January and February are traditionally busy months for booking houseboat vacations on Lake Shasta.
But with lake levels down from a year ago and the economy in reverse, summer tourists are taking more of a wait-and-see approach in 2009.
"They are a little slow; we feel like people are being a little hesitant," said Dede Miller, officer manager at Shasta Marina. "Usually people book in January and February - they are our hard-core months."
But February rains raised the spirits considerably of Miller and other marina operators.
The soaking brought the lake up 35.62 feet last month and it was 84.04 feet below the Shasta Dam crest on Friday, up more than 70 feet from its low point of 157.77 feet on Oct. 31.
With the lake rising, people are calling.
"The phone has started to ring a little more now," Miller said. "I think a lot of people wanted to see if we would get the rain before they made a commitment this year."
Terri Canady, reservations manager at Silverthorn Resort on Lake Shasta, agreed.
"People this year are waiting a little longer to see what lake levels are doing, and now we are getting a lot of calls and a lot more bookings," Canady said.
While it's hard to quantify how much Lake Shasta's bountiful tourism business contributes to the north state economy, the U.S. Forest Service estimates about 3 million people visit the man-made reservoir each summer.
So businesses that rely on the state's largest reservoir are anxious about 2009, especially after the summer of 2008, when a month of nearly constant smoke from wildfires practically snuffed out the season.
"It literally killed tourism in the north state," said Lake Shasta Caverns General Manager Matthew Doyle. "I myself answered over 100 calls from people asking how the air quality was and whether we were even open."
Lake Shasta Caverns attracted about 50,000 visitors in 2008, about 5,000 fewer than in 2007.
Like other lake operators, Doyle remains upbeat, and he's spending money to bring in more money.
Given the economy and the low lake levels, Doyle has some first-time promotions planned for 2009, including a Mother's Day deal where moms get in free and a 45th anniversary special on May 30 that will feature half-priced tickets.
Doyle said the worst thing a business can do in tough times is slash its marketing budget.
"We have not cut back on advertising. If anything, we will be up (advertising) a bit," Doyle said.
At Silverthorn Resort, houseboat packages have been discounted 15 percent for three- and four-night stays, and 25 percent for the week.
"We realize what the economy is like," said Canady, adding that there's a chance the resort will keep the promotion going through the summer.
Last summer's fire burned some of the land that surrounds the Coram Ranch resort, just west of Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River.
Volunteers in September helped repair damage by planting trees and doing erosion control around the ranch.
Debbie Byron, who owns Coram Ranch with her husband, Curtis Byron, said the fires shut down business during most of July, its busiest month.
"We had guests we had to send home and of course refund their money, so we lost income," Debbie Byron said.
The ranch had insurance, so most of its losses were compensated, Bryon said.
Coram Ranch is booked this summer. Bryon said the ranch has been sold out every summer since its inception in 1999.
Coram Ranch features five homes that can accommodate up to 48 people.
"These people who booked this year, booked before the fire, some as far as two years back, " Byron said.
Meanwhile, gasoline prices are another reason Lake Shasta businesses are guardedly optimistic about the summer.
A gallon of gas on the lake last week hovered around $3.50, about $2 cheaper than its peak last summer.
It would take $700 to fill up a 200-gallon houseboat at $3.50 a gallon, compared to $1,100 at $5.50 a gallon.
"Gas is down and that will be a big plus. People can afford to run their boats this year," Miller of Shasta Marina said.