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Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

Climate Diary: How Mild Winter Kept a Lewis County Waitress Away from Her Sick Mother

By Vaseline Jun10,2024

As climate change shortens and warms winters in the North, people whose livelihoods depend on winter sports tourism are struggling to make ends meet. Last winter was the mildest on record in much of the region.

For Mary Lynn Fager, a waitress in Brantingham, fewer snowmobiles meant fewer tips, and fewer tips meant she couldn’t afford to visit her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, for nearly six months.

Mary Lynn Fager (center) at the Coach Light Inn with two dinners.  Photo courtesy of Mary Lynn Fager

Mary Lynn Fager (center) at the Coach Light Inn with two dinners. Photo courtesy of Mary Lynn Fager

Fager waits tables a few nights a week at a restaurant called Coach Light Inn, a stop on a snowmobile trail in Lewis County. Her day job is at CiTi-BOCES of Oswego County, where she teaches children whose parents are migrant workers temporarily employed on nearby farms or timber operations. But that job doesn’t pay Fager enough to cover her costs.

“My rent money, my car payment, all my bills and my travel money to visit my family all come from my tips,” Fager said.

In a typical snowmobile season, Fager earns $200 to $300 in tips every night, saving as much as she can for plane tickets to visit her mother in Colorado.

“She’s at a stage where sometimes she looks at me and asks me who I am, and sometimes she’s her normal self, and so I want to spend as much time with her as possible, while she still has the ability to know who I am.” am and enjoying our time together,” Fager said.

The Coach Light Inn in Brantingham, acquired by owner Robert Doney.  Photo courtesy of Mary Lynn Fager

The Coach Light Inn in Brantingham, acquired by owner Robert Doney. Photo courtesy of Mary Lynn Fager

Fager grew up in Brantingham. She said that as a child in the 1970s and 1980s, she went skiing at the local ski area seven days a week, all winter long, from her birthday in late November to her brother’s birthday in late April.

“That was without snowmaking,” she said. “Now they have snowmaking and they’re barely open. I mean, it’s just changed incredibly.”

Last winter showed the biggest change yet.

“There were only two weekends all winter where there was enough snow for people to ride the trails here,” Fager said. “Many evenings there were more staff than customers”

An empty interior at the Coach Light Inn.  Photo courtesy of Mary Lynn Fager

An empty interior at the Coach Light Inn. Photo courtesy of Mary Lynn Fager

Fager was making just $15 or $20 a night in tips, instead of her usual $200 to $300. She considered looking for another job, but every local business was going through the same slump.

“I realized that even getting a third job as a waitress at the restaurants around here wouldn’t benefit me because everyone else is in the same boat,” she said. “How could you ever expect there would be two good snowmobile weekends all winter?”

Fager said the entire community was struggling, especially her fellow restaurant workers.

“It got to the point where we all got together, and you know, we didn’t have much to talk about other than the lack of snow, and it got pretty gloomy around here,” she said.

They all kept waiting, but snowmobile season never came. And with the climate warming over time, next year may not be better.

Mary Lynn Fager (right) with her mother, Mary Ann Daly, during her most recent visit to Colorado after nearly six months without seeing her.  Photo courtesy of Mary Lynn Fager

Mary Lynn Fager (right) with her mother, Mary Ann Daly, during her most recent visit to Colorado after nearly six months without seeing her. Photo courtesy of Mary Lynn Fager

Things are looking up at the Coach Light Inn right now. Now that summer is approaching, people are riding their ATVs there. Fager makes more money from tips, and she finally saved enough for plane tickets to visit her mother in Colorado in May. But she said the wait was far too long.

“These five months have been a very, very, very long time for her,” Fager said. “And for me too.”

NCPR’s climate change series is made possible by the generous support of Margot and John Ernst.

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