Cross-country skiing is seeing a surge in popularity in Saskatchewan this year — and while COVID-19 is playing a role, as it has in almost every facet of our lives, it's not the only reason, skiers say.
While some other winter activities have been cancelled due to the pandemic, cross-country skiing offers a chance to get out and get active in a physically distanced fashion.
But it's also a chance to enjoy nature and the various landscapes Saskatchewan has to offer, skiers say, even on days when the province is stuck in a seemingly endless deep-freeze.
In its latest "Good News Friday" segment, CBC Radio's Blue Sky ventured into the back country a bit and asked listeners to share their favourite Saskatchewan skiing spots, and what attracted them to the sport.
La Ronge, Prince Albert, Sturgeon River, Duck Mountain Trails, and numerous other locations were heralded as gems in the province.
Listeners from across Saskatchewan said things like the sense of adventure and the ability to ski whenever they wanted, or their interactions with wildlife, kept them engaged in the activity.
Numbers grow in Rocanville
Roughly nine kilometres of trail are operated by the Rocanville Cross Country Ski Club in Saskatchewan's southeast, maintained by club president Layne McFarlane and one of its original founders, Dennis Hack.
Historically, the club's highest membership was around 120 before this year, McFarlane said. This season, over 220 people had signed up.
"It's been an amazing year," McFarlane said.
"Cross-country ski clubs are dependent upon weather, and we're really fortunate that we got some snow just before Christmas and the temperature was quite a bit different between Christmas and New Year's than it is right now."
The number of people who have signed the club's registration book so far this season is also growing, McFarlane said. He estimated over 2,000 people will sign in before this season is done.
There have been times this year, he said, when people were forced to line up to get into the clubhouse, where only one family was allowed in at a time due to COVID-19.
Hack, at 80, grooms and maintains the trails for the club, along with cleaning the club's rental equipment.
He said even for people his age, cross-country skiing is a great sport to participate in.
"If you can shuffle your feet, you can ski, and it's just great to get out in the woods," Hack said.
During the pandemic, meeting people on the trails is also a chance to get "a bit of a people fix," he said, "which I think we all need once in a while."
While Saskatchewan is in the midst of a deep-freeze, Hack expects to see the hardiest of cross-country skiers out and about this weekend.
He doesn't necessarily expect cross-country skiing will maintain the high level of interest it's enjoyed through the pandemic, but McFarlane hopes it will be introduced to a large number of people — including younger generations.
In Sucker River, about 35 kilometres north of La Ronge, cross-country skiing has been a pastime for young people in the community for years.
Sally Venne Cook, founder and coach of the Sucker River Cross Country Ski Club, said she's seen growing interest through the local school, where she teaches and serves as principal.
When she started in 1995, she was happy to see there were skis and equipment at the school for students to use.
"I always got the kids out to the local [ski] events, because those local events have been happening forever," Venne Cook said.
More recently, her students started asking her why other teams were always winning at those events, and she told them it was because they were getting regular practice and learning new techniques.
When they expressed interest in learning more, Venne Cook was motivated to contact the La Ronge Ski Club and inquire about joining in their practice sessions.
She said she's since become a certified coach and now teaches her students in Sucker River.
She said she saw a lot of people pull out on their skis before the holiday season in December, but a COVID-19 outbreak put a damper on the activity at the start of this year. Things are starting to get back to normal though, she said.
Her advice for any community looking to start a club or skiing community? Get some skis and invite the kids.
"Once they're on skis it doesn't take much to get them going," Venne Cook said.