To say Coronavirus is reshaping our world is to state the obvious. Even in the tucked-away haven of the Methow Valley, COVID-19 is having an impact in more ways than one. An article written by the Methow Valley News in October, details how the valley is becoming a “zoom town”, a phenomenon echoed by many mountain towns around the country as the pandemic encourages remote work and less densely populated living environs. Just three hours over North Cascades Highway in the summer from the metropolis of Seattle and five hours from the city when the pass closes in the winter, the Methow Valley is well located for urban recreationalists looking to escape the city.
When Washington stay-at-home orders eased following Memorial Day this spring, the rural valley experienced an unprecedented number of visitors throughout the summer and fall. A significant increase in property and housing sales correlated with the increased visitation, which as Ann McCreary writes for the Methow Valley News, “is creating the most competitive and stressful [housing] market brokers have seen in the Methow”.
Coupled with the region’s remoteness are its high value sporting options. One key winter-time asset is this: the Methow boasts the largest cross-country trail system in North America with over 200km of groomed skiing in the winter. While nordic skiing is not exactly a widely known or popular sport in the United States, as this little corner of the country experiences a rise in popularity, so too does this sport. Recently published articles by the Seattle Times, Wall Street Journal, and Outside Online, all detail why cross-country skiing is the ideal sport for social distancing. The Seattle Times article, “How to start cross-country skiing- the ideal sport for social distancing,” mentions the Methow Valley several times saying, “the crown jewel of [Washington] state’s Nordic offerings, though, is Methow Trails, the Methow Valley’s massive cross-country ski network spanning Mazama and Winthrop.”
Graced with an early season snowfall, this year’s ski season began early in the valley. Methow Trails, the non-profit organization responsible for grooming and year-round trail maintenance, announced opening day on November 21st, the earliest ever official opening. According to James DeSalvo, Executive Director for Methow Trails, early season pass sales were up 33% from last year’s numbers. DeSalvo attributes this increase to two things, the early season snow and COVID-19.
Another indicator of the sport’s new found attraction, for now certainly a short-term impact of COVID – can be seen in the Methow Valley Nordic Team. (The author was a member of MVNT through childhood and high school and that her mother is the director of the junior team). Enrollment in the ski team typically hovers around 100 skiers from year to year, according to Leslie Hall, director of the Methow Valley Nordic junior team. This year 127 athletes signed up for the junior team and the coaching staff has increased by an additional 5-6 members to cover the higher number of skiers. Pete Leonard, Executive Director of Methow Valley Ski Education Foundation, the umbrella organization which the junior team falls under, believes that somewhere between 15-35% of these new faces are newcomers to the valley. Others have lost the option of school-related sports due to COVID restrictions and are trying a different sport this winter. Hall says, “I do think we have gotten some new local kids, since now there is no basketball or wrestling.”
The Hoffman family, who recently moved to the valley from Seattle, made the decision to sign their twelve-year old daughter up for the ski team “because it’s what you do in the Methow Valley” said Danielle Hoffman. “With COVID, I didn’t feel comfortable standing shoulder to shoulder in endless lines or making my way to the bathrooms [at alpine areas]. It was time for a change. Nordic is basically free. Sure the initial investment is there for a set up but I can ski right outside my door. It was worth the change.”
Similarly, the Menzies came to the Methow in March to escape COVID. “What could [be] more quintessentially Valley than cross country skiing!” exclaimed Pete Menzies in an email, “and our neighbors told us it was a wonderful program, and we knew that many excellent skiers coached here. Plus, with COVID lurking, what could be better than getting outside for regular exercise, meeting new people and kids, and learning to love winter weather than joining the ski team and learning from the best.”
In this postage-stamp community surrounded by mountains, for the influx of new residents and families moving full-time into what were once urban-escape valve vacation homes, cross-country skiing becomes a means to be part of a broader community during uncertain times.
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.