Early snow brings rising interest in cross-country skiing as COVID winter approaches

It’s unusually early in the season, but cross-country skiing is already underway — whether or not the trails are groomed.

Demand for equipment has retailers busy with fittings, even as trail grooming questions remain

The Koob family enjoyed some mid-October skiing this past weekend on the Lake Louise trails. Conditions are already shaping up for ski season and so is demand, according to family blogger Tanya Koob. (Tanya Koob)

It's unusually early in the season, but cross-country skiing is already underway — whether or not the trails are groomed.

Tanya Koob, who writes the blog Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, says it's shaping up to be a very busy season.

"I feel like the trend of people getting outside more, because that's where they feel comfortable and safe, it's just going to continue, Koob told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"So I think there'll be a lot of new people getting out cross-country skiing — and snowshoeing will be very, very big this winter."

Koob and her family headed out to the trails around Lake Louise a few days ago, and she says conditions are very good for this time of year.

"It was great, we drove to Lake Louise and we skied on the Great Divide, which is the old highway. So that goes from Lake Louise into Yoho National Park in B.C." she said.

"You could feel the ground with your poles so you couldn't, you know, strike the ground too aggressively, but there was definitely enough."

Some of the most popular areas for Nordic skiing are Canmore, West Bragg Creek and Peter Lougheed Park. The Canmore Nordic Centre opened on Monday with Frozen Thunder, a two-kilometre track that the centre keeps groomed, open to the public every day starting at noon. 

"Some people have been out at west Bragg Creek, conditions are still very early there, but it's doable. Nothing groomed. So you have to be prepared to make your own trails," Koob said. 

"The safest snow right now would be Lake Louise for sure, because if you ski the Moraine Lake Road or the divide, you are skiing on pavement. So there's not the rocks to worry about or grass or twigs. If you have more experience. And for sure, you can go out to West Bragg Creek, but you do have to look out for rocks and be very careful."

As for other popular areas, Alberta Parks announced in February it would stop grooming and setting the trails in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. The reduction in grooming and setting was one of the measures intended to reduce Alberta Parks' budget and save $5 million. 

Nordiq Alberta, the governing body for cross-country skiing in the province, is one of several groups that are mobilizing to come up with a solution to keep the trails in skiing shape. 

Nordiq recently submitted a proposal in September to implement parking fees at Peter Lougheed Provincial Park that it says should cover the cost of maintaining the trails — which is around $200,000.

As of today, there is no official word on any plans, user fees, parking fees or a return to trail grooming at the park.

Tanya Koob, left, and her son Noah, right, checked out the cross-country ski conditions last weekend in the Lake Louise area. (Mark Koob)

Koob says since the outdoors are a safer place right now, given the pandemic, she predicts there will be more newcomers to the sport this season.

But whether they will be able to access groomed trails, or get equipment, is another question.

Staff at the Norseman Outdoor Specialist are scrambling to keep up with a sudden demand for cross-country ski fittings, owner Anthony Mauriks told CBC News.

"October has been December, is basically how it's worked," Mauriks said. "People are, I'd like to say enthusiastic, but … I think looking at the bicycle situation that happened this season, and they're panic buying a little bit. So, yeah, demand is massively up."

Mauriks said October is normally a time to prepare for the busy ski season ahead.

"Under normal circumstances, October's ... bringing the stock in, getting it sorted, labelled and and put away appropriately," he said. "And now we're trying to do that at the same time as we have a huge demand, and lots and lots of people to fit — and fitting cross-country is very specific. And so it takes time. And so the demand is pretty high on the staff at the moment. 

Mauriks said with the sudden demand for equipment and fittings, the stock is being quickly depleted, and that's not necessarily good for business.

"We blew through our entire season's stock in a couple of weeks," he said. "In a couple of months, if we can't get anything in, then, well, frankly, we'll be sitting here twiddling our thumbs. And with everybody buying so hard, next season's going to be very, very slow."

Meanwhile, Banff's Mount Norquay ski resort is opening for the season on Saturday. 

"The snow came early, and so we got ready early," said general manager Andre Quenneville.

Saturday will mark the earliest ever opening date in the resort's 95 year history.

And right here in the city, WinSport is suspending the sale of season passes for the Canada Olympic Park ski hill for the upcoming season, due to unpredecented demand.

The facility says it has to cut off sales to make sure it can maintain physical distancing on the hill, and will make a judgment call on the numbers of people on the hill once the season gets underway. More season passes may be available at that time.

Day tickets are not being released until the season begins officially, on Nov. 27.

With files from Huyana Cyprien, Hannah Kost and the Calgary Eyeopener.


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