COVID could threaten snowmobile traffic in Parry Sound, Almaguin

·4 min read

Snowmobile trails being open is weather dependent, but COVID-19 could also threaten the trails.

Gavin Courvoisier, a firefighter with Muskoka Lakes and Seguin, is an avid snowmobiler and has been the Parry Sound Snowmobile District 10 trail co-ordinator for 12 years.

Asked if COVID-19 could affect the trails, he replied that to some degree it could.

“Our grooming operators are paid for the most part, although there are some throughout the district that are volunteers,” he said. “Grooming snowmobile trails is not an essential service, so that would be the only way, really, that it could shut down the trails — as well as the local health unit if they really needed to.”

The Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs launched the “Ride Smart 2021 for Safe and Healthy Snowmobiling” Nov. 5 on its website, which gives snowmobilers some tips on how to stay safe while sledding during the pandemic.

Some of the tips include maintaining physical distance indoors and outdoors; avoiding overcrowding hospitality services with capacity restrictions; form a “riding bubble”; planning ahead for rest stops and washroom facilities; and not riding trails if not feeling well.

Snowmobile tourism is a big draw for the Parry Sound district, said Courvoisier, and for businesses where trails like the Seguin trail run through, it’s how business owners get by in the winter.

“A lot of businesses, like the Super 8 hotel, where the trail runs right through it, that’s where a lot of winter tourism comes into effect,” he said.

The Quiet Bay Café, run by Judith Lawson, is located on Highway 124 and on the lake in Magnetawan.

According to Lawson, her business is negatively impacted when snowmobile trails are closed in the winter.

“We’re right on the lake and often the lakes aren’t frozen over until late January — the snowmobile trails here are very lake orientated,” she said.

“Winter tourists are big to this area and if the winter tourists don’t come then we have less clientele,” said Lawson, whose small restaurant currently doesn’t have indoor dining due to COVID-19.

The Seguin Trail is a main artery between trails going east, west, north and south.

Bob Brash, a former member of the Dun-Ahmic Snowriders, said that trails extend from Magnetawan all the way to the Seguin Trail.

For Brash, he said that the impacts of COVID-19 on the season could be negative or positive.

“It could go either way, actually,” said Brash. “Depending on what the snow conditions are and whether or not the restaurants and lodgings can stay open.”

The snowmobiling season last year was cut short due to COVID-19.

“The OFSC closed the trail, but it was as a result of what the health unit said and the premier making a decision to close the province,” he said.

Echoing Courvoisier and Lawson, Brash agreed that closing the trails would negatively impact local business.

“In the winter, a lot of businesses up here rely on snowmobiling to stay afloat,” said Brash.

However, John Britton, president of the Magnetawan Ridge Runners Snowmobile Club, said that the OFSC has planned ahead for potential COVID shutdowns and stated that trail closures would be a on region to region basis.

"If Simcoe-Muskoka, which those trails run from the south end of Hwy. 518 to Huntsville, have to close down then those trails will be affected," said Britton, mentioning that the Magnetawan trails are under North Bay Parry Sound Health Unit jurisdiction.

"If (our health unit) isn't closed down but the other one is then our trails can stay open," he explained. "It's going to be very much like going to a restaurant - but for snowmobiles, it's going to be open if most things are open."

Snowmobiling is a social sport, said Britton, and with snowmobiling, you don't have to worry much about social distancing.

"We're out of doors, we're social distancing, the only time you get in close contact is when you're in a restaurant," he said, adding that might be the biggest difference this year is avoiding over crowded restaurants.

"That's where it's going to be different this year," Britton said. "I think it will be fine because people are used to that now where ever they go."

These are weird times, but, I don't think it's going to get to a point where it's going to close snowmobiling down," he said. "But if it does it will only be region by region - those most effected by COVID."

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: When our reporter learned that COVID-19 had closed snowmobile trails early last year due to Ontario Premier Doug Ford locking the province down, she wanted to find out how much local businesses rely on snowmobile tourism and if the pandemic could factor into trail closures again this winter. So she reached out to local snowmobile clubs and businesses to find out just how deeply embedded snowmobiling was in the local economy.

Sarah Cooke, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Parry Sound North Star