Signs of an early fall
August 12, 2016
There are some strange things going on, and it feels like the season has turned early. The potgut squirrel population soared this summer. They were thick as flies. They always hibernate much earlier than makes sense. But that's usually between the 15th and 20th of August. This year they started disappearing about the first of August, and I haven't seen one in a week. Expert potgut-ologists say they technically don't hibernate. They just get so fat their feet won't reach the ground any more, so they are high-centered and stuck in their burrows. The hawks are scrounging around looking for something to eat.
I've been able to keep my yard relatively green despite the low water flows. It's green, but it's absolutely quit growing. I haven't mowed it in weeks. We were late getting the first hay crop out of the field, but still hoped for a second. It's green, but nothing is actually growing. It's like the heat has just shut it off. The alfalfa is blossoming without spending much effort growing leaves. The grass just gave up.
After being missing in action for the last couple of years, the hornets are back, building football sized nests in the gable ends of the barns and up high in the trees. It's supposed to be a sign of a snowy winter when they build up high. I'm not sure they have any real predictive value, but it's interesting that after a couple of years without seeing more than a few hornet nests, they are suddenly all over the place. The big nests usually show up in September.
The wild raspberries have been very good this year. They are puny, but packed with flavor. Meanwhile, the river is so low that if two cows drink at the same time, the fish are walking. It was 45 degrees the other night. It feels like fall, despite the hot afternoons. I don't know what it means. Official, scientific forecasts for the next 90 days stick with hot and dry. I'm not sure. Everything has seemed about three weeks ahead of schedule all year, from the 80 degree days in May right on through to the potguts making an early exit. Maybe fall will be early, too.
The news that Vail bought Whistler is a surprise. The two industry giants are now one bigger giant. The impact here is anybody's guess. Whistler won't be on the Epic Pass until the 2017-18 ski season, but once it is, the experience so far suggests that we will see people who have usually skied Whistler explore other Epic Pass resorts, and some people who have usually skied Park City will explore elsewhere for a change. The ski market is pretty much flat, so it's just a process of moving the same people to different places.
We are probably better off being part of the Vail steamroller than standing on the road in front of it. It would be a real challenge to compete against that kind of market dominance. I don't know what percentage of North American skiing is now Vail-owned, but it's a lot. Breckenridge, Park City, Vail, Whistler — even if you ignore their smaller (but highly profitable) "urban" ski areas, that's a huge slice of the ski market. It begins to smell like a monopoly. The Vail plan has been to attract market share with cheap season passes, and make it up with expensive ancillary stuff from lunch to lessons. At some point, they will have taken enough of the market that they can charge whatever they want.
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Vail paid over a billion dollars for Whistler-Blackcomb. The Park City/Canyons transactions are about a half billion invested here. That's big money in any business, and along the way they bought a resort in Australia, too. That's a lot of cheeseburgers, even at Vail prices. I wonder what that will do to the price of a cup of coffee this year.
It remains to be seen whether it really makes a difference here. There certainly has been an increase in traffic on the mountain since Vail took over, and it's clear from talking to people on the lift that they are using the Epic Pass to explore new areas. I know a lot of Park City residents who have travelled elsewhere and used their passes at other resorts. Whistler has a big Asian market, and we might see some of that shift here. But there's no advantage to Vail in having somebody who would have bought a ticket at Whistler or Breckenridge buy one at Park City instead.
The Mountain Accord planning group is not about to let this opportunity get away from them. They are already studying the idea of building a tunnel from Park City to Whistler.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.