Nordic skiing catches on at B.C. ski resorts
If cycling is the new golf, Nordic skiing is the new running. To judge by the results of an informal Georgia Straight survey of trends at snow-sport resorts in B.C. this winter, that certainly appears to be the case.
Golfing’s numbers have been in decline since the mid-1990s, while participation in cycling events, such as the B.C. Bike Race and GranFondo Whistler, has mushroomed. This is particularly true for those in the 30-to-50 age range. Cross-country skiing, as well as snowshoeing, has benefited from a similar demographic shift away from running.
As with cycling, the move to Nordic has been driven, at least in part, by affordability. In cross-country skiing’s case, safety has also emerged as a major factor. Whistler writer Michel Beaudry recently wrote in Pique that because of the fear of being injured, middle-aged and older skiers and snowboarders are abandoning alpine for the more carefree pleasures of a Nordic outing. Case in point: the devastating injuries sustained by his brother-in-law, former Vancouver city councillor Peter Ladner, who was struck by an out-of-control downhill skier and suffered two broken legs. An equally compelling reason is that as runners’ knees give out from pounding the pavement, a gentler glide on soft snow offers a less stressful aerobic workout.
Numbers from the third annual Sigge’s P’ayakentsut marathon, a 50-kilometre cross-country race held at the Whistler Olympic Park in late February, certainly bear out the crossover assertion. In total, 690 skiers—including 46-year-old world-champion mountain biker Alison Sydor—lined up for the challenge.
Race organizer Sherryl Yeager told the Straight by phone that those 690 entrants represented an increase of 110 competitors over last year. She forecast that the Nordic star will soar even higher—literally—during the two-week Sea to Sky Nordic Festival (March 15 to 30). With echoes of past glories, the festival is being staged at the site of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games events in the scenic Callaghan Valley, complete with free access for spectators.
Picture this: ski jumpers leaping skyward in the spring air; biathletes skiing lightning-fast loops while pausing at intervals to shoot straight; para-Nordic competitors displaying how to triumph over disabilities; and the full power of Canada’s best cross-country ski competitors on display leading up to next year’s Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. The excitement of seeing all that excellence in action is infectious. For those inspired to experience a vicarious rush, Yeager confirmed that during the festival all recreational ski and snowshoe trails will remain open.
Traditionally, the crucible of Nordic skiing in B.C. has been the colder, drier regions where the snow is lighter and fluffier. No one knows that better than Gunner Rasmussen. When reached at his home in South Surrey, the long-time operator of Nordic-ski businesses (both in the Lower Mainland and in the Cariboo region) laughingly told the Straight that snow around his winter residence at Sun Peaks Resort is so smooth he only needs to wax his skis once a year. “There’s been quite a bit of change since I opened my first store in 1978. Equipment is lighter and stronger, plus you can get started for as little as $300. That’s why there’s been steady growth in numbers, especially over the past 20 years.”
Don’t think that resort operators haven’t noticed this trend as well. Sun Peaks recently opened a modest Nordic centre where Rasmussen now heads the local ski club, whose membership has grown from an initial 30 last April to 140 currently. “Ninety-five percent are crossovers from downhill. As you get older, you realize that if something breaks, it takes longer to heal. Plus, a lot of skiers are finding that cross-country is a positive way to lose weight.”
As for attracting younger skiers, he pointed to the club’s Jackrabbit program as an example. “Out of the 34 kids who go to school here, half of them are switching into cross-country. In fact, they do both downhill and Nordic. The difference is that instead of the kids splitting off to ride chair lifts for an alpine experience, there’s more playing around as a whole group in our Nordic terrain park, with far more connectivity as a result. After 90 minutes, they’ve had a lot of exercise without even realizing that they’re getting a workout at the same time.”
Guy Paulsen, Nordic manager at Silver Star Mountain in the north Okanagan Valley, pointed to the changes he’s seen recently. “From first-timers to big-timers, there’s now something for everyone on Nordic trails,” he said while guiding the Straight on an intermediate-level loop thronged with parents towing toddlers in sleds. “That’s the new cross-country norm.”
With three decades of experience upon which to reflect, Paulsen should know. In November, Silver Star and its long-time neighbour, the Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre, formed a 105-kilometre “Super Trail” system, complete with a dual-area pass. A similar alliance was forged this winter between the Whistler Olympic Park and privately owned Callaghan Country; between them, the two operations share 130 kilometres of trails. In yet another example of Nordic’s widening appeal, all of the destinations surveyed by the Straight will keep their trails groomed and track set through the end of April, long after most chair lifts have shut for the season. Go on. Hitch a ride on Nordic’s rising star.