What Winter? | Out and About June 2012

Last winter began with real promise a couple of days before Halloween, by dumping up to a foot of heavy, wet snow throughout much of New England. Many skiing enthusiasts realized that it would probably melt (it was only October after all) but a genuine snowstorm that early in the season had to be a good omen. I remember a winter during my college years, maybe 1967, when one of my teammates discovered a frozen pond near the spine of the Green Mountains with a dusting of snow, and that provided excellent, early season training. We skied there on Halloween, and for several days thereafter, until snow covered the cross-country trails lower down the mountains.

So skiing in October wasn’t unprecedented. But Mother Nature was cruel to Nordic skiers last winter. The October snowfall quickly melted, thanks to record-setting warm temperatures in November. In fact, five of the last six days of the month were above 60 degrees in Boston! The trend continued through December making it the sixth warmest on record with no measurable snowfall.

Well, we’ve had late winters before, certainly the pattern would change in January. Nope! Across the nation, 2,892 record-high temperatures were recorded in the first month of 2012, according to the Wilcox Journal. Boston received half an inch of snow on January 10 and another 2.9 inches on the 21st, putting January on track to set an all-time record for minimal snowfall. February was virtually dry as well, until the evening of the 29th, when nine-tenths of an inch was recorded, ultimately pushing the season total to 9.1 inches, a mere tenth of an inch over the previous record set in the winter of 1936–37.

I’m a fan of Bill McKibben, both because of his persistent efforts to draw public attention to the growing threat of climate change, and because he is also an avid Nordic enthusiast. McKibben’s recent book, Eaarth, definitely got my attention. It seems even more prescient after tropical storm Irene’s devastating impact on the Northeast last summer and last winter’s uncharacteristically warm temperatures and minimal snowfall. Those politicians who continue to doubt the reality of global warming simply have to get out of their offices more often. For Nordic ski enthusiasts, I’m afraid the future looks bleak.

But it may not be time to trade your skinny skis for a bowling ball. As many of us noted last winter, although the entire region suffered from marginal snowfall, there are pockets in the Northeast, which for reasons of geography or weather patterns, seem to receive and retain more snow than the regional average. In addition, there are several Nordic facilities that have invested in snowmaking technology that they have used to great effect when the temperatures permitted, insuring reliable cross-country skiing in spite of Mother Nature’s stinginess.

Ironically, it was a terrific winter for skiing in Europe; cold temperatures and plenty of snow. In fact, the countries of Eastern Europe suffered the most severe winter in memory. Hundreds died in the bitter cold, and tens of thousands were snowbound for days.

These conditions boded well for American Nordic skiers competing in European World Cup events throughout the season. Of special note was Alaskan Kikkan Randall who won the season-long World Cup sprint title. She is America’s first Nordic skiing World Cup champion since Vermont’s Bill Koch won the 1982 overall World Cup title. In addition to her sprint championship, Kikkan finished fifth in the women’s overall World Cup standings, the best international ranking ever for an American female cross-country skier. Joining Kikkan, five other US women and five men scored World Cup points this past winter, moving the United States to eighth in the Nations Cup standings, up from 15th just two years ago.

On the biathlon side, the results were almost as impressive. In her rookie season on the World Cup circuit, Susan Dunklee of Barton had a fifth place finish at the World Championships in Ruhpolding, Germany; best ever for an American woman. Russell Currier of Stockholm, Maine, enjoyed a breakthrough season featuring an exciting sixth place World Cup result in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. In fact, during the World Cup season, there were 14 top-10 World Cup and World Championship finishes by five different American biathletes, including seven top-six finishes. Two American men finished the World Cup season in the top 20 overall, University of Vermont grad Lowell Bailey in 14th and Tim Burke of Paul Smiths, New York, in 20th.

With results like these, we can’t give up on winter just yet. Is it too early to make reservations for Sochi?

John Morton

John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.