It’s getting to be the time of year when the temperature begins to drop and skiers, snowboarders, skaters and snowshoers start to look to the sky. The boats are winterized; it’s almost time to wax the skis and by most indicators of snowpack for the upcoming winter – either local superstition or honest-to-goodness climate science – it looks to be a good one.
Donnie Clapp, spokesman for Whitefish Mountain Resort, said the lore on Big Mountain is that when the bear grass blooms heavily on the slopes, a snowy winter is likely to follow. Sparse blooms of bear grass typically precede light snow years, but that wasn’t the case during this spring and summer. “This was a fairly prolific year for bear grass,” Clapp said, thus snow is likely to follow.
On top of the bear grass bloom, Montana will be experiencing La Nina weather patterns this winter, according to Bryan Henry, a forecaster for the National Weather Service office in Missoula. El Nino weather patterns typically mean warmer, dryer weather for the region, while La Nina causes the opposite effect. The conditions derive from water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean along the equator, significantly impacting weather in multi-year cycles; Montana flipped to La Nina sometime this summer.
“For the beginning part of the season we’re expecting cooler and wetter conditions, which normally contributes to a better ski season,” Henry said. “It’s kind of too soon to tell what’s going to happen later in the season.” Henry added that he expected this winter to be “a stark contrast” to last year’s warm, dry conditions.
The Farmers Almanac, however, calls for above-average temperatures and low precipitation throughout much of North America. Local businesses whose livelihood depends on cold and snow are hoping that the Farmers Almanac gets it wrong and are preparing to open for the season.
The newly rebuilt lifts start running at Whitefish Mountain Resort Dec. 8, Clapp said, unless snow allows for opening sooner. December 14, the resort celebrates its 60th anniversary, with a plaque dedication and a party to honor its founders. Clapp believes the public is going to be surprised at the improvements the ski area has undergone since last season: “It’s going to be the biggest change for the better, in user experience, in the life of the resort.”
As of press time, neither Blacktail Mountain in Lakeside nor Turner Mountain in Libby had announced opening dates, but Blacktail will be selling season passes during the Kalispell Ski Swap, scheduled for Oct. 5-8 at the Northwest Montana fairgrounds. October 5 is for dropping off gear to sell at the ski swap, and the following two days are for those who want to buy it.
Other events to pick up cheap gear include the Whitefish Ski Swap scheduled for Nov. 3, with the location to be determined. A week later, Rocky Mountain Outfitter in Kalispell will hold its “Recycler Sale,” an ideal place to buy and sell used backcountry equipment.
For those less vertically inclined, Andy Hergeshiemer, rink manager at Whitefish’s Stumptown Ice Den, has been setting the ice in preparation for an Oct. 5 opening. This year the Ice Den is offering its usual lineup of men’s, women’s and youth hockey as well as figure skating and learn-to-skate clinics. For more specifics, call the Ice Den at 863-2477.
But Stumptown Ice Den is no longer the only game in the valley. Kalispell’s very own ice rink opens in Woodland Park Oct. 20, with a weekend of free public skating. Registration for youth hockey leagues has been going on for weeks – Kalispell Parks and Recreation is still working out which figure skating and learn-to-skate clinics will be offered. Val Hemsley, recreation programmer for Parks and Recreation has more information at 758-7848.
And as for the other myriad winter activities that abound in the Flathead – from ice fishing to snowmobiling to cross-country skiing – Mother Nature will determine the start of those seasons when she starts dropping the white stuff.
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