Lynn Carey spent much of November and December monitoring weather predictions and tending to thin spots on Seeley Lake’s network of cross-country ski trails, his fingers crossed for storm clouds. The longtime trail groomer towed load after load of snow on a plank of particleboard behind his snowmobile, expanding or simply preserving what scant coverage existed. His grooming activities, regularly reported online, sounded desperate and exhausting.
In what were supposed to be the depths of another La Niña winter in western Montana, Carey finds himself repeating a community-wide mantra: more snow.
“They all kept talking about La Niña, and it just hasn’t happened,” he says, referring to early season forecasts. “Even midweek [last week], they were predicting four inches of snow. Well, we only got two inches.”
Seeley’s season so far is a familiar story for powder-starved snow-sports enthusiasts this year. Area ski resorts struggled with thin cover early on, combined at times with limited terrain. Grooming reports for popular cross-country ski trails up Pattee Creek and the Rattlesnake still come with the disclaimer “rock skis recommended.” Base depths are now adequate for snowmobiling at higher elevations, but the snowpack in many places is unstable. The phrase “need snow bad” seems apt everywhere.
Those wishes are finally coming true this week. On Tuesday, a large storm began to pound the entire Pacific Northwest. High elevations such as Lookout Pass were already report nearly two feet of new snow Wednesday morning. Valleys in the region remain under a winter storm warning.
In Seeley Lake, the snow is welcome—if not the timing. Nordic groups have already postponed two January race events, including the Missoula Nordic Ski Club’s popular OZONE Race. A number of trails remain closed and off-trail snowmobiling opportunities are virtually non-existent at lower elevations. Seeley Lake’s Nordic club does plan to move ahead with its 30th annual OSCR (Over Seeley’s Creeks and Ridges) race Jan. 28, as scheduled. But the busiest season for winter tourism has already come and gone without a major snow event.
“Your busiest time is Christmas to New Year’s,” says Doris Skiles at Seeley Sport Rentals. “This Martin Luther King three-day weekend, that would have been a big weekend. We still have President’s Day, which is a big weekend, so hopefully people come up for that.”
Locals note a slump in business that no one, based on early La Niña predictions, had anticipated. Skiles says snowmobile rentals, which bring in as much as $2,000 a day on weekends, are down nearly 50 percent from last year. Addrien Marx says she’s seen a dramatic drop in sales at her gas station, Rovero’s. The town is abuzz with talk of lodging cancellations and empty tables at restaurants.
“If they’re not coming up here and they don’t need to gas up their sleds or gas up their cars or come in for a pizza…it has a dramatic effect directly on our economy,” Marx says.
For Karen Pratt, co-chair of Seeley’s Nordic Challenge Steering Committee, the snow drought has also had a mild effect on the community’s plans for the future. Seeley has increasingly billed itself as a Nordic destination in western Montana; the promise of extensive new trails and a high-end Nordic training center has drawn added attention to the town. This season has emphasized the importance of moving fast on a second set of trails farther north, where the valley’s snowbelt promises better conditions earlier in the winter.
“It would be nice if we had another venue a little bit farther north where there’s a little bit more snow, and we’re working toward that end,” Pratt says. “But it isn’t here now.”
The most frustrating part of this season for Seeley is that most locals have already hit the trails. “We’ve still had decent skiing,” Marx says. The work’s been “taxing,” Carey adds, “but that hasn’t stopped us.” What has is the perception among non-locals that there’s nothing in Seeley to ski.
“A lot of people won’t travel up this far because they aren’t sure,” Marx says. “It’s perceived because the whole entire country has been hammered by this warm spell.”
The solution in Seeley appears two-fold. First, Marx feels the community needs to better spread the word about online grooming reports. A simple web search would tell folks that Carey’s efforts are paying off, she says.
Second, Seeley has begun to identify even more winter sports alternatives to complement the events the community already hosts. This year marked the second annual Seeley Lake Pond Hockey tournament, an ice-bound competition that drew 24 teams and roughly 150 people. Marx recently heard some locals talking about Nordic ice skates—a type of skate well suited to the rough ice on the surface of Seeley Lake.
“We have dog sledding, we have ice fishing, we have Nordic skiing, we have snowmobiling and now we have a beautiful place for pond hockey,” Marx says. “Seeley is definitely growing in awareness of different winter sports.”
Even if the latest storm brings less powder than hoped, Seeley’s making every attempt to assure out-of-towners that trail conditions are already the best the region has to offer.
“If they don’t know that we’ve got good skiing here in Seeley Lake,” Carey says, “it’s their own fault.”