The silence of snowfall isn't gracing the traditional start of the Sierra ski season this Thanksgiving weekend -- it's the rumble of snow-making machines in overdrive.

Although a huge storm is pelting the East Coast, impeding holiday travel from Florida to Maine, California is still suffering through its driest calendar year in recorded history.

Real snow in Tahoe? Bring it on.

From skiers and snowboarders to resort operators and water-watchers, all are hoping for a wet winter to end all this talk about drought.

A downpour last week was a good start to the wet season, bringing 8 to 12 inches of snow to the Sierra, but another storm that was supposed to hit Northern California on Thanksgiving appears to be bypassing the region and heading south instead. The next weather system isn't expected until the middle of next week.

Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, which offers breath-taking views, opened for the 2013-2014 ski and ride season on Saturday, November
Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, which offers breath-taking views, opened for the 2013-2014 ski and ride season on Saturday, November 23.(Courtesy of Heavenly Mountain Resort)

"It's going to be critical what happens the next few months entering the rainy season to see if we can make up the difference and go above normal for a while," said meteorologist Charles Bell of the National Weather Service in Monterey.

Heavenly Mountain Resort, Squaw Valley, Borreal, Kirkwood and Northstar are among the Tahoe resorts open for the holiday.

While it's mostly man-made snow, "it's enough to get started," said Xiao Chen of San Jose, who was buying snowboarding equipment Tuesday at Mel Cotton's Sporting Goods. With his wife and two young children, he was heading up to Northstar and planned to teach his 6-year-old how to snowboard.

The Goodson family is heading up as well, pleased there will be snow, machine-made or not, for the three kids to snowboard.


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"Honestly, if it didn't snow at all, to me I enjoy Tahoe just as much," Judy Goodson said. "That's from a person who would prefer being cuddled up in a cabin with a glass of wine and a good book."

Thanksgiving has always been iffy for the start of ski season. Some Bay Area ski rental shops don't even start renting equipment until mid-December for fear the gear will be chewed up by exposed rocks and dirt.

Given the dry year, Squaw Valley on Lake Tahoe's north shore is operating only six of 29 runs, and Heavenly on the south shore has opened just 2 percent of the mountain.

"At this time of year, it just depends on what Mother Nature sets up," said Squaw Valley spokeswoman Amelia Richmond. "We've got 10 inches of snow and vastly improved our snowmaking system. You're very rarely going to have the full mountain open around Thanksgiving, but I think we're happy with what we have to offer opening day."

Ah, for 2012, which had the wettest November and December on record. On Thanksgiving last year, Squaw Valley was boasting 86 inches of snowfall by then, compared to 33 inches now. That early precipitation kept fears of drought at bay. And while much has been made of the lack of rain during this calendar year, meteorologist Jan Null says it doesn't look as dire when you review the rainfall season, which runs from July 1 through June 30.

"We've had 1.69 inches of rain so far this season," he said, which is a quarter of what had been measured last season at this time at a San Francisco station that keeps records going back to 1849. "Out of 164 years, 34 other years have had less than that the first five months of the season. I don't see the fact that we had a low total at this point as being extraordinary."

The real question is what's ahead, and that's a question few if any can answer with authority. The National Weather Service's Climate Center took a stab at it with a 90-day forecast. It's research shows "an equal chance of above or below normal rainfall," Bell said.

In other words, "they're looking for prominent atmospheric features that would end up being a telltale sign for impacts nationally."

Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, which offers breath-taking views, opened for the 2013-2014 ski and ride season on Saturday, November
Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, which offers breath-taking views, opened for the 2013-2014 ski and ride season on Saturday, November 23.(Courtesy of Heavenly Mountain Resort)

And so far, Bell said, there's been nothing.

But die-hard skiers and families looking to enjoy Thanksgiving in the Sierra are packing up nonetheless, whether the snow is machine-made or natural.

On the bright side, at least the roads will be clear.

Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at Twitter.com/juliasulek.