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Finally, we see the light see the light

February warms us up to season

It was around 5 when I came home on snowshoes the other day. As the sunset intensified at the western horizon, a stream of light shot through the pines and, of all objects to illuminate, picked out a male cardinal, its brilliant scarlet shining as if by some inner light -- the only point of color in the otherwise monochrome winter scene. I realized that January was over.

That had to be the real meaning of this electric bird at the feeder. A couple of weeks ago, the hour would have been dark, but even in early February there is a swelling of light in late afternoon that we Ptolemaists, of course, interpret as the sun coming north again.

And a tough January it was. Storms big enough to make ski lovers rejoice came at the wrong time and dumped in the wrong places. Just check out the 4 feet that buried Cape Cod, and came on a weekend at that. What do they need that kind of snow for when much of ski country was scratching together a few inches of new stuff?

The month started badly from a skier's point of view. In Vermont over New Year's, we decided against skiing when a 50-degree-plus meltdown turned the landscape brown. "It was a fight little by little all the way back from that point," says one friend in the business.

Of course, there are no guarantees that February will be better, but historically it has been the month to really start skiing. If the time from Thanksgiving through January is a kind of skiing preseason, the next two months are the regular season, at least as my skiing history measures such things.

January is quiet and dark; February grows lighter and warmer, and there is an intensity to it. I recall about three weeks ago skiing along a ridge line at Sugarloaf from which trails drop down the face. After the briefest brush of sunlight at midday, by afternoon all had been plunged into purple darkness, inhospitably flat light.

As February begins, the light lingers longer up on that ridge, and will continue to do so until by mid-March -- the very prime time for all things ski -- the trails and woods have their maximum snow depths and are bathed in sunlight all afternoon.

One month ago, the sun set at 4:24. Today, it makes it just past 5 o'clock. By late February it will be closer to 5:30, with the sunrise moving from just after 7 in early January to 6:21 by the end of February. For skiers, that means a relief from that start-in-the-dark routine once called "the milk run" with grim stoicism.

In January, most weather fronts that went through were followed by howling northwest winds, the kind that once made walks across the University of Maine campus a building-to-building advance.

Not that February is radically different from January. We wouldn't wish winter away just like that. But it's just a little easing of sheets, that unclenching within, and maybe a splash of warmth on the cheek on that chairlift ride before lunch that takes away all reservations about spending lots of hours outdoors in winter.

Of course, the month always starts on a note of absurdity as a bunch of fat pink guys in top hats ceremonially abuse a small rodent while thousands of Pennsylvanians cheer them on. But at least the news from Punxsutawney is good this year, because the forecast is for six more weeks of winter. I'd negotiate for eight, followed by a none-too-radical shift into the spring ski season.

In a normal year, February is the month when we can start skiing the glades. Before now the natural snow has not buffered the woods enough for any real tree skiing, but now the stumps and rocks are covered and a nice collar of snow rings the tree trunks.

This is the time to head for the glades at Jay, Killington, and Smugglers, the snowfields of Sugarloaf, the back country of Sugarbush, the high-flying boards at Stratton, the smooth cruising at Bretton Woods (though the new tree runs are also great), the plunge down Upper Ptarmigan at Attitash, the back country trek down the wooded side of Wildcat, a run out the Ellis River Trail at Jackson, or the lake views from the summits of Gunstock, Sunapee, Saddleback, Shawnee, and Big Squaw. In fact, there's almost nothing in our sport that doesn't go better in February.

"It's a month," mused Sunday River's Sue Duplessis as she was preparing for a slalom race yesterday morning, "when the snow softens and we have that perfect balance when all of the forces that make a great ski day come together. Yet it feels like we're only midway through the winter with lots more days on the hill to come."

Of course, it's also the month that runs up to the big vacation week when the largest crowds will be on the mountain. Best strategy for dealing with vacation-size crowds is to get in the milk run (it really doesn't hurt as bad now) and then as many runs as you can before 10 a.m. -- which is somehow a magic hour when everyone turns out at the lifts.

Then take an early lunch break, and spend a couple of hours on cross-country skis (most Alpine areas have XC trails nearby). If you have more appetite for Alpine, try the last couple of hours of the day. From about 2:30 on, the crowds lighten up. The grooming might not be perfect, but we should be dealing with varied surfaces anyway.

My own recommendation for this month is to take another week of vacation and hit your favorite slopes before or after the school vacations. One habit that began for me in my college years was taking Mondays and Fridays as ski days.

Happily, we were in new courses that month, had plenty of cuts to burn, and, if we had chosen wisely, directed our academics so as not to interfere with the Thursday night ramble up to the mountains.

There are all kinds of strategies, but this is the month to work them. February in the mountains: the days are going fast and this month will be gone in no time.

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