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Rain Dampens Eastern Ski Business

Denis Boulanger hopes that it will stop raining. Not because he wants sunshine, but because rain is the enemy of the ski hill operator, especially when there isn't a solid base of snow.

"It's touch and go. The forecast is calling for some light drizzle, maybe freezing rain over the next few days," Mr. Boulanger says at the foot of his family-owned ski hill, Mont Sutton, just a few miles north of the Vermont border.

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Many New England ski resorts are watching warm weather take a serious bite out of their business. While hills at higher altitudes or in eastern New England are doing OK, many are struggling.

"We have 53 trails, but right now only about 12 are open," Boulanger says. It was worse on Christmas Day, when the grass in nearby fields was green and there was only enough machine-made snow at the mountain to open five trails. That shows up at the ticket counter. "Our business is down 50 percent from last year," he says.

At Owl's Head, a ski hill right on the Vermont border in Mansonville, Quebec, owner Fred Korman is blunt. "When a season starts as badly as this, it usually doesn't recover. If you miss the two weeks of the Christmas season, you miss the best of the season."

"We've had more rain than we would like," says a reservations clerk at Waterville Valley, N.H. Thirty-five of 49 trails are open because of machine-made snow. But conditions yesterday were rainy.

Some ski operators are doing better than others.

At Sugarloaf Mountain, near Stratton, Maine, there's lots of natural snow, and the resort is prospering. "We've been very fortunate. The rain has stayed to the west of us," says Mary Fountain, a reservations clerk.

Jay Peak in northern Vermont, visible from rain-soaked Owl's Head, has snow. The base of Jay Peak is at the same altitude as the peak of Owl's Head, so "they've been getting snow when the others get rain," says John Bridgman, a skier who has a vacation house in Richford, Vt.

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Farther south in Vermont, operators aren't having a great season.

"Pray for cold weather and no rain," was the recorded message Adam Julius left on Saturday night for the young students who participate in his racing program at Sugarbush, a ski hill near Waitsfield, Vt.

Warm weather has been particularly hard on ski operators in southern Quebec and Vermont. The snow started early but it didn't stay on the ground. "We were open on Nov. 15 and we have had three snowfalls of more than 10 inches," Boulanger says. "But the rain keeps washing it away." At night and on the days when it's cold enough - 30 degrees or colder - he and the other local ski operators make snow.

But he hopes for real snow: "We need a good snowfall of 10 inches to give us the base we need."

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