By Darren Lum
It’s only when you see the parking lots that you realize how popular Nordic skiing is in the Highlands this season, owed in part to the provincial lockdown said the president of the Haliburton Highlands Nordic Club and Ski Association.
Otherwise it’s easy to get lost in your thoughts and become fully immersed in the beauty of the surroundings while you’re out gliding and skating on one of the three trails located at Glebe Park, Twin Lakes or Moosewoods, said president Thom Lambert.
Over the holidays, the ski trails saw an unprecedented number of visitors to the 36 kilometres of trails.
“We have never seen use like that,” he said. “Except maybe for a really, lovely, sunny, minus four [degree Celsius] Family Day weekend. I know all three ski areas we broke records for attendance. We broke records for ticket sales, but the amazing thing is … you ski out here and think, ‘Oh, my gosh there’s nobody here and you go out and there’s 15 cars in the parking lot. The beautiful thing about cross-country ski trails is that they just automatically distance people.”
He called this year’s overall numbers for season and day-time users as “astronomical.”
There are just under 600 season pass holders, which is 50 per cent greater than last year, he said.
He adds there were days in the past when four cars felt like a lot of visitors, but this year there has been upwards of 40 cars seen at parking lots.
Just after the province announced the lockdown, the club’s board, he said, consulted with the health unit and decided it was safe to operate. This lockdown has created a recreational gap for people here in the Highlands, he adds.
“It’s a great service to the community for people to have a way to get out, especially since downhill ski areas are closed. Downhill ski areas are incredibly important to families and that kind of created a big gap in the outdoor recreation field in the county,” he said.
Lambert said popularity for all outdoor activities is approaching the heyday of the 1990s. He calls it a resurgence and could lead to a bright future for Nordic skiing here, as more and more people discover it during this lockdown that has limited activities.
“I think it is going to grow the club over the long-term. I don’t think this is a one or two year kind of blip. We’re creating a lot of really, really happy customers,” he said.
This is owed to the club’s volunteers.
Up to this point in the year, the president said, the dozens of volunteers that make the club what it is have already invested more than 700 hours of their time, which includes grooming trails, marketing and processing membership purchases. To put it in context, volunteers would normally spend upwards of 1,700 hours of time for the club and this total will most likely increase by the end of the season. With the added traffic, grooming was a constant to ensure the quality of the trails is maintained. Lambert points out the high standards for trail conditions is all about making the season pass holder happy and will in turn ensure a strong future where the week day user can be confident the condition on a Wednesday will match that of a Saturday.
More memberships has also meant more work. He credits membership coordinator Joleen Thomas and volunteer Brian Hill, who helps with the system used for processing payments. Some of this increase is expected in December, but this year there were families, who would have spent their time downhill skiing, but chose to go Nordic skiing and picked up family memberships in January, which is normally slower.
He said this growth is being handled without issue and that it’s owed to the 40 volunteers, who make everything happen.
“The reality is we have a bunch of people that love helping people get on skis. And for us there really hasn’t been a down side,” he said.
Up until 2015, when the membership was half of what it is, the club was run for decades by the local lodges and included an extensive trail network of more than 250 kilometres, encouraging lodge-to-lodge skiing. Five years ago the club’s constitution was changed to enable the association to be a skier-led organization instead of a business-led one. Before the change, skiers as a group had just one vote pertaining to board decisions while business owners each had a vote.
Nordic skiing provides more than just a physical benefit to people, Lambert said.
“The main thing for us is we truly believe that access to outdoor recreation is as big a part of people’s health, especially their mental health, as being safe and doing the right things in terms of COVID-19 protocols and social distancing. All the research says that and that’s one of the reasons that the province left cross-country ski trails and hiking trails and skating trails and toboggan hills [to continue]. They want to keep that stuff open so people can get outside and get some fresh air and get some sunshine,” he said.
He adds getting outside is even more important at this time of year when compared to the first provincial lockdown during the spring, when conditions included warmer temperatures and conditions that don’t demand much effort to dress for in contrast to winter, which is more demanding.
“For us, we didn’t do any lobbying. We didn’t do nothing like that. We just waited to see what the province said and the province said right from the very beginning that cross-country trails are allowed to open,” he said.
The club, he said, is following COVID-19 protocols for an “unsupervised, outdoor activity.”
Lambert pointed out the club is encouraging doubling distances between people, so rather than one they want two metres, or two ski pole lengths to account for people that are exercising, and that there shouldn’t be gatherings of any kind, whether in a parking lot or on the trail.
Part of the COVID-19 protocols the club is exercising is closing potential trail destination sites such as warming huts or potential gathering places such as picnic areas. For the first time, e-transfers were accepted for payment to purchase trail passes so people can’t run the risk of assembling at trail heads to physically pay for a trail pass.
Lambert said the message from the club during this lockdown to skiers is: “You come. You get your ski in and you go home.”
Popular Jack Rabbit youth program start is delayed because of lockdown
As part of the lockdown restrictions related to group gatherings, the start of the Jack Rabbit program that was supposed to have already began has been delayed for a few weeks.
There are 69 youth registered for this year, which is a 30 per cent increase over two years ago. Lambert believes participation in all outdoors sports is higher because of COVID-19. The club actually imposed a cap at 69 because of how many volunteers were available to help with instructing students at program. There are 10 youth on a waiting list.
He said the plan is to start the program Saturday after the lockdown ends, but it’s a wait and see situation now.
“If we get the OK we’re all setup … have everything poised and have everything ready to go we’ll launch the next weekend that’s our plan,” he said.
Lambert thanks the public for the support and wants to ensure the public acknowledge the efforts of the club’s team of volunteers.
“Every single year we run into skiers, especially visitors, but also people right here in the county that think our ski trails are run by municipal government or by the county government. I think probably the most important thing for people to realize in the county just like the Haliburton County Snowmobile Association we rely really, really heavily on volunteers to create amazing infrastructure for the county and I think that’s the most important thing to take away is that people are seeing that and recognizing it and thinking, ‘wow, what a great resource when I can’t really do any other kind of organized sports.”
Volunteers with a variety of skills, whether it’s Nordic skiing experience to teach or to just pick up sticks, are welcomed and anyone interested in volunteering can contact us at email@example.com.
For more information on skiing or the club see website (www.skihaliburton.com).