CAMDEN — The Camden Snow Bowl is on a roll this winter, owed in part to cold weather, lots of natural snow early in the season and 10 new high-efficiency snow guns, all contributing to good and plentiful product on the mountain.
During the holiday vacation time last year, the weather was terrible for skiing and snowboarding and none of the trails at the Snow Bowl were open. But in comparing a seven-day window this year with the same seven-day window during the 2010-2011 season, the Snow Bowl took in more money, despite ticket prices being cut in half longer due to the chairlift not being open yet.
"In 2010-2011, we took in $74,000 during the seven-day Christmas week window due to a couple of good storms," said Andrew Dailey, ski school and marketing director. "This year, during that same period, we took in $76,000 and it's still not comparing apples to apples because the chairlift wasn't open until the last four days of that window, compared to six days of chairlift service during that window two years ago."
Dailey said skiing and snowboarding at the mountain is half-price until chairlift service can begin. And so this year, it means more people were out on the mountain skiing at the discounted rate, to make up the difference, and help push it over the $74,000 benchmark.
"We're doing awesome," said Beth Ward, acting general manager at the Snow Bowl. "All the snow we've had so far is great, but I think there's been a societal change in terms of winter recreation and getting outside to exercise. We are definitely seeing more kids out here this year."
Dailey echoed Ward's enthusiasm, as it relates to the ski school.
"This is my seventh year as ski school director and I have never seen a busier time," said Dailey. "This year, ski school was sold out for break and mid-winter."
For a number of years, the Snow Bowl has offered a Fourth-Grade Learn to Ski and Snowboard Program for school children. Last year 330 kids signed up, this year there were more than 500 hitting the slopes to learn the ropes.
"We have reached every fourth-grader in Knox County with the program, and some from Waldo and Lincoln counties too," said Dailey.
Ward said the Nordic track has also been "wildly popular" and has been consistently groomed by mountain staff, under the leadership of Snow Bowl Facilities Manager Bill "Fitzy" Fitzcharles.
The town's investment this fall in 10 new snow guns, 15 hydrants and a 2008 Pisten Bully 600 snow groomer appear to be paying off in spades this year.
Nine of the new high-efficiency guns are mounted on sleds, allowing them to be moved around the mountain to fill in spots in need of more snow. The new groomer is also making a "huge" difference, said Ward. It provides 100 more hp than the one they traded in for it, and it can groom uphill, making it easier to push around the greater volume the snow guns are making.
This year, the Big T Bar opened during Christmas vacation week. That's important to note, Ward said, because it never opened at all last year.
Last year, the Snow Bowl's electric cost for snowmaking was $35,000. As of Jan. 2, the electric cost was $3,700.
"We have not received the December usage spike fee yet, but even if it comes in at $5,000, we're going to be saving a lot of money this year," said Dailey.
The savings come from running the machinery less hours, and creating more volume (snow) with less energy.
The Snow Bowl had the snow guns running some last week, but shut them down at noon on Friday. They were due to come back Sunday night, Jan. 6, and run through Wednesday, Jan. 9, weather depending.
"If we can run the snow guns through Wednesday, that should be it for the season in terms of making snow," said Dailey.
As it turns out, the snow guns ran through Tuesday morning, not Wednesday.
Fitzpatrick said this year, the Snow Bowl spent less time making snow than the previous four years. Snowmaking during the 2009-2010 ski season topped out at 320.5 hours while snowmaking was underway for 279.5 hours during the 2010-2011 season. Of the past four years, Mother Nature dropped very little nautral snow in 2011-2012 and so more hours were needed to keep the mountain covered for outdoor enthusiasts — 353. This year, snowmaking ended earlier in the season and just 273 hours were needed to add to the natural snow covering the mountain.
"With the new guns, implementation of different start up and shut down procedures in snowmaking and new guns, we made snow for less hours this winter than we have for the last four winters. And two of the past four winters were big natural snow winters," said Fitzpatrick. "We're virtually done making snow now. We may make snow for the lower terrain park, to add to a jump they have planned, but otherwise we are done making snow for the season."
Season pass sales were down going into the season and up to Ski Swap Sale weekend, but Ward said they have nearly made up the difference as of Jan. 2. The budget included $190,000 in revenue from season passes, and so far they have sold $170,000 worth.
"When people see snow in their backyard they think to ski and I get a request at least every day, sometimes a few-a-day, for a season pass," said Ward. "So the number sold will continue to grow."
Ward said the Snow Bowl is on track for the 2012/2013 ski season with the 2010/2011 season for snowfall amounts, with 2010/2011 deemed a "banner" year.
For comparison, during the December to March time period, 2009-2010 saw a total of 38 inches of snow. In 2010-2011, the total was 104 inches and last year, 2011-2012, there was just 31 inches of natural snow during the Snow Bowl's operation dates, compared to a total of 45.25 for the whole winter.
Ward said the figures are provided by Maine Water Company, and there are no figures yet for this year, but she feels confident the area is poised to far surpass the two lower year's amounts.
While all the snow is a boon for everyone, work was done in the fall to clear the top of Upper Mussel Ridge, providing better access for skiers and boarders and easier grooming for the mountain staff.
"Sam Appleton and Jamie Slayton went up with equipment and cleared it and took the wood away," said Ward. "It allowed us to have an open space at the top of Upper Mussel, which is a safety thing."
Dailey added, "Racers don't have to start in the middle of the tree now, so it's better access all around."
Dailey and Ward also noted the deaths this year of individuals closely linked to the Camden Snow Bowl, including Ken Bailey and Don Gross, as well as Camden's director of parks and recreation and Snow Bowl Manager Jeff Kuller.
"Their passing and the recent redevelopment efforts have brought the Snow Bowl to people's attention more this year, and the community is responding and realizing the benefits of this gem out here," said Ward. "It's been non-stop busy here all week and all winter, really. It's been amazing."