The change of season brings preparations for winter, including lining up activities to stay busy during another unpredictable COVID-19 season where options for working out and socializing could be limited at any time.
For me, those preparations included strapping on a pair of surprisingly-lightweight and thinner skis than usual before shuffling, gliding and wiping out on the way to Harvey’s Hut and back in a first attempt at cross-country skiing.
Plenty of young children were leaving me behind at speed, but a bruised ego is not too steep a price to pay for keeping my sanity this winter. Apparently, I’m not alone in that feeling, because sales for ski passes at both Mount McIntyre and Mount Sima are way up this year.
Benjamin Poudou, Mount McIntyre’s ski club manager said so far the club has sold around 1,850 passes. On Oct. 31 last year, that number was 1067.
“I think a lot of people had a really good experience in the spring when everything else was shut down. It funneled a lot of people onto our trails. A lot of people were trying skiing for the first time, and the conditions were amazing in the spring. So I think it probably incentivizes people to come forward this year to buy a season’s pass,” said Jean Paul Molgat, the president of the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club board.
“People are scared that their recreation places may shut down during the winter. People saw that in March and April we were still open and the trails were still accessible,” added Poudou.
This year, to limit chalet numbers, the club decided to end the punch pass and go with either day passes or a season’s pass. The club was also able to open early after a massive snowfall in November. That accounts for some of the growth, but Poudou said they are seeing many people return to the sport or trying it for the first time with rentals.
“I think that’s a few reasons why this year more people are getting on skis,” Poudou said.
In March, when the pandemic first began closing down the country, the Canada Games Centre closed along with many businesses and facilities in Whitehorse. Although the ski club at Mount McIntyre closed its chalet and wax room, the trails themselves stayed open and groomed.
Cross-country enthusiasts who had their skis and passes already were free to take to the trails from the parking lot and continue the end of the season.
|Two skiers go for an afternoon ski at the Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre on Nov. 16. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)|
Keeping the downhill skiing and snowboarding going on resort was more difficult at Mount Sima, where users rely on lifts and facilities. The ski hill closed on March 18 and was forced to lay off the majority of staff and cancel the spring season.
Backcountry skiing remains an option open to those who prefer downhill, but the sport requires avalanche safety knowledge and varied terrain comfort, and learning shouldn’t be rushed or attempted independently.
This year both ski facilities say they have made preparations to stay open as long as possible.
“When we shut down in March, nobody knew anything, you know? It was just like okay, close everything down before everybody becomes a zombie,” said Sam Oettli, general manager at Mount Sima, capturing the sense of dread that marked the first wave.
As the world began to adapt to COVID-19 and the Yukon saw fewer cases, the ski hill opened for a summer season of mountain biking.
“Now that we understand more about the virus and a bit more of the science, we have a better understanding of what we can and can’t do. That’s a pretty big deal. It helps us be able to manage and plan better,” he said.
Like Mount McIntyre, pass sales are up. This year has seen an increase of around 10 to 15 per cent. Christmas camps at Mount Sima sold out almost within 24 hours and the hill saw more people than usual sign up to take instructor courses.
Ski patrollers have been briefed alongside national counterparts on how to best operate. For the non-profit hill, it also means more Plexiglas and sanitizing stations and a number of faucets upgraded to a touchless setup.
Oettli said the chalet — which already had a cafeteria setup — will also remain operational for the time being. Despite a massive snowfall in November, Oettli said Mount Sima has also decided not to rush opening day and is still planning on an early December opening date.
“I think we’ve struck a good balance to try to make sure that everybody stays safe and then as things change, we will change as well. You know, if things get worse or more restrictions come up, we’re ready for that as well. We’ll do our best to stay open for as long as possible,” Oettli said.
At Mount McIntyre precautions have also been implemented to allow staff and skiers to stay safe. The chalet — normally a social place where people may spend as much time chatting as skiing — is now for quick business only visits. Masks are required while inside, and the club is even selling branded reusable masks for those who arrive without one.
|Signage at the Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre instructs people to keep their distance from each other and to wear masks on November 16, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)|
Rentals and day passes are still available, but Plexiglas signs have been put up along with sanitizing stations and physical distancing marks on the floor. Showers are closed, as are the warming huts.
When possible, visitors with season passes are recommended to wax their skis and prepare equipment at home so they can ski straight from the parking lot and avoid the chalet entirely.
“We proved that we’re able to adapt, so if we do have to shut the chalet down again, we have a plan to make [the trails still] work,” Molgat said.
Indoor activities are more likely to spread the COVID-19 virus through respiratory droplets than outdoors, where air is constantly circulating, according to information from the Mayo Clinic.
Under guidelines from the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Yukoners are restricted to gatherings of 10 when indoors but expanded to 50 when the gathering takes place outdoors.
Risks still exist outside and the Yukon government said it plans to release guidelines for outdoor winter activities soon as Yukoners add new skis to their holiday wishlists, strap on snowshoes and rev up snowmobiles.
Even when outdoors, friends and ski buddies should still try to physical distance. Poudou said the ski club has been sending out email advice to members to suggest less busy times to hit the trails.
On a quieter Nov. 16 morning, Jennifer Sharp was with her five month-old infant at the chalet to rent a pull sled that allows her to tow her daughter behind her on the groomed trails with other mothers.
She said she has been grateful to have cross-country skiing to socialize with friends and stay active as a new parent on maternity leave.
“It’s like something you can do with other moms and friends and get out and not have to worry about COVID as much. We’re so lucky to be able to get outside and stay fit and stay with friends,” she said.
Contact Haley Ritchie at firstname.lastname@example.org