By JAYSON JACOBY
This typical scene from a previous winter in Sumpter has been exceedingly rare this year. The lack of snow has deterred snowmobilers and cut into the bottom line for local businesses.
Jerry Welch isn’t used to seeing the parking lot of his business, Halfway Motels, empty during the second week of January.
Empty of cars and of snow.
The absence of the latter has a lot to do with the former.
“The lack of snowmobiling is kind of killing us,” Welch said Tuesday. “Usually every weekend our parking lot is full and cars are lined up along the street.”
The scarcity of snow has taken a similar toll on some businesses in Sumpter, the popular snowmobiling destination at the opposite end of Baker County.
Cindy Davidson, who owns the Scoop ’n Steamer restaurant and rental cabins in Sumpter, said occupancy at her four cabins is down an estimated 30 percent from last winter.
Business at the restaurant has dropped “at least that much,” Davidson said Tuesday.
Gary Gunter, co-owner of The Gold Post, a grocery store in Sumpter, estimates a 25-percent dip compared to last winter.
“No snow, no snowmobilers,” Gunter said. “It affects every business up here. We rely on snowmobilers.”
Although there’s sufficient snow for snowmobiling in the mountains above both Halfway and Sumpter, one of the attractions of those valley towns — and in particular Sumpter — is that snowmobilers are spared a long drive from their lodging to the trails.
During a typical winter in Sumpter, when the snow is measured in feet, snowmobilers can literally walk out of their motel room or cabin, climb on their snowmobiles and ride directly into a network of more than 350 miles of groomed trails.
This is not a typical winter.
The automated snow-measuring station nearest Sumpter is near the ghost town of Bourne, about five miles north along Cracker Creek.
The water content in the snow there is 4.9 inches.
That’s the lowest total for this date since 1996, when the water content was 4.6 inches.
And the current measurement is the fourth-lowest for Jan. 11 since the station was installed in 1979.
(The record low for the date is 4.3 inches, in 1991, followed by the 4.6 inches in 1996, and 4.7 inches in 1990.)
Across Northeastern Oregon, the snowpack is running about 54 percent of average.
Despite the disappointing start to winter, Davidson remains optimistic.
She said some snowmobilers who canceled their reservations for a cabin have either rescheduled for later in the year, or said they would do so if snow starts to deepen.
Many of those prospective customers are from Idaho, Davidson said.
Fortunately, snow isn’t much more abundant there, if at all, so it’s not likely that snowmobilers are going somewhere other than Sumpter or Halfway.
The lack of snow across much of the West hasn’t been completely negative for Baker County, said Timothy Bishop of Basecamp Baker, the county’s tourism marketing agency.
Anthony Lakes Ski Area not only opened the day after Thanksgiving, earlier than usual, but the resort remains open.
Bogus Basin, meanwhile, the ski area nearest Boise, has yet to run its chairlifts. The opening date, which has not been set, will be the latest in the resort’s history (the old record was Jan. 6, 1989).
With Bogus Basin closed, Anthony Lakes has been an attractive alternative for skiers and boarders in the Treasure Valley, Bishop said.
“This winter has been kind of a mixed bag for us,” he said. “The lack of snow has been pretty challenging for businesses that depend on snowmobiling.”
On the other hand, Bishop said the benign weather has lured other travelers, who neither ski nor snowmobile but who wouldn’t travel to Baker County during a normal winter because they’re deterred by slippery roads.
“We are seeing more traffic of that sort, recreation that’s not tied to snow,” Bishop said.
Meanwhile in Halfway and Sumpter, Welch and Davidson would happily trade travel convenience for snow-covered, and crowded, parking lots.
Like Davidson, Welch said he’s talked with snowmobilers who still plan to travel to Baker County — so long as the big snows arrive.
Bishop points out that the National Weather Service has forecast that this winter will be affected by La Nina, the periodic cooling of surface water in the Pacific Ocean that usually translates to snowier winters in the Northwest.
“Historically, snow conditions improve starting in February,” he said. “I think there’s still a big snow year in the making.”
And February is still almost three weeks away.
“We have a lot of winter time left,” Davidson said.