Pandemic proving boon for local winter sport
With no travel to warmer climes, the closure of downhill skiing facilities and arenas, people have been flocking to those winter sports that remain accessible.
Skates, snowshoes, cross-country skis and fat bikes are all in demand and hard to find as people take on new activities as a way to stay active during the pandemic.
In Mulmur, the Main Tract of Dufferin County Forest is seeing an uptick in people using the trails there for all kinds of winter sport, including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, trail running and fat biking.
It’s hard to measure the increase because trail passes are not needed to access and Dufferin County has just recently installed trail counters.
Johnny Yeaman, with the volunteer group Team Van Go, who participates in all of the above activities in the forest, says anecdotally there is evidence that there are more people out on the trails, especially those who have taken up fat biking.
“I can tell you that eight years ago there were only two of us in our area and now there’s hundreds that would be in that forest,” said Yeaman when asked to quantify the increased interest in the sport. “The increase this year is substantial, probably a one-third increase over the previous year.”
Fat bikes are similar in design to a mountain bike. They are quite heavy and have wide, often studded, tires. Yeaman says the tires are for better floatation on the snow, and more traction. The appeal is that it extends the cycling season for those who hate to put their bikes away in the fall. In a normal year, there is also a social aspect and the perk of being able to get outdoors and enjoying nature and taking in the fresh air.
There is a network of 40 kilometres of trails in the Main Tract making it easy to go out for an hour and not see another person, even though the parking lot may look full.
Team Van Go has recently purchased a device to groom trails in the forest. With permission from the county, they now groom an extra 18 kilometres of what Yeaman calls human powered activity trails, which are ideal for any use but the grooming of the cycling trail makes for a smoother ride – although a fat bike will probably take more physical effort to ride than a standard bike. The extra grooming is a way to allow more people to use the forest while preserving the bike trail and helping people stay oriented.
They bought the groomer last year and have five volunteer operators. The club was able to fundraise $6,000 in 11 days to purchase the groomer, which is another indicator of the interest in the sport. It takes four hours to groom but that is much less onerous than pulling a tire while walking on snowshoes, which is how they used to tamp down the trail.
The forest trail network is shared by many users and Yeaman said he is very impressed with the synergy of all visitors, with people keeping their distance from each other and using the trails with care.
The demand, and pandemic related supply issues, has made it difficult to find all kinds of equipment and parts for service.
Highlands Nordic in Duntroon has experienced a doubling in business this season as people take to the trails in unprecedented numbers. There was a spike in interest in the fall, and then another once the ski hills were closed at the end of December.
“We have seen a huge influx since the moment we opened our pro shop on Oct. 24. The demand for cross-country ski equipment has just blown us away,” said Kelly Sinclair. “People are digging into the garage to find old equipment when they can’t find new equipment and trying to make it work.”
Memberships have almost doubled and sales of daily trail passes have spiked as well. Sinclair said they have a limited amount of equipment for sale and the demand remains high. When they opened a new slot of appointments for the month on Jan. 6 they were fully booked within 20 minutes. There is also a long wait list.
To cope with the increased interest, Highlands Nordic has almost doubled its staff and have put in place protocols to control visitors and make sure everyone is experiencing the facility in a safe manner.
Sinclair says there was a moment at the beginning of the lockdown when it wasn’t known if Highlands Nordic could remain open but there was a consensus that it would if it could. Other facilities have chosen to close.
“It has been quite the balancing act of understanding our privilege to remain open and balancing that with the responsibility of following all the appropriate guidelines,” said Sinclair.
Everyone coming on to the property has to complete a self assessment and provide information for contact tracing purposes, and masks must be worn in the common areas. Most of the client services are accessed outdoors and all sales are done by appointment only. There is controlled access to the washrooms, all to limit the number of people indoors at any one time.
Highlands Nordic is seeing a lot of downhill skiers either trying the sport for the first time or returning to it after many years.
“It’s been a big learning curve for a lot of people, especially with the downside of not being able to offer lessons right now,” said Sinclair. “We sold a lot of equipment to new people and then we went into a lockdown and we weren’t able to teach them how to use the equipment, which is something that we were really hoping we were going to be able to offer.”
She said the staff do their best to help people have a positive experience out on the trails, even though there are added challenges at this time.
When asked if she thinks the new interest in the sport will be a lasting one, Sinclair says, “I really hope it would last although I think the reality is that there’s not going to be 100 per cent retention.”
Although, she says, they have been getting great feedback about the quality of the modern equipment, the good workout, and the beautiful location.
“I do think people have rediscovered the sport, for sure,” said Sinclair.
For trail conditions and COVID-19 protocols at Highlands Nordic, visit highlandsnordic.ca.
For trail conditions at the Main Tract of Dufferin County Forest, or to make a donation to Team Van Go, visit www.teamvango.ca.