X-country ski centers hopeful for coming season Viking, Wild Wings, Grafton expect more locals, fewer from away

Photo by jasper guy for Unsplash

By Cherise Madigan
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Despite restrictions on travel and recreation, local cross country ski centers are anticipating a strong season ahead — one that could possibly even surpass past winters. Following an uptick in outdoor recreation this summer, businesses like Londonderry’s Viking Nordic Center, Wild Wings Ski & Yoga in Peru, and the Grafton Trails & Outdoors Center remain cautiously optimistic.

“The world has changed, but the idea that you can still go out and go skiing is something worth holding on to,” said longtime Viking manager Dana McNair. “Once you’re out on the trails, you’re fine.”

Supporting that optimism is an uptick in season pass sales for both Viking and Wild Wings, beginning as early as September for the latter. By Thanksgiving, sales had topped 50 season passes, about half to new customers, says Wild Wings Nordic owner Tracy Black.

“Most years, we don’t expect any money until Thanksgiving,” Black says. “People seem to realize that cross country skiing will be a great activity to do, where you can be really safe and you really have such minimal contact with anyone else.”

Interest in season pass sales has also risen at Viking, and McNair has been encouraged by the deluge of inquiries — including from new skiers — sent to her inbox. About half-a-dozen emails have also come from new residents interested in cross-country skiing, she said.

Grafton Trails and Outdoor Center is holding out hope that it is seeing the calm before the storm since it has yet to see an uptick, though innkeeper Angela Comstock says it’s typical for season pass sales to begin only when the snow flies. Those sales have been largely supported by second-homeowners in the past, she says, who may be impacted by Vermont’s travel guidelines, which require anyone entering the state to quarantine.

“We have developed a deeply discounted rate to entice folks to purchase them early, and we will likely extend that with all the uncertainties around the virus and holidays,” she says.

Fewer out-of-state skiers anticipated

Those travel restrictions have made many businesses nervous for the typically lucrative ski season and — though their impact has largely been discussed in the context of downhill ski resorts like Stratton, Magic and Bromley.

Dana McNair of Viking Nordic Center in Londonderry is upbeat about the coming cross-country season. Photo by Cherise Madigan.

McNair says that she has already heard from out-of-state customers who will not be able to visit this year, though she does anticipate a boost from the recent increase in new residents. Still, she says the absence of visiting skiers will be felt.

“We have some really wonderful, dedicated skiers who are part of our family, people we know really well, and we’re just not going to see them, which is really heartbreaking,” she says. “That’s hardest for me, personally.”

Black has encouraged her Wild Wings regulars to make the effort and quarantine, especially now that so much seems to be shutting down again. At all three cross-country centers, however, local support is expected to be stronger than ever.

“We are relying on Vermonters, as well as those who are able to quarantine, to support our center this winter,” Comstock says. “The trails are very much part of the Grafton Inn so we’ve taken a double hit, as many guests use them and we can’t take guests who haven’t quarantined.”

Unlike many businesses, at least, cross-country areas have had months to prepare for the season ahead. Industry-wide video meetings and workshops, dispatches from businesses specializing in summer recreation, and observations from retail operations have all been helpful, says McNair, who has been in touch with counterparts in Tahoe and Timber Creek as well as other local businesses like Equipe Sports. As an employee at Flood Brook School, she says she has also found a sort of template for pandemic-safety protocols.

With hope, preparation, changes began months ago

Although Viking hasn’t been open since March, McNair says it began preparations early on in the pandemic.

“Even before we knew whether or not we were going to be able to open, we knew that we had to start thinking, if we are able to open, what will we have to do?” she says. “The guidelines morph and change and you’re constantly trying to figure out how they will impact you.”

For Wild Wings, embracing the outdoors has remained at the core of its strategy.

“Everything is going to be outside,” Black says. “We’re going to do sales and rentals through a window in what was the warming room, and people are going to change their boots and get ready to ski from their car.”

Wild Wings trails have always been one-way, she adds, putting them “ahead of the game.” Every customer will have to provide contact tracing information per Vermont guidelines, and they’ll have the option to do so when they purchase passes online — a new option. Season pass-holders who access the trails from their own property will find sign-in sheets at each access point where they can jot down their name and the date, having provided other information beforehand.

“We’re trying to configure it so that people are able to stay spread out,” Black says. “So there’s never a backup, and people don’t feel like they have to stand in line and wait.”

Grafton is embracing a similar strategy, opting to leave all rentals outdoors with name tags.  Since Grafton Trails also offers snowshoeing, tubing, fat biking and sleigh rides, all visitors will need to make reservations to ensure sufficient distancing. That can be done through an online reservation form, where customers can also provide their contact tracing information.

‘Our goal is to offer guests and
locals the best winter outdoor
experience we can while keeping
operations as safe as possible.’

Angela Comstock
Grafton Trails
Innkeeper, Grafton Inn

Inside the center, sneeze guards have been set up at the counter alongside sanitizing stations throughout. While customers won’t be permitted to linger indoors, new features like outdoor picnic tables and a steadily maintained bonfire will encourage safely distanced socializing outdoors.

“Like everyone in the industry, we have put in the strict measures to keep guests and employees safe for the winter,” Comstock said. “Our goal is to offer guests and locals the best winter outdoor experience we can while keeping operations as safe as possible.”

Like other cross-country ski area owners, McNair has made safety changes at Viking in Londonderry. Photo by Cherise Madigan

Viking is hoping to reinstate its parking lot as a center of activity in 2020 —its 50th year in operation — harkening back to its early years when patrons would tailgate throughout the day. With access to the buildings limited, skiers will be encouraged to put on gear in their cars and take rentals or food orders from the new ticket window. Helping the flow of things, she says, will be the option to purchase passes or provide contact tracing information online.

While snowshoe rentals can be taken at the window without much contact — a factor driving McNair’s decision to expand Viking’s fleet of rentals this year — customers will still need to be sized for ski rentals.

To make that possible, McNair and her husband Malcolm have “re-arranged the entire shop,” slicing the once open area in sections that will be divided by plastic sheets. Alongside sneeze guards and sanitizing stations, they have also installed a rolling rack that will bring rental equipment around the counter without close contact. Occupants will be limited to two people or one household, McNair added, and new equipment like fogging machines will help to sanitize boots and other equipment.

Similar to Grafton, the McNairs have installed picnic tables and set up firepits to encourage safe warming or socializing outdoors. At both Viking and Wild Wings, existing outhouses will further decrease indoor traffic.

Despite such preparations and positive indications like season pass sales, McNair says she’s still approaching this season the way she does every other: with hope.

“You can’t last in this business if you don’t approach every winter with hope for the conditions, hope that the skiers will show up, hope that your grooming machines won’t break down just before Martin Luther King Day,” she laughed. “Now more than ever, we just need to hold on to our hope that everything is going to be OK.”

“Every year is a crap-shoot,” Black admitted. “Every year you just hope to be as busy as you were the year before, that you have great snow and great opportunities for people to ski. We just have to believe it’s going to be wonderful.”

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About the Author: Journalist and photographer Cherise Madigan specializes in writing about outdoor recreation, the environment and travel. She has roots in Manchester and a history of reporting throughout Southern Vermont. Madigan is a graduate of Nazareth College of Rochester, earning her degree in Political Science summa cum laude in 2015.

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