For the first time in 27 years, Spooner Lake Cross Country Ski Area won't reopen for the winter season. Max Jones has shut down the grooming equipment and his wife Patti McMullan will no longer man the front counter where she handled fees and rentals for almost three decades. Jones said he has mixed feelings about the closure. It's hard to leave a position that's dominated his life since 1985, he said, but those winters weren't always easy. “You couldn't ask for a better job when the conditions are good and everything is working. But it's also the worst of jobs when there isn't any snow. This year, I'm looking forward to winter for the first time in a long time,” Jones said. Any profession that's weather-dependent is bound to have its stresses. And last season's lean winter — the Sierra Avalanche Center reported the Donner Summit snowpack at 26 percent of normal in February 2012 — didn't help matters. “We've had some sketchy winters. It's harder and harder for us to deal with if we're going to be open 150 days or 30 days like last season,” Jones said. The couple worked as a concessionaire at Spooner Lake, paying a fee to the state parks department to run the center. When their lease came up for renewal at the end of last season, the parks department more than doubled that fee, Jones said. That plus the unseasonably dry winter led to Jones and McMullan's decision to shut down their operation. According to the Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park Supervisor Jay Howard, the cross-country ski area was paying a much lower fee than what the department would consider customary and standard. The goal was to also open up the area to more recreationists. “We want to let things lie fallow at the moment. In the past, Spooner was essentially turned over to the concessionaire and limited to the public. You had to buy a pass to access the area. We want to consider keeping it open to the public,” Howard said. There won't be a new group to take over the area this winter, but Howard said he hopes they will find someone to take over the Spooner Lake bike rentals for summer 2013. He said the goal is to not miss a summer, but the department is waiting to hear back from the public regarding the fate of the area in the winter. “We don't know if a ski area with full-blown groomed trails is going to be possible,” Howard said. At the moment, there are three options on the table. The state park is looking to either bring in another group like Jones and McMullan who devoted enormous time and resources to grooming a nordic track, leave Spooner Lake virtually untended during the winter, or some combination of the two. One cross-country skier who'd like to see a return of the former status quo is Jennifer Roman. Roman, a senior engineer at the Eastern Sierra Engineering office in Zephyr Cove, Nev., said she'd skied at Spooner for almost 10 years, and doesn't want to see the grooming go away. “It's just needing somewhere to go ski on my lunch break. They had great terrain, great views, great grooming and really good people. I could understand why they closed — the uncertainty and the costs — but I was bummed,” Roman said. After Jones and McMullan's announcement to close the area, Roman spearheaded an effort to secure funding for grooming another way. At the moment, that work has taken a back seat, but she still hopes the group can organize at least some money for grooming this season. Jones said he knows of many visitors and basin residents who were disappointed by the closure, but it was time for a change. Jones and his wife now operate a bike cafe at the Tunnel Creek Station in Incline Village, Nev., where holders of unused 10-day tickets can exchange their passes for coffee, treats and shuttle rides to trailheads. “Our season-pass people are kind of heartbroken and we feel really bad. But maybe it was just time,” Jones said.
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