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Nordic trails saw a surge during pandemic

NORDIC SKIERS AT Blueberry Hill’s Outdoor Center make their way across abundant snow on a flat stretch on a trail. Inn co-owner Shari Brown said good conditions was one of several reasons more than twice as many visitors used the outdoor center this winter than the previous season. Photo by Daniel Schechner

Nordic skiing this year was an ideal outlet for the public, for the community. People were very eager to do something and get outside and be healthy.
— Barney Hodges

RIPTON/GOSHEN — There has been at least one arguably positive side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic: Operators of Addison County’s two Nordic skiing centers report a surge of interest in cross-country skiing during the past winter.
They cite factors that included the desire of housebound residents to be active outdoors and good conditions for the sport.
“I saw lots of new faces, a big increase in numbers,” said Blueberry Hill Inn co-owner Shari Brown, who is also the director of the Goshen inn’s Outdoor Center, which in the winter focuses on Nordic skiing and snowshoeing.
Barney Hodges, assistant manager of Middlebury College’s Rikert Nordic Center in Ripton, saw the same thing, particularly when the weather cooperated in late December, and most of January, all of February, and at least some of March.
“The good weather came, and January and February were record months. It was awesome,” Hodges said.
Hodges and Brown have data that show visitor increases ranging from about 30% at Rikert to more than 100% at Blueberry Hill.
In fact, the Blueberry Hill Outdoor Center’s visitors more than doubled from the 2019-2020 season to this winter, from 600 to 1,300, Brown said.
Daily visitors during weekdays a year ago were a trickle, and weekend days spiked up to 15 or so, she said. This year weekdays often brought a dozen or more, and weekends peaked at a little more than 80.
Brown said in addition to good weather and the desire of largely homebound residents for fresh air and exercise, Blueberry Hill’s surge probably came from added publicity.
She and co-owner Tony Clark decided this past year to make the inn’s Outdoor Center a nonprofit venture, a move that also preserved land and recreational access within the Green Mountain Forest’s Moosalamoo National Recreation Area.
Their choice meant favorable publicity for the inn that boosted its profile. Brown said all three factors — weather, the pandemic and the good PR — boosted skiing at the Outdoor Center.
“I feel like a lot of it was some of the press we got from transitioning to a nonprofit,” she said, adding added it was hard to pin down “how much of this is COVID, how much of this is all the factors just came together with great weather, supportive community and the transition and more awareness of the nonprofit status.”
Certainly, there were plenty of newcomers that Brown is optimistic will return for more in winters to come.
“There were definitely a good amount of people trying out the sport as well,” she said. “Equipment was hard to find, just like bikes at the end of summer were hard to find. Inventory was low everywhere.”

RIKERT SETS RECORD
Hodges, who assumed Rikert management duties in the fall of 2019, said the area had been seeing growth in recent years and set a new visitation mark of 15,250 skiers in the 2019-2020 season.
That figure included the hundreds of high school and club skiers who came for competitions, none of which occurred in this past winter due to COVID-19 limitations.
Even without those events, Hodges said Rikert’s final 2020-2021 numbers (interviewed late last week, he expected a couple more days before closing) will show that roughly 30% jump to a little over 19,000 visitors this winter.
Most of those were adult skiers looking for fun, fresh air and some level of workout, Hodges said.
“Overall, Nordic skiing this year was an ideal outlet for the public, for the community,” Hodges said. “People were very eager to do something and get outside and be healthy.”
Hodges said Rikert’s numbers were strong despite a late opening. But by mid-December Rikert got rolling with better weather and had one of its two best weeks of the winter just before Christmas, with the other coming in early March.
Cooperative weather that allowed for snowmaking, plenty of natural snow in January and February, and then temperatures cold enough to preserve the trail base all made for good skiing that also kept visitors coming back for more, Hodges said.
“We had an incredible week just before Christmas, and an incredible snowstorm,” he said.
Early January was rougher, Hodges said, but as the month progressed, Rikert’s crew was able to make snow to get the area back on track, and then ideal conditions prevailed for weeks on end.
Many visitors were new to the sport, Hodges said, while others took advantage of the flexible hours working at home allowed to take a break and strap on their skis.
“My guess is remote work allowed people to get out and carve out time for themselves to exercise,” Hodges said.
Rikert was able to offer rentals, sales, and private individual and family pod lessons, while Middlebury Union High School and Frost Mountain Nordic Club skiers were able to sign up for at least limited practices, Hodges said.
All that and the steady stream of adult visitors and the level of cooperation with mask-wearing and distancing requirements made for a happy winter at Rikert, he said.
“All of our staff feels really good about being able to provide such a solid, healthy outlet for the community during such a difficult time, and I think that’s what is so special about Middlebury College supporting ski areas the way that they do. It’s a great community asset, and we should be thankful for that,” Hodges said.
Like Brown, Hodges is optimistic many of the new skiers and those who skied more often might continue to do so. He plans a marketing push to lure them back.
“I’m actually hoping to carry the momentum into next year with some things we want to do here, some fall sales and promotions,” he said.
Cooperative weather in the future would also help build the habit, Hodges acknowledged. 
“I think the enthusiasm was there. If we have a good snow year next year, I think we’ll carry people,” he said. “Our expectation is that there’s definitely an opportunity to sustain people, and then bring events back and bring programming back, and that’s only going to build skier visits.”

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