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Monday, October 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 54.0° F  Overcast
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Best! Winter! Ever!
Snow-sports enthusiasts sing season's praises

We've all heard the gnashing teeth of property owners, commuters and other folks inconvenienced - and in some cases even burdened - by this winter's relentless snows. Smashing its old seasonal snowfall record by almost one and one-half feet, Madison has totaled 92 inches (so far).

That's enough to bury Yao Ming standing up. Some forecasters are predicting the possibility of yet more snow before spring's thaws. Insert sound of biblical lamentations here.

But don't go whining to skiers, snowshoers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and the retailers and resorts who serve them. They're all joined in a hallelujah chorus under the WinterFest gospel tent, singing the praises of the best winter ever.

"For us, snowboards and downhill skis were a little bit better than the last few years," confirms John Hutchinson, owner of Fontana Sports Specialties. "On the other hand, cross-country skis and snowshoes were about double what they have been."

A classic stride-and-glide cross-country skiing devotee, Hutchinson says the length of this ski season has been a highlight for him and his family. "We've been getting out four or five times a week the last couple weeks," he says. Last weekend up at Rocky Run, he adds, "the snow was great. We saw all kinds of turkeys and deer."

Brent Gentry, assistant manager for action sports at REI's Madison store, echoes Hutchinson's appraisal. In his five years with REI, Gentry says, this winter ranks first from a retail standpoint.

"Cross-country skiing seemed to be the one thing everybody wanted to do," he says. Driven by strong interest from families, he adds, sales and rentals were "explosive" compared to previous years and "snowshoes were a heckuva category for us."

The only thing that plateaued slightly was snowboarding, a fact he attributes to enthusiasts being well equipped after the surging interest of recent years.

Sales of cross-country ski trail passes are another measure of the spike in Nordic interest. Through February, the city of Madison has sold 1,331 annual passes - a jump of more than 40% over last winter, and at least 25% more than any of the last five years. Sales of daily passes at Elver and Odana parks have surpassed the past two years combined.

Dean Statz, co-owner of Carl F. Statz & Sons, says the local power-sports retailer sold 55 new snowmobiles and 30 used sleds this season - both numbers "more than double what we've sold the last few years."

Madison Nordic ski racer Chris Halverson - who finished 74th out of more than 3,200 skate-skiers and fourth out of 477 in the men's 45-49 age group in the freestyle division at last month's Birkebeiner ski race - attributes his good position, at least in part, to good local conditions for training.

"I think that was a huge factor," he says, "getting the time out on the snow this year. I don't think I skied significantly more. It was just easier to get to the snow. The city's grooming was excellent," he adds.

"From a skier's standpoint," Halverson continues, this winter ranks "near the top. As far as, like, the last 10 years, it was definitely a high point." He notes that his season isn't over yet. There is still plenty of snow cover in Michigan's Upper Peninsula: "They'll probably be skiing until April up there."

Clare Seguin finished sixth out of 35 women in the 45-49 age group who skied in the Birkie's classic stride-and-glide division, and 344th overall out of almost 1,000 entrants in that discipline.

This winter ranks "number one in my memory," she says. "I wish we could have prorated it and had some of the snow over the last five years, or we could bank it" against the prospect of winters that prove less generous with snow.

Pat Remington, president of Blackhawk Ski Club's board of directors, also ranks this winter number one, though he adds, "You always worry about what I call the recall bias." If chronological proximity is skewing his judgment, that's because he is still taking advantage of the opportunity to get out on the snow.

Sunday morning, he joined friends for a seven-mile cross-country foray. Starting from the club, he says, "we skied on the crust up Black Earth Creek valley to Pleasant View. The groomer at Pleasant View loves to groom, and he groomed Friday. He put down two beautiful tracks, but we skated around. Most of us skate."

Ending with a pancake brunch, it was, says Remington, "the best day of the year. We had good friends and good snow."

There is, however, one downside to the best winter ever, Remington points out: "Our only concern is that we'll look back some day and say it's never been as good as it was in the winter of oh-seven and oh-eight."

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