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Michigan ski resorts pounce on snowfall, open early

Steve Pardo and Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Ski resorts are shaping up to have their best start to the season in years, due to early, heavy snowfalls in the north and consistent chilly weather in the lower peninsula.

Temperatures in the 20s and upgrades to snow-making systems allowed ski areas to get a jump on the season, pumping out tons of snow and opening early. All four southeast Michigan slopes are open for skiers and snowboarders.

It's not just ski resorts that are seeing an uptick. Stores featuring outdoor gear are "jam-packed," some merchants say.

A rule of thumb is, it's a decent start if the ski areas open by the first week of December. Mount Brighton and other local resorts opened over the weekend.

"It's crazy early," said Taylor Ogilvie, general manager of Mount Brighton. "Any time we can get open before Thanksgiving, it's kind of a gift. We're just lucky with the weather right now."

The state has 51 ski areas, with more than 260 lifts and about 1,000 runs, according to the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association in Clarkston. Winter sports account for roughly one-third of the $17.7 billion travel industry in Michigan, according to the association.

The $4 billion industry makes up the lion's share of winter sports but the organization doesn't break down all of the winter events by classification, said Mickey MacWilliams, executive director of the association.

Michigan is second only to New York in the number of ski areas, according to the national ski association. Southeast Michigan's ski hills account for approximately 20 percent of the total 2 million to 2.4 million lift tickets bought annually across the state.

Cold temps in November provide a psychological boost to the industry by getting people in the right frame of mind for winter sports, MacWilliams said.

"This kind of colder weather this early gets people geared up for skiing," MacWillams said. "It's also good for retailers. Even if (the weather) doesn't hold up all the way through, it's nice to have something like this to begin. People begin to think about outdoor activities when it's cold."

That's why Outdoor Action Company in Sylvan Lake has seen a 20 percent to 30 percent jump in business recently with enthusiasts seeking skis and other items, general manager Deb Sigmann said. "Cold weather makes them all enthusiastic. It's been phenomenal for us."

Traffic has picked up at Nichols Ski & Snowboard, which has locations in Waterford and Dearborn, marketing assistant Kyle Griffin said. "The last few days, it's been all hands on deck, all day long. We're really excited to see it. We're jam-packed and looking great."

Rob Reader of Hartland stopped there a few days ago for ski wax ahead of a weekend trip to Mount Brighton, where he'll later practice with the high school team he coaches.

"To have the conditions this early … it's awesome," he said. "This is earlier than most years we've had."

Mount Brighton underwent $10 million in renovations last year, adding 43 snow-making guns; 17,000 feet of pipe to transport water for snow-making; 92 hydrants to hold water for the process; and an automated pump house. Other ski areas, including Pine Knob, have added snow-making guns and other improvements in recent years.

Pine Knob officials are hoping to improve the number of skiers over the 2013-14 season — which was an excellent year itself but at times proved to be too cold for skiers, said Mary Dawson, office manager.

"One of our biggest problems is the weatherman scares people away," she said. "You just have to dress in layers and prepare for the cold. This is Michigan. This is the winter wonderland."

Among those eager skiers is Reagan Kazyak, 17, of Commerce Township, who planned to hit the slopes Wednesday with fellow members of her school's ski teams for the first time this season — weeks earlier than expected.

"I'm so pumped," said the senior at Notre Dame Preparatory in Pontiac. "I can't wait. ... It's kind of magical in a way."

Jun Kwak, who works in Waterford, also expects to head to Pine Knob this weekend to snowboard with his two young daughters.

In previous years, he said, "the earliest we would ever get to go out was Thanksgiving weekend. This is really nice because we get to get an early start to the season."

Mark Tibbits, general manager at Mount Holly, reported good crowds in recent days.

"We were amazingly surprised on what showed up Saturday. I had half a parking lot full, and that's not bad for just popping it open and putting a couple of feelers on Facebook," he said.

"As a rule, people don't even start to think about skiing until after Thanksgiving. We've crossed the first challenge — if you open early, are people going to be ready to ski? The skiers are ready. Hopefully Mother Nature will allow us to stay open."

The next few days' weather should allow resorts to create more snow. But forecasts call for the weather to warm up — and possibly rain — over the weekend.

Still, the early start bodes well for the season.

As evidence, the association annually sells 400 White Gold promotional passes. The pass provides one lift ticket at more than 30 state ski areas, including the four in southeast Michigan. Tickets this year were $219 — $20 higher than last year. The organization sold out of the passes in the middle of October — the fastest pace since sales began two decades ago.

"We got a nice early start," said Gail Winterhauler, operations manager at Alpine Valley in White Lake Township.

"We've got excellent weather for making snow and people are seeing a little bit of snow in their front yards — which helps. Everybody is ready to ski."

Farther north, ski areas didn't need to rely on man-made snow. Storms dumped more than three feet of snow on the slopes at Ski Brule, in Iron Mountain in the western Upper Peninsula.

"The heavier snows this time of year tend to be wetter," she said. "This snowfall we got was champagne powder. We were very pleasantly surprised how busy we were (last weekend). If this is any indicator, it's going to be a fabulous season."

(313) 222-211

Local resorts are open

■Pine Knob Ski Area, 7778 Sashabaw, Clarkston, (248) 625-0800

■Mount Brighton, 4141 Bauer, Brighton, (810) 229-9581

■Mount Holly, 13536 Dixie Highway, Holly, (800) 582-7256

■Alpine Valley Ski Area, 6775 Highland, White Lake, (248) 887-2180