Scott Koontz: White Knight

Few wintertime pleasures are as sweet as surveying a ski hill in the early morning, when the trails beg to be carved with first tracks. At Nub’s Nob, a Harbor Springs ski resort acclaimed for its snowmaking, the man behind all that fresh fall is Scott Koontz. A 23-year veteran of Nub’s snow team, Koontz is the resort’s chief midnight shift snowmaker – meaning, all night every night, he and his six-man crew are on the slopes busily crafting powder perfection. He let us in on the midnight madness:

What are the perfect conditions for snowmaking?Your starry, dry-air nights are your favorites. The ones with just a little bit of wind – maybe 3 or 5 mph.

Do you get many nights like that?No, you don’t. (Laughs.) You sure don’t. The weather is probably your worst enemy. It’s always changing. Something’s always waiting to knock you out: wind changes, temperature changes, humidity changes.

Tell us about a typical midnight snowmaking shift.I come in about 11 or 11:30 p.m., check the pump house and the water pressure, and figure out what’s happening with the previous shift. Right at midnight my guys are dressed and ready to go. Then we pretty much make snow until the morning. It’s not unusual to be here until 9 or 10 a.m.

Nub’s has won national recognition for its snowmaking abilities. What’s the secret?We try to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk: we make a sincere, true effort to make the best skiing possible. We’re a local resort and we gotta keep the locals happy, and if things aren’t right they let us know. A lot of the people who work here ski here and have grown up skiing here; we know what to expect and what’s expected out of us.

Has snowmaking changed since you started working here?I believe there’s something to the greenhouse effect. We keep adding more snow guns, and it seems like it’s still just as difficult to get open by Christmas. When I started making snow [in 1985], it was a two-man crew – just me and another guy.

Is there a formula for really great snow?When you’re making base snow, you want it to be packy, like you could make a snowball. You don’t want it to be gray – if it’s gray inside, there’s too much water. You can get the feel of different textures of the snow: how it feels, how much it crumbles when it’s packed.

So, packy snow is good?Only for base snow. Not if you’re looking at trying to ski this stuff the next day. We make base snow in marginal temperatures [between 26 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit]; it’s gotta get into 20 degrees and colder to make that perfectly dry, silky snow that you can ski.

Despite the cold, it must be beautiful out there at night.Sometimes you don’t have time to look at the scenery, but sometimes, when things are going right, you have a little more time to look around. I’ve had nights where I’ve envisioned if the moon had oxygen that this is what it’d be like to walk on the moon, everything’s so flat and smooth and pretty. You do get some spectacular sunrises; normally you don’t have time to watch them, but when you do …
Ever get to sneak in a few runs before the first skiers show up?Not normally. We have to wait for the lifts like everyone else.

See for yourself how the snowmaking at Nub’s Nob stacks up. 800-SKI-NUBS, nubsnob.com.

Emily Bingham is assistant editor at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.[email protected]

Note: This article was originally published in January 2008 and was updated for the web February 2008.

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