Carla Kolbe/For the Recorder Hundreds of ice fishermen set up on the Great Sacandaga Lake for last weekend's annual Walleye Challenge and GSLFF winter tournament.
By JAIME STUDD
Recorder News Staff
Once a staple of the winter season throughout Fulton County, outdoor recreational activities have been harder to come by in recent years.
Lack of snow and cold last year wreaked havoc on the seasonal traditions of the Southern Adirondacks, endangering the ice fishing season, handicapping skiers and keeping snowmobile enthusiasts at bay.
With a few notable exceptions, this year has been much the same as far as weather goes, but it doesn't appear to be keeping the visitors away. The seasoned sportsmen are once again making their presence in the area known, and visitors are once again returning to the region for winter weekend getaways.
According to Gina Dabiere-Gibbs, tourism director for the Fulton Montgomery Chamber of Commerce, the January figures for the Fulton County Visitors Center are indicating an increase in the number of visitors over the same time last year -- a slight increase -- but an more people nonetheless.
"I do think we've had some more snow up to this point compared to last year," Dabiere-Gibbs said. "In general, it's been a better winter."
The forecast actually reflective of the season, Dabiere-Gibbs said she is optimistic that visitors are returning to the area to take up their traditional winter activities.
"I haven't heard that they haven't been," said Dabiere-Gibbs.
Dabiere-Gibbs cited a number of area businesses that are once again flourishing under wintery weather conditions, including Royal Mountain Ski Area in Caroga Lake and Lapland Lake Nordic Vacation Center in Benson.
"There was a pretty decent dusting this morning (Friday), and with the cooler weather for the weekend, hopefully we'll get some more snow," Dabiere-Gibbs said.
For Lapland Lake owner Ann Hirvonen, last winter's dismal snowfall is quickly becoming little more than an unpleasant memory.
"We're having a better winter than last year, for sure," Hirvonen said. "We are on our 41st day of operation and so far we've had 47 1/2 inches of snow."
"Eleven feet is probably an average by the end of the season," she added. "Last year we had a total of, for the whole season, 62 inches, and that was a season that ended March 17. We're already, on Feb. 1, close to that. So, yeah, it's a very different year this year."
And if it snows, they will come.
"Attendance is good and steady, which is nice to see," she said. "Christmas week was good. The holiday periods are always good, so we're looking forward to the next holiday period coming up."
Things are going well, Hirvonen said, but that doesn't mean they couldn't be better.
"I think that everybody wishes we would get one good snowfall. A good snowstorm that would set us all up. It's better for business in general," Hirvonen said. "Frankly, when we're all operating, it generates more skier visits, it generates more enthusiasm and it's good for the sport all the way around.
"We are at 100 percent operation right now," she added. "There's snowshoeing on 12 kilometers of trails, skiing on 38 kilometers. Our ice skating pond is open. Our tubing hills are open. So, we are fully operation, but we would love to have some more snow to build that base up. It will guarantee us a longer season."
Still, for those who endured it, last winter has not been entirely forgotten.
"You just couldn't have gotten much worse than last year. This was our 35th winter season and we had never seen anything the likes of last year," Hirvonen said. "That was stunning and very difficult and you're really hoping that there's going to be a better year to follow so that everybody can get back on their feet."
Hirvonen said she is only looking forward from here, however.
"Our customers seems to be really enjoying themselves and enjoying the activities we're offering and having a lot of fun this year. I think it will be a good steady weekend for us this weekend. We're looking forward to a strong one."
For Stephanie Bugaj, of the Caroga Lake-based Nick Stoner Trailers snowmobile club, the news is not quite as good. With a severe shortage of snow-covered trails, the club is facing having to cancel its annual Poker Run for the second year in a row.
"We're probably going to cancel for the (Feb.) 9th," Bugaj said. "Maybe we'll have it on the 23rd."
Bugaj said the trails in the Caroga area have been extremely quiet once again this year and that she herself has not even had the opportunity to ride.
"Even though there was a little snow, with the warm weather, nothing was frozen," Bugaj said. "Now, we've got the cold weather, but we've lost all the snow."
Bugaj said the club will decide on Monday whether or not to move forward with this year's run, but she was not optimistic.
"I would say there's a 99 percent chance that it will, be canceled," she said.
Snowmobilers have, however, made their way to the Great Sacandaga Lake, as have the ice fisherman, ice racers and the thousands of spectators who support them.
Lou Lanzi, co-owner of both Lanzi's on the Lake in Mayfield and the Sport Island Pub in Northville, has recognized a definite upturn in traffic around the lake this winter compared to last.
"Last year was awful," Lanzi said.
This year, he noted, is quite a different story.
Lanzi said thousands of people gathered at Lanzi's last Saturday afternoon for the Great Sacandaga Lake 5th Annual Walleye Challenge, twice the number of people who actually participated in the tournament.
The tournament, Dabiere-Gibbs noted, "maxed out" at 1,500 entries.
"That was awesome," said Lanzi. "We had over 3,000 people at Lanzi's. It was great."
Unlike last year, when organizers were forced to consider canceling the event over concerns about the ice, this year's tournament was worry free, Lanzi said.
"There was 12 to 14 inches of ice," Lanzi said. "Everybody was happy."
Love of the ice was a common them throughout the course of last weekend, with Schenectady's Electric City Racers taking to the lake just 24 hours after the ice fishermen.
The group will return to the Sport Island Pub today.
"They love it so much up there," Lanzi said. "They're phenomenal."
Lanzi conceded that the lack of any significant snowfall has probably affected business in the area by keeping a number of snowmobilers off the trails, but many, he said, are still riding and still stopping for a bite to eat on their way by.
"It does a little bit, but they trailer up. We have a big lot on the side where they can park and ride the lake," Lanzi said. "The lake's about the only place you can ride right now because of the lack of snow, so we get a pretty good crowd for that."
"We're still pretty busy with people that do come and know the lake's safe," he added.
While area businesses continue to lament last year's disappointments, Dabiere-Gibbs did manage to find an upside.
"Because of the weather last year, there were people up on the lake earlier," said Dabiere-Gibbs. "It was so warm in the beginning of May."
"Those earlier numbers were a little bit higher than the previous year because of that," she added. "Spring came early and people were up here earlier."
That doesn't mean, however, that Dabiere-Gibbs already has her sights set on spring. There is plenty more winter to go around, she notes. Upcoming events in the area included the Adirondack Outdoorsman Show on Feb. 15 and 17 at the Moose Club in Johnstown, numerous activities at both Lapland Lake and Royal Mountain, and the annual winter carnival at Caroga Lake on Feb. 17 featuring the ever popular outhouse races.