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Weather for Ice Fishing Is Late in Adirondacks

by: Lisa W. Foderaro    10 February 2007

SARANAC LAKE, N.Y. Ernie and Dan Jessie, first cousins and native Adirondackers, sat quietly in the small translucent ice-fishing shack they have shared winter after winter, waiting. Their lines disappeared into the 60-foot depths of Upper Saranac Lake through the perfect circles they had just finished drilling in the ice.

Ernie Jessie, 78, felt something. A minute later, he held out a slender smelt, its black and silver flank glistening in the diffuse light. "That's the first smelt of the year on Saranac Lake," Mr. Jessie proclaimed with an air of victory. "It's been a long time."

It has been a long time. Between them, the cousins Dan is 85 have ice-fished here for, oh, some 135 years, and it was not until the last week of January that the lake was solid enough to support them, as late a date as either cousin could recall.

There was a time when residents could count on the vast lakes of the Adirondacks to freeze over, and stay that way, for a good third of the year. But the strangely mild weather that bathed the Northeast in springlike temperatures through December and January prevented ice until recently, thwarting hockey games, pinching bait and tackle shops, sidelining dog sleds and making some fishermen forsake shacks for canoes.

The region has since plunged into a deep freeze, taking the Adirondacks with it. But for a part of New York State that views the bitter cold not so much as an endurance test but as an economic lifeline, winter's late arrival coming on the heels of other moderate winters and a growing unease about global warming has many worrying about the future.

"Here, for months on end it wouldn't go above freezing," said Dick Parent, president of the Tupper Lake Rod and Gun Club, who recalled skating as a boy by moonlight. "The ice would freeze just after Thanksgiving, and it would stay frozen right into late April. We've never faced this before."

For John Houghton, who runs a dog-sled business out of nearby Lake Placid, the milder temperatures took an ax to his winter income. With the help of a team of Alaskan huskies (and, occasionally, his son), he has offered rides to tourists for 20 years, usually getting his sled out in time for Christmas. One year, he had to wait until New Year's Day. This year, Mirror Lake, in downtown Lake Placid, did not yield the five or six inches of "good ice" until Jan. 20.

"My business is a month behind schedule," said Mr. Houghton, who is projecting a 35 percent drop in revenue this winter. "It hurt me, but it took a bite out of the whole North Country economy. I kind of think the weather comes in cycles, but it's been every year lately when you can definitely see warmer winters."

This is the second winter in a row in which unseasonably warm temperatures forced a January pond-hockey tournament on Mirror Lake onto manufactured rinks instead. The organizers of the tournament, which draws men from the United States and Canada, rhapsodized on their Web site about the charms of competing in a natural setting: "There was something very special about playing hockey on the frozen pond, lake, creek or marsh."

But it was not to be. "The lake had not frozen sufficiently," said Sandy Caligiore, a spokesman for the Olympic Regional Development Authority, the state agency that runs the sites of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid and the ski area at Gore Mountain. "It would be nice if winter was predictable like it was back in the 1960s and '70s, but now there seems to be no pattern to it. As a result, sometimes you do hold your breath."

The Adirondacks are not alone in grappling with waning winters. In Minnesota, cold temperatures finally brought snow and ice in mid-January too late to salvage the 24th annual Golden Rainbow ice-fishing tournament in Forest Lake, just north of St. Paul. This was the fourth winter in which the tournament, which once drew thousands of competitors, was canceled because of thin ice; next year, it is being permanently relocated farther north.

"The locals were disappointed that it was moved because of the effect on business," said Chuck Lennon, a spokesman for Minnesota's official tourism office. "There's a lot of spending that goes on in a real concentrated period in a small town like that."

Meteorologists say that what made this winter unusual, though not unprecedented, was the duration of the warm spell. "In the normal course of a winter, it gets mild, with temperatures in the '50s," said Jeff Warner, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University. "But for a month and a half we were in a pattern where we had consistent southwesterly flow that was drawing mild air. It was basically stuck."

Before the blast of cold that brought the mercury in the Adirondacks below zero all but two days in the second half of January, the weather here was balmy, at least by the standards of the six-million-acre park. In the first two weeks of January, for instance, the temperature did not fall below zero once in Saranac Lake, and it dropped below 10 on only one day.

In December, it fell below zero just twice. No town in the Adirondacks keeps official long-term temperature records, Mr. Warner said, but Burlington, Vt., which is 60 miles from here and usually several degrees warmer, normally has below-zero weather 5 days in December and 10 in January. "This was an extraordinary departure from normal," Mr. Warner said. "It's really just remarkable."

But Mr. Warner cautioned against pinning monthly or yearly changes in temperature on global warming, pointing out that the 1930s were also "extremely warm."

The recent chill is more typical: On several nights at the end of January, temperatures sank to 20 degrees below zero or lower. But people here are prepared, equipped with insulated boots, all-wheel drive and wood stoves, among other must-haves. Many seem to thrive on the frigid temperatures.

"You've got to have cold weather in this neck of the woods to make it," Ernie Jessie explained as he hammered studs into the tires of his all-terrain vehicle, just hours after the thermometer hit 26 below zero in Saranac Lake.

But, worldwide, 11 of the 12 warmest years on record have occurred since 1995. With the recent release of an international report declaring global warming "unequivocal," many local merchants who depend on cold-weather tourism are anxious.

Ali Hamdan, an owner of Hoss's Country Corner, a general store in Long Lake, about 30 miles from here, said this winter's tardiness could spell disaster. The store did not sell a single bit of live bait until Jan. 19.

"I wasn't worried about global warming before, but now I am," said Mr. Hamdan, who bought the store with his business partner, Julia Pierce, three years ago. "I'm worried about making it through this winter. It's too late now for us. We won't make up for what we lost."

For others, winter's delay seemed to toy more with their mental health than with any bottom line.

Ron Sauvie, a retired Tupper Lake resident, usually drags his barn-red ice shack out on Saranac Lake well before Christmas. But this winter the shack did not make its debut until well after Martin Luther King's Birthday.

"The weather's been crazy," he said. "It kind of messes me up."