In New England, climate change is imperiling a winter tradition

Only in recent weeks has Lake Morey in Fairlee, Vt., frozen thick enough to safely open part of its long ice skating trail. (John Tully for The Washington Post)
10 min

FAIRLEE, Vermont — Far out in the middle of the lake, Mark Avery could still see dark ripples of open water. Nearer to shore, the ice was about three inches thick. He prayed it would hold him and a snowblower.

It was Jan. 26. Each day that month, Avery had watched in disbelief as Lake Morey failed to freeze over. His family has owned the resort on the lake’s southern shore since 1972. When he was a kid, early ice was a constant.

“Death and taxes and frozen ice by early January,” as he put it.

Avery and his family had turned that ice into something unique: a four-mile skating trail billed as the longest in the country. It draws visitors from around the region and beyond, packing the hotel and this town of fewer than 1,000 people in eastern Vermont.

But this winter has been exceedingly warm in New England, catastrophically so for Avery’s business. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont all experienced their warmest Januaries ever. After a short burst of extreme cold early this month, the mild temperatures returned.

“We’re cooking the planet, and we’re feeling it locally firsthand,” said Avery, 52.

(Video: John Tully for The Washington Post)

By late January, he faced a choice. The ice was still too thin to support the heavier equipment the hotel had always used to clear the skating trail. But if Avery didn’t get out and carve a path through the layer of snow, the trail — already weeks late — might not happen at all.

So Avery stepped onto the surface, pushing a garden-variety snowblower, the kind you’d use on your driveway. He listened hard for cracking noises and tensed to run. He had a pair of ice picks draped around his neck in case he fell in.

January’s warmth was unprecedented in much of the Northeast

Byron Stone, 65, lives down the street from the hotel. He was outside when he heard an unusual sound. “All of a sudden, I go, ‘What the hell is that noise?’” he recalled. Then Stone spotted Avery, slowly making a mile-long path along the ice.

Stone was so astounded that he took a picture to show his wife. “It was a trip,” he said, shaking his head, something only Avery would do. “Who else would be walking a snowblower around the whole lake?”

(Video: John Tully for The Washington Post)

‘Those winters are gone’

When I arrived at the Lake Morey Resort in early February, Avery met me in the lobby of the hotel, which has 125 rooms, several cottages and a golf course.

A long bank of windows offered a view of the frozen lake bathed in sunlight. It was a lovely day, I said. Avery groaned. “I’m well aware of the forecast,” he replied. The prediction was for a string of above-freezing days that could turn the top layer of the skating trail to mush.

I had come to Fairlee, a small town next to Interstate 91 about halfway up Vermont, to explore what warming winters meant to a community’s sense of self. New England takes grim pride in the grimness of its winters, and I wondered what was being lost.

New England is warming faster than nearly every other part of the country, and the region’s winters are warming twice as quickly as the other seasons, said Stephen Young, a professor of sustainability and geography at Salem State University in Massachusetts. Any activity that relies on the cold, whether skiing or making maple syrup, is looking at an unstable future.

While the harshness of each winter will vary, Young said, the longer trend of warmer temperatures and less snow is clear. He grew up in the 1970s near Albany, playing hockey on a pond. The winters of his childhood have already slipped away, he said, lost to a changing climate. “They are gone, absolutely,” Young said. “Those winters are gone.”

Great Lakes ice cover plummets to record mid-February low

Fairlee is home to two lakes, a clutch of summer camps and a general store that has been in operation since 1875. Every person over 50 had a story about what winters used to be like. Snowbanks so high you had to pull a car halfway out into the road to see oncoming traffic. Ice skating on frozen cornfields. Running a sled-dog team over the golf course.

Judy Stone, 67, said her grandfather used to drive his maroon Chevrolet Corvair on Lake Morey with a rope thrown behind it, hauling kids on skis half-wild with terror and exhilaration.

At Jan’s Fairlee Diner on a recent weekday morning, Terry Edson, 69, and Fleeta Thurston, 74, sat at the counter and traded stories about epic snowstorms of yore over plates of eggs.

“You gotta be tough enough to take it,” Thurston said, nodding her head. “You gotta prove yourself.”

In the absence of harsh winters, I asked, what do you prove yourself against?

“Nothing!” Edson said. She smiled: “But at least there are no hurricanes or tornadoes.”

