wonderful snowstorms where you stay inside and hunker down and just let Mother Nature do her thing,” said Larrabee.

“We all miss it,” said Diane Jejer, 50, of Peacham, who was working for Larrabee behind the counter at Hastings Store. “The kids don’t go out to play as much. If it was 5 feet of snow and 20 below, people would still be out in it.”

Psychological damage?

Cross-country skiers know the feeling.

The New England Nordic Ski Association had to cancel two races scheduled for mid-December at Stowe because there was no snow to ski on. Executive Director Patrick Cote fears that’s a sign of things to come.

“As an organization, we certainly have to adapt. For the athletes, it means spending more time on dry land, training on roller skis. For the venues, it means ways to figure out to make snow and spread it around,” he said.

For Morse, 58, an eighth-generation sugarmaker whose ancestors learned the art from native Americans, changing winters mean unpredictable sap runs. Time was that Vermont sugarmakers would start tapping at Town Meeting day – the first Tuesday of March – because that’s when the “sugaring” weather arrived.

Now, with 40-degree days and sub-freezing nights occurring in December and January, it’s hit or miss.

“Every year is a guessing game, especially with these changes in the atmosphere. It used to be by the calendar. Now, it’s by the weather.”

Global warming expert Bill McKibben, who lives in Middlebury, says the biggest toll from changing winters may be psychological.

“We’re very used to the idea that winter is not only a distinct and powerful season, but it’s probably the most distinct and powerful season in our minds. People used to say Vermont was 10 months of winter and two months of bad sledding.

“Now, it’s two months of bad sledding and 10 months of mud season. It’s very strange and unsettling,” McKibben said.


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