2012-01-07 "Summer in winter means hard times at Tahoe" by Kevin Fagan from "San Francisco Chronicle"
South Lake Tahoe --
It's summertime at Lake Tahoe.
The calendar doesn't show it. But just about everything else does - and that's not good for most people trying to make a buck up here.
Lines are out the door at ice cream shops, the miniature-golf course is bustling, and mountain bikers are tearing up and down the parched mountainsides under balmy skies.
Nowhere, however - at least from the shoreline - can you see snow.
And that's the problem.
For snow, you have to drive back into the trees and up the bare-dirt hillsides to the ski resorts. There, machines have created enough artificial frozen whiteness to keep nearly 20 percent of the ski runs open, according to the Tahoe City Visitors Center.
That's great for diehards here for the novelty of T-shirt skiing in 60-degree weather - they are sliding down the slopes in just enough numbers to keep those resorts open. But for the thousands of people who come from all over the world each winter to work the resorts and the little businesses, like ski rental shops, that depend on them?
Not so good.
This is ski and snow-play season, not mountain-biking season, and those lines at the mini-golf course and its summery ilk are not nearly long enough to make up for all the winter tourists who are staying home.
'So weird' -
"I went hiking to Fallen Leaf Lake today and got great sun," Charles Dollwett, a builder from Santa Rosa, said as he pulled the handle on a poker slot machine at Harrah's casino. "It was gorgeous, just like summer.
"Trouble is, I came here to ski and there's no skiing for me," said Dollwett, 51. "I need 5 inches of powder; the man-made stuff doesn't do it for me. What is going on here? It's just so weird."
There hasn't been a snowfall here since Dec. 15, and that was a sprinkling so small it barely registered, said Jan Null, a meteorologist who runs the private Golden Gate Weather Services. In fact, this December was the second-driest in the northern Sierra since 1920, besting only 1989 when a slightly smaller fraction of an inch of snow fell, Null said.
The official snowpack count taken near the lake Tuesday by the state Department of Water Resources showed virtually nothing on the ground.
"The only reason we still have our doors open is because Heavenly (ski resort) makes more snow than anyone else and it's just up the road from us," said Robert Cole, owner of the Rock House Ski & Snowboard Rental shop, which is not alone in sporting a "Pray 4 Snow" sign.
"It's sad when it's like this," Cole said. "It's tough on the town."
His shop was empty the other morning, so he hit the Heavenly slopes himself.
"Skiing down the run with dirt and boulders on either side was like going down ribbons of hope," Cole said. "I don't think everyone realizes how nice the skiing still is. They just read the weather report and think nothing's going on."
Mini-golf fun -
Back down at the shoreline, it's nothing but good times at the Magic Carpet Golf peewee wonderland, where the cement dinosaurs and dragons are usually buried in several feet of snow by now.
Owner Karen Franceschi shut the place on Nov. 1 as always, but when the sun kept right on beaming, she reopened on Christmas Eve. The doors haven't stopped swinging since.
"There are so many people who made ski trip reservations and can't cancel them, so we give them something to do," Franceschi said. "Good for them, good for us."
Karla Olson, 45, of Fallon, Nev., said she couldn't believe her good luck when her 14-year-old son spotted Magic Carpet's "open" sign as they drove by.
"Finally, something else to do," she said as she knocked her ball through a fake cave. "We're here for our ski week, but the slopes are so empty we only took three days there.
"People have nothing to do. You can't just sit in your hotel room and watch TV."
For those hankering for grown-up golf, the nine-hole Old Brockway Golf Course in Kings Beach is happy to oblige.
The course has been around for 87 years, and this is the first time anyone can remember it being open after mid-November. Granted, the ball often shoots across the brown grass like a greased cannonball. But it's still golf.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Garrett Good, head golf pro. "People are doing skiing and golfing on the same day. Who'd have believed it?"
Wedding bell blues -
For CeCe Beatleston, no snow means less love. But she's making do.
Beatleston owns the Tahoe Mountain Wedding Chapel, and this time of year she specializes in weddings on sleighs, on snow-carpeted mountain peaks and on snowmobiles that zip between trees for mobile vows.
Her motto, painted on the side of the chapel, is "Better off wed than dead."
So far this winter, Beatleston has had about a dozen cancellations, and business overall is down 20 percent. That's not catastrophic yet, considering she grinds out about 400 weddings a year.
But with tourism in the dumper and about 15 percent of her nuptials coming from couples spontaneously dashing in to tie the knot, "I'd sure like to see some snow," Beatleston said.
"You come to get married at Tahoe for the scenery, let's face it," she said. "And brides in particular want that scenery to be just the way they want it. So if it changes, that's not good.
"I converted one of my snowmobile weddings into a beach wedding just a few days ago, but that won't work for everyone. I just tell people we're only limited to your imagination."
Get creative -
Nancy Kerry, spokeswoman for the city of South Lake Tahoe, said hotel occupancy in the area is running at about 25 percent, compared with 70 percent in good times.
"There's actually some construction work that normally wouldn't be happening now because of the weather," Kerry said. "Our city crews were able to finish our new Lakeview Commons park on the shoreline, when we weren't expecting to do that until spring."
But even the stray carpentry job isn't enough to absorb the estimated 5,000 people who have poured in, as they do every winter, to work at the 15 downhill ski resorts and half-dozen cross-country fields around the lake. With skeleton staffs at the downhills and none at the closed-down cross-country spots, there are a lot of people biting their nails.
"We're all doing the snow dance, hoping to make those skies turn white," said Tim Blummer, 25, as he downed a brew at Whiskey Dick's bar, which is drawing boom crowds of unemployed ski resort workers.
Blummer usually spends his winters tending ski jumps, but this year he's been picking up gigs parking cars while he waits for the slopes to open. He's not about to blow town, though.
"You just wait and see," he said. "You can't force the weather to fit our artificial deadlines, but when it comes, this is going to be the most amazing winter you ever saw. It'll be great."
An overview of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Wednesday, January 4, 2012.
Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle
Skiers ride up a lift in search of man-made snow at Heavenly.
Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle