The winter sports season is underway in the north country. Thanks to the pre-Thanksgiving snowstorm, some skiers in Jefferson County got an early start this year.
A snowboarder twists and slides to a stop at Dry Hill Ski Area in Watertown. He unclips his boots and dashes into the clubhouse to warm up.
Josh Askins and a friend cozy up to the big stone fire pit. “We were snowboarding, then we came inside to sit next to the fire. It smells really nice,” he says.
Askins teaches snowboarding lessons here.
The clubhouse is packed on a Saturday afternoon. Adults drink beers at the bar, while teenagers play foosball and socialize.
About every five years, Dry Hill is able to open early, over Thanksgiving weekend. This was one of those years, says Tim McAtee, the slopes’ owner and operator.
“We went through the whole weekend with great conditions. We certainly got kicked off to a good start – literally hundreds each day.”
McAtee says cold-enough temperatures are really all he needs to open for the season. That lets him make snow, to lay down a base of denser, man-made powder. But he says people aren’t primed to hit the slopes until their own backyards are white.
“The natural snow is actually what gets people here,” he says. “If you put six inches of snow out in Jefferson County, we’ll be packed. The man-made snow is what really keeps us going; the natural snow is what brings in the customers.”
Snow Ridge Ski Resort in Turin, in Lewis County, has been waiting for nature to do most of the work. Usually, if Watertown gets snow, the Tug Hill gets a lot. But that hasn’t happened this year.
Judy Sweeney manages the resort. She says the early storm that blanketed Watertown only gave her slope about two inches. They haven’t opened yet.
“The longer you have to wait, if other areas get open, it does hurt us,” she said.
Sweeney says she hopes to open this weekend.
Back at Dry Hill, Peter Gibbs grins as he watches the other skiers. He says his family wasted no time hitting the slopes this year on opening weekend.
“My 14-year-old showed up Saturday morning at 10, and I took him home at 10 p.m. So he was there for 12 hours,” he says. “ I was out for about five. My other one was out for about six. It was great!”
Gibbs says his boys learned to ski as young children at Dry Hill. It took him longer to learn, but he did – and later in the day, he plans to enjoy another winter sports tradition: “sit around the fire and have a beverage.”