Are the canaries OK?

Last season, the owner of Osceola Tug Hill XC announced his intention to close. While it’s a longish drive to get there, the area is a go-to for downstaters during bad winters. Lacking any viable offers for it as an operating ski center, and in accordance with his plan to retire, he’ll sell off assets starting March 15. Everything you need to open a touring center is up for sale, from Fischer racing skis to groomers. And if you want to create your own private little ski course, he’ll sell parcels of land. See the update on the sale.

Is the lack of interest a sign about the state of recreational XC skiing? Or was there something about the existing trail system that caused the new Osceola Ski & Sport Resort to start anew and quite literally next door? Still, the locale is within a couple hours drive from four upstate population centers totaling over 3 million people. Seems like there’s potential to support both. And after all, capitalism is about competition.

Unfortunately, participation in the sport generally is, well… not growing. It tends to be around 1.5% of the population, fluctuating with the amount of snow seen in the lower 48.

SIA snow sports participation in the US (graphic via Cross Country Ski Areas Association)

While many well-known touring centers are doing alright, the ones without a comprehensive business model or community backing seem to be under some stress. Hoping magic happens organically like ‘Field of Dreams’ is no longer a substitute for a plan. From Duluth Minnesota comes an example: “Fewer skiers or more freeloaders? Minnesota cross country ski fund going broke”

We’re seeing some people age out of the sport. And there have been some low-snow winters, especially in the Twin Cities

John Waters, trail grants coordinator for the DNR in St. Paul

Waters also muses about a general reduction in people going outdoors, as seen in declining hunting and fishing license sales. From the same article, Minnesota Conservation Officer Jylan Hill of Tofte noted that “ski pass compliance was very poor and multiple tickets and verbal warnings were issued.”

That’s a midwest-nice way to talk about it. To put it another way, trust a cranky Yankee from New Hampshire not to mince words:

The cross-country crowd are a bunch of cheapskates, historically

Sam Evans-Brown, Concord HS Nordic ski coach

I’ve previously made the point that cross-country ski centers operate in an economic and social system that’s like a reef of mutual dependency. The family operating Osceola may have lacked something that the developer of the new area has. Being in a rural area, it is also likely that the community wanted to place development bets elsewhere besides skiing.

Tourism aside, cross-country skiers, hikers, snowshoers and the like might also have to grapple with the fact that in some states, significant support for forestry and wilderness management has come from hunters and fishers who pay fees and have a political voice in the locality. Some of these people are likely aging out of the sport without replacement, as asserted by a recent article from MiBiz. If we want wilderness sports, we might have to open up our wallets or pay the taxes enabling the state to do it for us.

Whatever the reasons (and there are many), success in the ski touring business is starting to condense to fewer places, reducing the catchment area of population and participation. This in turn increases economic stress such that winners have to have cleverness, popularity, and luck to succeed. Which leaves individuals and organizations alike with these options:

  1. Reinvest if you can get others to help (funding, community outreach, political action). One example is the journey of Prospect Mountain from privately-owned to non-profit. For a description read these posts and articles from Vermont Land Trust, Bennington Banner, and Brattleboro Reformer. A case that’s still work-in-progress is Shawangunk Nordic Ski Ass’n partnering with OSI to groom the River-to-Ridge trail.
  2. Change your habits and practices (modify priorities or pick a different winter activity). Long ago, Royal Gorge+skate skiing shifted the mindset about XC as a destination resort experience, and the industry never looked back. Today’s response of business+consumer interest has been snowshoeing, cyclocross and fat-tire bicycling. For a salty take on the latter, read the following dyspeptic but informed post from a New Hampshire sports shop worker about fat-tire bikers on cross-country ski trails. (what is it about New Hampshire that attracts adjectives like ‘cranky’, ‘crusty’, or ‘curmudgeonly’?)
  3. Migrate to an ecosystem where cross-country skiing is better supported. How many NYC-area Nordic skiers have mused about living in Ottowa, Minneapolis, Oslo(!), or at least Boston, where ski trails are close to or even within the metro area? OTOH you can run from climate change but you can’t hide, not even in Norway.

Sustaining the sport presumes existing skiers and groups can be mobilized. But because it starts with the same population as before, it looks less like opportunity than hanging on to what we’ve got. And still there’s no guarantee of success. But there’s another option: investigate populations whose motivations and mindsets about winter and the outdoors merit new approaches in the rationale for cross-country skiing.

We can already see changes on the horizon- there’s going to be more manmade snow trails in the future. It will also mean ways to organize and collectivize effort and interest. Because anything you believe is good for the body and soul has to acquire new adherents.

This would imply an openness for change that might not suit all the current participants. Many ideas might not work the first few times. Any successful implementation would certainly alter the sport, just as pisten-bully grooming and skate technique altered the way the sport is currently practiced. Describing today any new and viable set of practices for the future is highly speculative, and I suspect the recipe will need to be a vary by locality.

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2 thoughts on “Are the canaries OK?”

  1. Global warming is killing this activity. Two decades ago I could drive from NYC to Fahnstock or Minnewaska nearly any weekend in winter and go skiing. Van Cortlandt Park even frequently had a solid base. Now you have to haul to Prospect Mtn or the Adirondacks to find snow. Those places are too far for a regular weekend. People are not giving up on the outdoors, however: witness the crowd management issues at Breakneck Ridge or the High Peaks.

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    1. Steve, my anecdotal sense is in line with yours. In tracking this year’s winter events, the rain/snow line seems to fall about 50 miles north of where I recall from a couple of decades ago. I too feel disappointment and frustration about it. Skiing on a ribbon of manmade snow won’t be a complete substitute for some, and does change the ‘nature’ of the sport. Hence, winter hiking (activity substitution) or longer drives to find snow in the wild (prioritization).

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