By Darren Lum
The 2020 – 2021 season was a record year in terms of conditions and for the amount of visitors and paid season holders said the Haliburton Highlands Nordic Trail and Ski Club Association president Thom Lambert.
On the board of the skier-led association since 2014, he can’t recall any other season that had as many uninterrupted ski days, which is usually hampered by a a lack of snow or warm temperatures and rain events.
“I know people that skied well over 50 days in row this year, uninterrupted,” he said, voice rising.
This year’s strong results doesn’t discount other years when the season has started earlier or lasted as long as five months, he adds. He believes there was a record of total skiers in 2020/21.
It’s a challenge to quantify total skiers without a sign-in due to COVID-19 safety measures, but from his observations from seeing the number of vehicles in parking lots he said there was double the amount of skier days to last year.
“It was unbelievable,” he said.
With the combination of ideal conditions and the fewer options for recreation with the cancellation of various sporting seasons and temporary closure of the ski resort industry due to the pandemic, the Nordic club was the beneficiary.
Lambert said the club more than doubled their revenue compared to last year.
As of March 8 the club had 92 family memberships (groups of four), which was an increase of 77 per cent compared to last year while individual memberships rose by 83 per cent from last year with 277.
This was attributed to a “mild winter” and favourable weather conditions, which included the lack of rain, or any kind of thaw and, with the exception of a few days, there weren’t any extremely cold days.
Many of this year’s skiers were first- time skiers, who had the best experience possible and will be motivated to return because of the ideal conditions, he adds.
The season started officially on Dec. 20 and is technically over, but there was hope it would stretch into April. The contributing factor to the ending of this season is owed to the two warm days with strong winds, which occurred earlier this month.
“We went thinking we were skiing right into April to having a big reserve, to losing a big part of our base over the course of really a day and a half. It was funny. It wasn’t rain. It wasn’t sun. It was that really warm wind over a day and a half period. You just watched the snow disappear,” he said.
Lambert said this past weekend was likely the end, as grooming will cease, but he won’t be surprised to see a few die-hards this week.
“We have skiers that are so serious they’ll head up into Glebe, if they have to walk a kilometre to get onto decent snow, they’ll do it. You know it really depends on … how soon the biking gets good,” he said.
A skier from last year told him she skied until April 15.
He said the trend of the past five years has been a large snowfall in late March or early April so there could be additional days for the really dedicated.
With challenges related to purchasing Nordic ski equipment in the country, there was a large participation in the club’s season-long rental option for members. There were 74 packages rented this year and that translated to a 32 per cent increase over last year. Lambert said they could have rented double this total, if they had the equipment and people to carry out the assistance, which was challenging while abiding by social distancing.
At this point in the year, Lambert said the club hasn’t met to decide what the course of action will be for next year related to operations and potentially buying more rental kits.
The club also saw strong numbers for this year’s youth programming of Jack Rabbit, with 68 registered skiers. Lambert said they could have accepted 80, but with COVID-19 it wasn’t going to be practical.
With the growing popularity of the programming, a committee will be used next year to coordinate Jack Rabbit instead of Lisa Werry assuming the responsibility, as she has for the past five years.
“We just realized it’s gotten too big for one person to run. It’s also like so many other things, requirements change as well. This was a tough year with of all the COVID stuff … every one of our instructors has to have a police check. All that has to be coordinated,” he said.
He adds there are coaching requirements for instructors and these volunteers need to also be trained to know about concussion protocols.
Werry, he said, is to be commended for her efforts the past several years.
“Outside of hockey it’s far and away the largest recreation program in the Haliburton Highlands in the winter time,” he said. “It’s crazy affordable. This was an extremely difficult year. Every week we were on Wednesday, wondering if we were going to be able to run Jack Rabbit because of COVID. Getting 68 kids in the park with all of their parents and accompanying adults in doing that safely. Lisa did a phenomenal job of organizing that.”
Other key volunteers include the team of groomers led by coordinators that include Lambert at Moosewoods, Mike Darlington at Glebe Park and Chris Whittemore at Twin Lakes, and membership coordinator Joleen Thomas.
Grooming was a daily requirement at the three ski trail systems of Glebe Park, Moosewoods and Twin Lakes, Lambert said.
The coordinators helped to lead a “dedicated crew” of close to 12 volunteers.
“We could not operate if we didn’t have volunteer groomers and, yeah, these are people that are quite often up … they’re out on the trails in pitch black at 6 o’clock in the morning in really difficult conditions and because we only have one grooming machine per area that means that person is out there by themselves,” he said.
After grooming for 20 years, he admits with mobile phones it adds some assurances that didn’t exist before.
“I used to carry either skis or snowshoes on our old groomer because it broke down so often. I got sick of walking back from the wilds of Glebe Park in the dark,” he said.
Membership coordinator Thomas, who was tasked with registering people, families and helping accommodate for everyone’s special requests related to payments, spent hours for all of them to ensure their needs and wants were met.
“It’s community building thing. You want people to feel like they found a place that matters to them and they matter to us. Joleen did an amazing job of making people feel that way,” he said.