If he has to choose how to describe the 2020-21 season at Laurentian Ski Hill, “very frustrating” is the phrase that comes to mind for general manager Michael King.
COVID-19 reduced what looked like a promising season at the facility before lockdowns threw a monkey wrench into everyone's plans.
Staff were able to open the Beginners' Hill well before Christmas and work was beginning on the other runs when the word came down that Boxing Day signalled the end of skiing at the facility until further notice.
King says every so often there was a glimmer of hope that maybe the hill might reopen, only to see the lockdowns extended time after time.
“It was very frustrating for us, the skiers and snowboarders who were dying to get on the hill,” King said. Sunday was the last day of skiing at Laurentian because King said the conditions at the ski hill had started to deteriorate.
“We were getting to the point where it would be dangerous because we might have rocks or sticks coming up,” King said.
However, he notes the season ended on a high note with several hundred enthusiasts taking advantage of the warm, sunny weather.
“I'm happy people got to come out and get a little time on the hill,” King said.
“I saw a lot of smiles today. They got some exercise and it was also good for their mental health even though this was probably the shortest season ever.”
The statement isn't an exaggeration, considering the ski hill was finally allowed to reopen on March 9.
King says almost everyone who uses the ski hill understood the prolonged shutdown was due to COVID restrictions “and at the end of the day it's about complying with the protocols."
But that still doesn't make it any easier to cope with a very short season.
King says passes were up at the beginning of the season, saying there were several factors for this.
A major reason was because Snowbirds, or people who just head south, couldn't travel in a COVID environment.
COVID also curtailed a lot of indoor ice skating activity, like hockey, and King says people turned to skiing because as yet it hadn't been affected by lockdowns.
“We spent a lot of money getting the hill ready,” King said.
“It cost us a fortune to make snow, to groom it and get the crews out there to get it all done. We spent a lot of money upfront before we had anything like day pass revenue upfront or lesson revenue.”
King says, the ski hill also couldn't generate any revenue from the Christmas break and March break camps it holds since they were cancelled and it could only offer private lessons as opposed to group lessons which is the norm.
Add to that the loss in equipment rental.
“So yes, it's been a very difficult year for us financially for sure,” he said.
But King says Laurentian Ski Hill has applied for COVID-related federal and provincial funds.
He says FedNor is making money available as is the Ontario Trillium Foundation to ease the COVID impact on organizations.
Additionally, the ski hill took advantage of wage subsidy programs and smaller grants.
King says if the larger grants come through, then Laurentian will be in good shape next season.
For those who bought season passes, the ski hill is giving them a credit toward next season and, in a handful of cases, some patrons were given refunds.
His final words were to bring on the vaccines so Laurentian can have a “great and long season” next year.
The Nugget spoke to some of the skiers on the last day of the season.
Two of them were Jada Desilets and Ellie Liddle, both 12 and from North Bay.
Jada, who's been skiing for about seven years, said because of COVID, she was only able to ski four or five times this year.
Her friend Ellie said normally in a non-COVID year they would get in a lot more skiing and not the occasional weekend like this year.
But both were happy to be on the slopes on the last day of the season and are already looking forward to next season.
It's the same story for Natasha Lachance.
Lachance told the Nugget that if not for COVID, “absolutely, we would have gotten more skiing in."
Lachance didn't ski on the last day of the season but did accompany her husband Darren, who took their six-year-old son Ellis skiing.
Natasha Lachance says this was the year the family hoped that Ellis could join the Alpine Racers.
“But he missed it because of COVID,” she said.
“That was disheartening for our child. He's in organized sports and they all got cancelled. Things that are critical to his upbringing. He missed out on a lot but he enjoys it when he can.”
Lachance adds although Ellis wasn't part of the Alpine Racers this year, there's always next season.
She says he got some private lessons “and he'll be ready to join the team next year.”
Young Ellis may have missed out on being part of the Alpine Race team this time around, but he did get to enjoy a new skiing experience.
“Usually my husband puts a tow rope harness on him but today was his first day skiing alone without the tow rope,” she said.
“He was very happy.”
Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative, The North Bay Nugget