Cross-country skiing at a crossroads

Government cutbacks and global warming add to declining popularity

A decline in cross-country skiing in recent years has raised alarm bells with the president of the Calgary Ski Club. Alasdair Fergusson says in Calgary the number of households participating in the sport dropped to 35000 in 2006 from 80000 in 1997 a loss of more than 50 per cent. He adds that there were 12 city retailers selling cross-country skis when the Winter Olympics were held in Calgary in 1988 but now there are five. The downward trend is well-documented across North America.

Fergusson fears that if the number of skiers continues to drop trails in the area will close. In September the Calgary Ski Club called members of the ski community to a meeting on how to keep the sport viable. “How do we sell it as a natural beautiful wilderness experience? In some ways it’s the original eco-tourism” he says.

Fergusson says part of the problem is outdated and inadequate facilities such as a lack of day lodges at popular ski spots. “Our facilities here are essentially fossilized” he says. “We don’t even have adequate heated indoor washrooms anymore.” He’s also calling for more beginner trails and teaching areas. “How do we encourage people to take up cross-country… if they have to take off their skis every time they get to a hill?”

Don Cockerton planner for Kananaskis Country says he has not noticed any significant decline in the use of cross-country ski trails and he is not aware of any plans to reduce trail grooming. He acknowledges that there was a “general atmosphere of cuts” until a year or two ago but says the province recognizes the health benefits of activities like cross-country skiing and is starting to reinvest. “Now that we have a bit more money we can start thinking ‘what can we do to enhance cross-country skiing?’”

Fergusson points to the successful Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park (CNC) as proof that if the facilities exist people will use them. Originally designed and developed for the 1988 Winter Olympics CNC was redeveloped prior to the 2005 World Cup and an expanded day lodge is scheduled to reopen this fall. CNC has also made its easiest trails easier and increased the number of trails where it can make snow when nature doesn’t co-operate.

According to John Gallagher manager of the Trail Sports ski shop and ski school at the facility CNC is bucking the sport’s downward trend. He says the number of visitors is up although he is quick to point out that they are not necessarily new skiers — some are simply choosing to ski at the centre instead of elsewhere. He credits the province’s $25 million investment in revamping the trails and says the large day lodge is also a draw. “It’s one of the reasons people are coming here. We’re one of the few places where there is a comfortable day lodge” he says.

Unlike Fergusson however Gallagher doesn’t believe it’s the government’s role to keep the sport alive. “If the demand is there it survives” he says. In fact he thinks the province should charge user fees in the parks as it does at CNC. “If it’s free it’s not worth anything” he explains. “If they need to charge to continue providing the service they should do that.”

That is not to say that he thinks charging fees and improving facilities will boost the number of skiers. Gallagher says the key to the future of cross-country skiing is simply how much snow if any falls in Calgary.

“Last year we had our biggest season ever because there was snow” he says. “What it comes down to is if it snows people will ski…. It’s driven by white stuff on the ground.”

Climate change is one of the major factors impacting cross-country skiing. Fergusson says a shortage of snow in the city and at lower elevations makes destinations like West Bragg Creek in Kananaskis Country unreliable. “If this continues if you already have a track record of not having good snow in certain areas let’s walk away from those areas” he says suggesting that trails may need to move higher and further west.

Cockerton says snow conditions are taken into consideration so when there isn’t enough snow to groom trails in some locations the focus switches to others. Kananaskis Country has other users to consider — Cockerton says the number of people snowshoeing has increased “enormously” and more snowshoeing trails have been developed to minimize conflicts with skiers. While that may lead some people to conclude that snowshoeing will replace cross-country skiing Cockerton predicts that a portion of snowshoers will see cross-country skiers whizzing by them on those trails and decide to give it a try.

Alf Skrastins head of the Outdoor Centre at the University of Calgary has watched the popularity of different sports go up and down over the years and says to some extent it’s a natural cycle. He has no doubt however that the combination of warmer weather and government cutbacks has taken a toll.

“The government of Alberta starting with the Ralph Klein cutbacks severely cut back on the tracksetting” Skrastins says. “There are just less areas for people to ski.” Although the province has started reinvesting he says more funding will be needed. “The horses kind of left the barn for a little bit and it will take a while for them to come back again. I think there needs to be some help from the province to make that happen.”

Skrastins says Kananaskis Country needs more regularly groomed trails in places with snow and more beginner areas. He also suggests a webcam on the provincial park’s website so people can actually see the current conditions. “That certainly works for the ski hills” he adds.

If anyone questions why people should care about the future of cross-country skiing those who enjoy the sport say its benefits are numerous.

From a business perspective Gallagher’s interest may seem obvious but he says we should all take notice because people aren’t getting the exercise they need to be healthy. He places most of the blame squarely on videogames television the mall and other forms of indoor entertainment. “We should all be exercising more… but unfortunately we’re all more likely to do more sedentary things.”

Skrastins says people need to get outdoors for fresh air and sunshine which gives them energy and helps prevent depression. “The main thing is the experience of knowing that the winter is an awesome season” he adds.

For Fergusson letting the sport die is simply not an option. He says the Calgary Ski Club will continue to work with individual skiers and clubs to determine what is needed to get more cross-country skiers on the trails. “Here we have a readily accessible winter wonderland that offers us exercise in winter” he says. “If skiers and clubs don’t promote it the government and its agencies are not going to do it.”