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Cross-country skiing a lifelong activity, says instructor, as sport sees pandemic surge

Seniors passes at Hiawatha Highlands have been selling like never before during the pandemic
20220120peteruhligHIAWATHA
Peter Uhlig, a volunteer adult ski instructor with Soo Finnish Nordic Ski Club, says skiing is something you can do from childhood to 'a really advanced age'

Next month, the fastest cross-country skiers on the planet will blaze down the tracks at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, but cruise along the trails at Hiawatha Highlands any given afternoon and you're just as likely to be among school-aged children and retirees out practising the same discipline. 

It's the lifelong nature of nordic skiing that makes it something special, says Peter Uhlig, a local enthusiast who has taught children and adults during his long association with the sport.

"You can pick it up later in life and you can ski and ski and ski until a really advanced age," said the Soo Finnish Nordic Ski Club volunteer.

Soo Finnish offers an extensive program for kids and youth, but there is also a team of coaches who dedicate their time to teaching adult members to ski.

Uhlig is now most involved with the adult classes. He said many of the people he sees are parents who have kids in the Jackrabbits program, but he said people often look to skiing as they approach retirement. Some return to the sport after trying it earlier in life, while others are complete newcomers.

Cross-country is popular with seniors, likely because of how accessible it is. While cross-country skiing can be extremely competitive, you don't have to be a fitness buff to strap on a pair of skis and do it, said Uhlig.

The nature of the movement involved in skiing means there is very little impact on the body, but plenty of benefit, making the sport a great fit for kids and seniors alike. While trail systems like the one at Hiawatha offer advanced level routes, there are also well-marked beginner-friendly loops with fewer ups and downs.

These days the trails at Hiawatha Highlands are busy. The pandemic seems to have prompted a number of complete newcomers to the sport. Some are local people, including retirees, who are discovering activities in their own backyards, while others are students and recent immigrants, said Uhlig.

Tina Bowen, operations manager at Hiawatha Highlands, said skiing's apparent surge in popularity during the pandemic is backed up by the numbers, including among seniors. Last month, Hiawatha had 509 people pick up seniors passes (60-plus), outstripping the total for the entire season last year. And that doesn't include those 80 and older, whose passes Hiawatha provides free of charge. There are 14 skiers in that category this year, Bowen said.

"We had a record-breaking year last year and we have certainly surpassed that this year," said Bowen.

Hiawatha, which rents skis and boots to people who want to try out skiing, also provides lessons for adults. Bowen said lessons are booked with the instructors via the website.

Bowen said the pandemic has driven a lot of interest. Ski trails are one spot that has remained accessible, unlike indoor sports and gyms. Hiawatha offered a 25-per-cent discount to those who could show a gym membership.

Uhlig said he admires people who pick pick up a new activity like that and just try it. He said often people who get into skiing will end up finding their way to other sports and outdoor activities they can practice on the local trails. Snowshoeing is one of the big ones right now, as is fat biking, and during the summer there is considerable overlap between the skiing and mountain biking communities. 

Uhlig is a big proponent of the trail systems the area has to offer. When it comes to skiing, most think of Hiawatha and its growing trail map, but Uhlig notes that Crimson Ridge has created a significant system. And, of course, Stokely Creek Lodge offers an extensive trail system further north in Goulais River.

Having retired three years ago, Uhlig said he has enjoyed the flexibility of being able to spend time volunteering. He started skiing as a child growing up in Sudbury and went on to pursue the sport whenever he could, enjoying the fact that it was something he could do "wherever there was winter."

When he moved to the Sault from southern Ontario in 1989, he joined Soo Finnish and started volunteering. Apart from teaching, that has meant helping out at events, officiating competitive and non-competitive races and trail building and maintenance. 

That time spent volunteering can be just as rewarding as the skiing itself, Uhlig said.

"The people who ski -- there's a really good social community connected with that. It's a really good club," he said.