January 14, 2012

Josh Christi: Ski areas combat woeful winter with guns blazin'

After a big tease in the form of snowstorms around Halloween and Thanksgiving, it's been a distressingly snowless ski season thus far. The country has less than half the average snow cover over the past five years for this time of the year, and we New Englanders in particular expect some snow on the ground before mid-January.

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Snowmaking’s long history in Maine dates back to the 1960s when the ingenuity of Otto Wallingford at Auburn’s Lost Valley would help revolutionize the ski industry nationwide.

2007 Telegram File

The saving grace for Maine ski resorts has been snowmaking, that wonderful technology that can conjure snow into existence during the driest of dry spells. Snow guns have been around for about six decades, and the history of the technology has some surprising connections to Maine.

The very first "snow cannon" was invented in 1950 by Art Hunt, Dave Richey and Wayne Pierce in Connecticut. The three inventors managed to blow about 2 feet of snow that March, using a spray-gun nozzle, compressor and garden hose.

In 1962, Otto Wallingford introduced Maine's first snowmaking system at Lost Valley in Auburn. While Hunt, Richey and Pierce had patented their snow cannon, Wallingford built his system from his own design. He further refined the guns in the '63-64 season, adding an air dryer to remove water from the snowmaking lines -- a first-of-its-kind innovation that remains important in snow guns today. Wallingford also mounted snowmaking devices 20 feet above the slopes (a predecessor to the popular "tower" guns), and created large portable fan guns and oscillating "Otto-matic" snow cannons.

Wallingford's contribution to Lost Valley, not to mention skiing nationwide, earned him a spot in the first class of Maine Ski Hall of Fame inductees in 2003. Along with his snowmaking systems, Otto invented the "Powdermaker" groomer and introduced some of the region's first night skiing at Lost Valley.

Though snowmaking technology has become much more refined over the last 60 years, the basics are the same as when Hunt, Richey and Pierce first blew snow in Connecticut. Water and air are forced together, which blasts the water into small enough droplets that it can freeze into "snow." The temperature at which snow can be produced varies, though obviously the colder and less humid, the better. Snowmakers can also add impurities or additives to water, which makes it easier for snow to form at higher temperatures -- just as the particles in clouds aid in the creation of the real stuff.

Just how good is the snowmaking in our region? Sunday River, which consistently leads "best snowmaking" and "best snow" lists in skier polls, has trademarked the term "the most dependable snow in New England."

The majority of Maine's ski areas entered this season with improved snowmaking systems, either upgrading their guns or increasing their capacity. Bigrock expanded its water reservoir, Saddleback added guns to its classic black diamond run Tight Line, and Boyne resorts Sugarloaf and Sunday River made a number of upgrades to their systems. Shawnee Peak added a pair of high capacity fan guns to its arsenal.

Black Mountain is spending the season testing out a variety of high capacity guns to determine what to purchase as it expands snowmaking capabilities. The advantage to skiers is an increase in both quality and quantity of man-made snow as the guns are tested.

As natural as the snow coming out of the guns looks, I wouldn't necessarily recommend catching one of the flakes on your tongue. One of the most effective ways to get water with impurities to aid in snowmaking is to use reclaimed waste water, a technique used at ski areas from Arizona to Maine. In a segment of Ripley's Believe It or Not called "Sewage Snow," the usage of sewer and wastewater to make snow at Sugarloaf was none too subtly covered.

Of course, the water in the snowmaking system is treated, and using reclaimed water has a much lower impact on the environment than pulling from other reservoirs.

As discouraging as the lack of snow has been, it's amazing how good the skiing is. Snowmaking technology means that we could ski in a snowless winter -- a feat that would have been impossible decades ago. Skiers and snowboarders will grouse about the differences in quality between snow made by man and mother nature, but every year man-made snow comes closer and closer to being indistinguishable from natural precipitation.

Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be reached at:

joshua.j.christie@gmail.com

 

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