(Edson’s brother lives in Fort Myers, Fla., and his roof was ripped off by Hurricane Ian. She said she would never live anywhere but Vermont.)

Smith Reed, 77, is a retired mechanical engineer who lives on Lake Morey with his wife, Ginny, 74. He talked about how his grandchildren may not know the thrill of skating on a frozen lake or experience the four seasons as he did. He paused, searching for the best way to describe his feelings. “Regret,” he said. “That’s the word I would use.”

In Fairlee, some were sad about the warming winters. Others expressed a very un-New England sense of relief. It was only Avery who appeared engaged in a daily, quixotic battle against something far larger than himself.

He didn’t really have an option. There are many lakeside hotels in New England, but there is only one with this kind of skating trail. If you call the main number for the Lake Morey Resort, a voice message tells you to press 1 for ice conditions and 2 for the front desk.

The trail finally opened in early February, an unheard-of delay, with six inches of ice. It requires daily grooming, which is done by Avery and two of his employees. He checks four forecasts from the moment he wakes up, knowing that just a few degrees can make the difference between a shiny, hard surface and putty.

Avery studied geography at the University of Vermont before joining the family business, which he operates with his siblings. The hotel began maintaining the skating trail around 2010, he said.

In Vermont, gliding along on natural ice

Now he wonders whether the days of deep cold and thick ice are done. For the second year in a row, the hotel has been unable to clear the full four-mile trail. In prior years, it has hosted two pond hockey tournaments, including one called the Frostbite Faceoff, giant affairs that drew dozens of teams to 16 large rinks cleared on the lake. Every room at the hotel was full. This year, both tournaments were canceled, one of them permanently.

About 20 minutes to the south, the city of Hanover, N.H., reached a similar conclusion. Last year, it announced it was canceling, for good, a festival once held each February on Occom Pond. “Without reliable winter weather, the challenges become insurmountable,” a city official told a public radio station.

(Video: John Tully for The Washington Post)

‘A kind of heartache’

Avery assured me that I would be fine on the trail as long as I took it easy. (He also said that on busy weekends, when hundreds of people converge on the frozen lake, there is usually a broken bone or two, often a wrist but sometimes a rib.)

I am a poor skater, good enough only not to fall, but the trail was magical, a dark gray curve leading north along the wooded shore. Sometimes the surface looked almost lunar. There were unnerving black holes where a layer of transparent ice revealed the water beneath.

Behind me were a pair of Vermont clothing designers on a daytime date. Ahead were a mother and two toddlers, pushing milk crates for balance, and a teenager mucking around with a hockey puck. There was a 66-year-old woman from New Hampshire still wearing the ivory-colored, high-ankle figure skates her mother bought for her when she was a girl and couples using “kicksparks,” a type of ice scooter made in Finland.

(Video: John Tully for The Washington Post)

Early the following morning, I met James Magoon, 33, an ice fisherman with a bright red beard who had just made his first catch of the winter: a small pike the length of his forearm. Waiting and waiting for the ice to freeze had been “a kind of heartache,” Magoon said. He wished he had the power to change the climate, he said, but “I’m only one little, small guppy in a big ocean of people.”

Meanwhile, Avery is making contingency plans. He is scheduling concerts at the hotel for next January to try to replace guests coming to skate. He thinks the window of time for skating on the lake, once seven weeks or more, could be almost halved in the future.

Two weekends ago, Avery was out on the ice at 7:15 a.m. in a TurfCat, a small, enclosed lawn mower retrofitted with a wide brush to sweep the trail. The sun was rising over the mountains to the east and it was just him, the lake and the sound of the brush.

By midday, a few hundred people had arrived to skate before the trail became slushy as the temperature climbed into the mid-40s, the start of another unseasonably warm week. Avery said it didn’t feel correct anymore to describe such weather as abnormal.

I asked him how the warming winters made him feel. He gave a little incredulous laugh. “I feel sad!” he said. “It’s sad to have 45-degree, 50-degree weather in the wintertime.”

Avery’s two sons are in their early 20s, and they don’t have the same attachment to the deep cold. When the temperature plunged briefly in early February, it reminded Avery of what he was told as a boy: There is no cold weather, only cold clothes. He recalled days spent on ski slopes wearing wet wool mittens and feeling “colder than heck.”

“You don’t realize those are warm, cherished memories” until the cold triggers them, he said. “And it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, this was great. This was what it was like.’”