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Snow boosts area economy

Sleds lined both sides of the Heartland Trail and riders continually streamed through Nevis Saturday, enjoying the best snow they have seen in awhile. Many stopped in town for lunch before heading back out on the trail. This group of riders came from Pine River and Grand Forks to enjoy the excellent powder and network of trails here. (Lorie Skarpness/Enterprise)1 / 3
Conditions in the area are excellent for cross-country skiing. This skier enjoyed a trail through the pines at Itasca State Park. Photo courtesy Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2 / 3
Snowshoe enthusiasts are smiling at the best powder for the sport they have seen in January for several years. There are many trails to traverse at Itasca State Park while enjoying the beautiful scenery. Photo courtesy Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.3 / 3

Area businesses received a welcome gift this New Year. With over a foot of snow, residents and visitors alike are able to enjoy snowmobiling, snowshoeing and cross country skiing earlier this season than in many years past.

Snowmobilers celebrate early snowfall

"It has been a long time since we've had rideable snow between Christmas and New Years, at least seven years," said Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce President Butch De La Hunt. "What that does is set the trend for the winter and the rest of the snowmobiling season. People know that Park Rapids has great conditions and say, 'Let's go to Park Rapids next weekend and the following weekends.' When you don't have snow by New Year's that may set up trends for people to go elsewhere. When we have good conditions and people have a good time they come back to try different areas up here."

De La Hunt said that while snow came early last year, "it wasn't enough snow, and then it warmed up."

He said he went out riding over the New Year's holiday with family and friends. "The trail conditions were excellent," he said. "The first snowfall, both of the snowmobile clubs went out packing the trails. Now that we've had some snow and some colder weather and initial riders have been out there, now they are grooming the trails."

De La Hunt said one ride took them from Park Rapids to Nevis and down to Huntersville and back, 50 miles round trip.

"The next trip we took we went up to Two Inlets and over to Vacationaire and down through that corridor, and that was excellent, too," he said. "Any of the places we stopped to grab a burger or stopped to get gas, there was a good crowd on hand."

He said the windchill advisories New Year's Day didn't really affect riders. "With the clothing of today, heated gloves and handlebars, good helmets and good gear, people go out in significantly cold weather," he said. "People venture out, but they have a tendency to make sure they are in by dark, or they ride shorter corridors with more stops to warm up. We're fortunate here in that you can go on a bunch of short runs and stop at different locations."

This region also has the benefit of forested trails sheltered from the wind. "I talked to a friend of mine in Fargo," De La Hunt said. "Out there, even though they had a significant amount of snow, some of the areas where they would have been riding since the snow never got packed down, after the strong wind it's down to grass. Here, with the trees, we have the tendency to hold the snow a little bit better in the trail system, so that helps us significantly."

De La Hunt said part of the fun of riding was meeting up with friends on the trail who were in the area for the holiday break. "They jumped in with our group so we had 11 riding that day," he said.

According to their website, the Forest Riders Snowmobile Club has 276 miles of groomed trails, including sections of the Two Inlets State Forest, Itasca State Park, White Earth State Forest and the Park Rapids, Osage, Lake George and Emmaville areas.

Playing in the snow

It isn't just snowmobilers who are benefitting.

"Soaring Eagle is reporting excellent cross-country skiing conditions," De La Hunt said. "It makes our winter wonderland more fun, and people will come up and have a good time. They can snowmobile, cross-country ski, snowshoe, enjoy Itasca State Park. A lot of people are excited to come up and play in the snow. Overall, it's a great start of the season, and I think everyone's excited."

At Itasca State Park, naturalist Connie Cox said she saw and spoke with many happy snowshoers loving the fresh deep snow over the New Year's weekend.

Cox led those not afraid to brave the cold on a "First Day Hike." On New Year's Day, state parks in all 50 states offered free, guided hikes. These provide a means for individuals and families to welcome the coming year in the outdoors, exercising and connecting with nature.

"The snowshoers loved the deep snow," Cox said. "The morning didn't look so good with a -28 degree temperature and a -41 degree windchill. I chose not to cancel, knowing it would warm a little bit and that snowshoeing generates a lot of body heat.

Cox said that by the 1 p.m. hike, the temperature had warmed to -13 degrees with a -26 degree windchill. While only a few participants took part in the hike, she said it was a memorable one.

"It was sunny and everyone was happy as we hit the Dr. Roberts Trail," Cox said. "They loved the photo op at the overlook of Lake Itasca with all the colorful fish houses in the background. One gentleman was really happy. He commented he wanted a photo for posterity. He has tried snowmobiling, skiing and ice fishing, but this was his first snowshoe event. He had a great time and a photo to remember it by. By the time the hike ended at 4 p.m., it warmed to a balmy 3 degrees above zero."

Other businesses benefit, too

The influx of visitors who come to the Park Rapids area benefits many businesses, including lodging facilities, gas stations, restaurants and retail stores. Those located along popular trails see the biggest boost.

At Two Inlets Country Store, located right on the Forest Riders trail system, owner Sue Hosler said business has been really good.

"The day it snowed, we were super busy from morning to close," she said. "Definitely the traffic has been really good. I think at one time we probably had 25 sleds out front. New Year's Eve was busy, but it was a little colder out, so it slowed a few people down early. They didn't start until later."

Business had slowed a bit after New Years as many people went back to work, but Hosler said she expects weekends will continue to be busy.

"They've been out grooming, so the trails are really good," she said. "Everybody says it's just great. They love it. They're all saying the same thing — that this is the best snow we've had so soon. Hopefully, we'll keep getting some. People stop for gas, beer, snacks or to warm up and sit and visit. A little of everything."

The Emmaville Store is also on the trail system. Owner Robin Honzay said the snow has increased their business.

"They're glad to see snow and want more," she said. "That's mainly what we're hearing."

Honzay said snowmobiles stop when they go out for the day and when they come back. "The majority of them are coming to eat, but a few of them stop for gas and go on their merry way. A lot of times they'll grab a snack, something to drink. It just varies on the group."

She said while there were fewer people during the windchill advisory New Year's Day, they were still coming.

"On New Year's Day, we had at least 20 come through and 16 came in for lunch," said Honzay.

Motels in Park Rapids gave mixed reviews of the impact on their business. At AmericInn By

Wyndham, general manager Gail Lockrem said over New Year's weekend about 15 guests came up to snowmobile.

"We are finding that a lot of people are waiting for a day or two before they come to make a reservation or else just doing a walk in," she said. "They're enjoying the rides and all the snow. They are saying the trails are so good."

Lockrem said they are completely booked the weekends of the USXC snowmobile race and the Pee Wee hockey tournament.

She said it is hard to tell which portion of their increase in business is due to the snow and which portion is due to being a Wyndham property this year, which gives their business more internet exposure and has a rewards program.

An employee at Super 8 by Wyndham said they have snowmobile maps ready to go, but are seeing more reservations for upcoming events in the community than for snowmobiling.