CAROGA LAKE - Flecks of gold and red sprinkled the grassy landscape at Royal Mountain as the trees' color-changing leaves floated to the ground along the trails Wednesday.
But soon the trails will be white with snow, and an investment in three new tower-mounted fan guns from Snow Machines Incorporated will bring the ski area to its full snow-making capacity.
Since owner Jim Blaise, 60, bought Royal Mountain in 1972 when he was 19 years old, the premises have seen numerous improvements.
Above, John Parker of Snow Machines Incorporated works on one of the new tower-mounted fan guns in the fog on one of the trails Wednesday. (The Leader-Herald/Amanda May Metzger)
Royal Mountain, which opened in 1956, now operates debt free, Blaise said. He has taken out loans with the Fulton County Economic Development Corporation in the past, and they are all paid in full.
"We started off here with one T-bar [a system to transport skiers uphill] and one rope tow," he said. "Then we put another T-bar in the beginners area, and it stayed that way for close to 20 years. Then we found motorcross, which certainly helped out a lot. We ended up putting our first chair lift in 20 years ago, and then two years later we started putting limited snow-making in."
Royal Mountain is open year round for motorcross super cross and hill climb in the summer. According to the website, www.royalmountain.com, since the snowmaking pond was doubled in size last fall, it provided over 3,000 yards of topsoil for the race track.
When the first chair lift was installed, Blaise said avid skiers lent money for the purchase. He said about $120,000 was raised, and that money was repaid to the investors.
Blaise is proud of the fact that Royal hasn't received any government grants, and despite some loans borrowed at about 7 to 8 percent interest, everything has been paid in full and on time, he said.
"When I continually see other businesses doing nothing until the government comes in and they have their hand out - we've never had our hand out," Blaise said. "That's the way we do business, and I think we're respected for that fact. Every time people come here, they see something new and something better."
Even with last year's mild winter, because of snow-making capacity, Royal was open from January to March. The amount of season passes purchased has increased steadily about 10 percent every year, Blaise said. Passes hit about 500 recently.
"We could put our snow against anybody's last year, in probably the worst winter we've seen - at least one day a week it rained - but we maintained our snow-making base," Blaise said.
About 12 years ago he said the second chair lift was installed.
"Now it's just a question of making snow and making it better every year," Blaise said.
Three years ago Royal installed a new pump that allowed the ski area to increase its ability to pump water into the snow-making machines.
"We were at 600 gallons. Now we can pump 1,200 gallons a minute," Blaise said. "That's just because of the pumping capacity. We're continually buying more guns, but now we're at our limit. We have enough guns to utilize every gallon of water we can pump. We're operating at maximum capacity for the first time ever."
The tower-mounted fan guns cost about $20,000 each. Royal had 12 portable guns before the addition of the three new tower-mounted fan guns. Over the last three years, Blaise estimated the business has spent $300,000 in snow-making improvements between pumps and guns.
Blaise noted Royal also builds a snowboard park every year for a sport growing in popularity.
In the winter Royal provides eight or nine jobs plus ski school and ski patrol positions.
In past seasons portable guns were taken to different sites along the trails to make snow.
"What this does is enable us to get one trail open before [we could] in the past," Blaise said. "We're going to be one trail ahead of schedule when the season starts."
Depending on the weather, the season is expected to start by December.
"We usually start at 25 degrees. Fifteen degrees is perfect, but we'll make snow at 25. The colder the better," he said.
The guns were placed on the Queen trail, which is the widest, "so we can utilize all the snow they're going to make there," he said.
Joe Mulyca, who has worked at Royal for about a dozen years but has four decades of experience making snow, said the location was critical for the fan guns.
"We've put them in places where we can push a lot of snow away from the machines. It's more economical to make snow when the machine is high on the tower there, and we can spread it out where we need it," he said.
Mulyca explained the snow-making process, saying that droplets of water are shot into the air and then cooled to below-freezing.
"The droplets of water need a particle to freeze around, referred to as a nuclei," he said. "Every snowflake has a nuclei, even the natural ones Usually it's dust. When our machine makes snow, we make our own nuclei with air and a small air- water nozzle inside the snow maker, so it provides its own nuclei."
Because there are so many variables, making proper recreational snow requires trial and error, experience and knowledge.
"At any given temperature and humidity, you can only convert 'X' amount of snow to water. If you try to use too much water for the temperature, it will end up being wet and sloppy. If there's not enough water, the snow is very dry. You're always balancing the quality of snow you want [with] the air conditions you have," he said.
Since the three new guns are perched on towers, Mulyca is hoping to make more snow.
"We have four of the same model already, but what makes these different is they are on a stationary tower. Before that, we had a portable ground base gun sot these units are going to be 18 feet in he air, which gives the water more time to freeze into snow before it hits the ground, so in theory they should make better snow," Mulyca said.
In addition to the equipment, Royal needed to invest in proper infrastructure to operate the guns, which run on electricity.
Mulyca said snow-making tends to add up to about 95 percent of the electricity bill during the season. How often the guns run depends on the weather.
"Ideally we cover all the trails once and be done with it. If we have a serious thaw or some frozen conditions, we may have to go back and make snow again. The goal is to do it once and have mother nature take over and give us a foot of snow every Thursday," he said.
Thursday, because that would leave Friday for plowing before the weekend, he said.
For information about passes and classes, visit www.royalmountain.com, call 835-6445 or find Royal on Facebook.