COVID Nordic ski craze sweeping across Alberta
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By Lisa Monforton
If you’re seeking the upsides of the COVID-19 pandemic, the enthusiasm for outdoor winter sports will tell you all you need to know. Cross-country ski clubs are booming in popularity across all ages and demographics in Western Canada, right alongside the surge in downhillers.
The downside is you might have a hard time snagging yourself a pair of cross-country (or downhill) skis this winter if you’re just getting around to shopping now. You might even have to borrow gear from friends, neighbours or family.
The Peace RIver region has tons of winter activities on their doorstep.
The interest in Nordic skiing is remarkable, just like the explosion in biking this summer, which cleaned out the supply of bikes and accessories.
And the beauty of cross-country skiing is you don’t have to book ahead to have a great day on the trails, something many people are discovering this winter.
Spirit North gets Indigenous youth out cross-country skiing, inspiring them to have the sport as a life-long interest. Photo courtesy, Spirit North
Les Parsons, who lives in Bonnyville, is considered the cross-country ski guru in northern Alberta’s rural areas. He was Olympic cross-country skier Beckie Scott’s coach since she was a young teen, travelling with her to many Olympics over the years. He’s pumped about the new interest in Nordic skiing.
“I’m calling it the COVID cross-country skiing craze … it’s just exploded,” Parsons says, noting that a lot of local sporting good stores have sold out of gear. (The problem is aggravated by an October fire at a large Fischer ski factory in Ukraine.)
Parsons is heavily involved in Spirit North, an organization that works with Indigenous youth to inspire them to have a lifelong interest in Nordic skiing. He says the initiative to get young people on the trails has been rewarding.
“For these kids, we call it back to the land; they’ve got a connection. And the kids who don’t like to be in the classroom, they would rather be outside cutting a line (through the snow),” says Parsons.
Kids are tired of staring into their screens, whether it’s for schooling or gaming, he says. “(Cross-country skiing) is one of the few sports you can do and get physically distanced. Youth have spent all their time on Fortnite, they’re sick and tired of it.”
Parsons’ passion for the sport is contagious. In his mind, Nordic skiing is best summed up by the five Fs: family, fun, friends, fitness and fresh air, as well as being the cornerstone to getting Alberta’s rural communities outdoors and enjoying non-mechanized winter sports.
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Chris Hrabec out on the trails with his son Otto and his daughter Ilya. Photo courtesy Lakeland Cross Country Ski Club
Those are some of the reasons Chris Hrabec, along with his kids, Otto, 10, and Ilya, 9, got involved in cross-country skiing just last year. It’s helped them discover not only their own backyard, but other surrounding communities outside of his home near St. Paul, in east central Alberta. It’s something he never thought he’d be doing, let alone becoming the chief track setter for the nearby Lakeland Cross Country Ski Club in his off-work hours.
Like many parents, he was looking for something to do with his kids, and when his son’s hockey was cancelled because of fears of spreading COVID, cross-country became their new sport.
“I needed a sport to involve the kids in on my schedule, Hrabec says. “Then just by chance COVID happened and made hockey more difficult. The (cross-country) clubs are very accommodating and we really bit into it.”
He admits it wasn’t “love at first sight for the kids.” But, after five or six tries, “it just clicked.” These days, you might find him out with Ilya, doing a 10-12 km ski with a tow rope.
Hrabec’s enthusiasm for the sport has even rubbed off on his friends and co-workers, some of them who are die-hard hockey parents.
“I love watching the 30- to 50-year-olds out there. They discover there’s a community and there’s a lot of good people, different than their hockey group.”
The five Fs of cross-country skiing are family, fun, friends, fitness and fresh air, says Les Parsons. Photo courtesy, Spirit North
Cross-country skiing has also helped the Hrabec family discover other communities nearby, like Devon and Strathcona, where he’s taken his kids on overnight trips. “They ski all day, he says, “and when their heads hit the pillow at night, they are asleep in five minutes.”
“I think this is a life thing, now.”
Joanne Lamouroux, who runs the Lakeland Cross Country Ski Club, is seeing the same thing.
Lamouroux says she’d never thought she’d see as many 18- to 29-year-olds in Alberta’s Lakeland region on the skinny skis as she has this year. “It’s very cool,” she says, because typically, Nordic skiing has attracted the older set.
“This is a big hockey town, and that’s been closed down, so a lot of these families would love to be active and we’re seeing more and more families.”
The club’s Tuesday Ski Technique clinics, in partnership between her club, Spirit North and the Bonnyville Nordic Ski Club have been a hit. The club has 31 new members and several of the long-standing board members have stepped aside and been replaced with younger people.
“We want people to get out for winter wellness. People are suffering from mental health issues and getting outside is the best thing for them,” says Lamoureux.
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