Todd and Jeannette Sample woke up before dawn to register their three daughters for spots in a youth cross-country ski program that ended up selling out within hours.
On a sun-soaked Friday morning, the Minneapolis family arrived at Afton Alps ski resort to pick up their season passes and buckle into their downhill skis for a few runs.
"We always cross-country ski, but we decided because of COVID we are going to do both," Todd Sample said. Their daughters, Greta, 11, Nora, 9, and Eva, 7, have been cooped up at home doing online school, which the girls sum up in one word: "Boring."
Ski hills, cross-country ski facilities and city parks across Minnesota are bracing for a rush of winter visitors as virus-weary residents turn to the outdoors to find wintertime relief. Many locations are already open, albeit with man-made snow.
"Minnesotans are longing for outdoor adventures this year. Skiing is one that looks fun and exciting," said Jim Vick, a spokesman for Lutsen Resort on Lake Superior.
Lutsen's opening weekend crowds were 50% larger than last year, Vick said. The resort is anticipating busy weekends and a lot more midweek skiing as people working remotely now find their schedules more flexible.
The Minneapolis-based Loppet Foundation's youth cross-county ski program sold out in two hours, and it already has a waitlist for the program for participants in their 20s.
And after an unusual October snowfall, pent-up Twin Cities residents purchased a record number of cross-country ski passes from Loppet, which manages ski trails at several Minneapolis locations including Theodore Wirth and Chain of Lakes regional parks. The nonprofit sold more than 1,000 trail passes in a single week in October.
"It was amazing," said Heidi Ledermann, a Loppet spokeswoman. "It was quite a shock to us all. We are expecting it to be a record year."
Ski resort operators across the state say guests will notice some COVID-related changes, mostly to ensure social distancing while ticketing and during lessons. Lodges are closed other than for ticket pickup and bathroom use, so patrons are being asked to take breaks and snack in their cars. Ski hill operators are also spacing out lift lines and limiting lessons and group activities.
Once skiers are on the slopes or trails, very little will be different.
"Skiing is considered a low-risk activity with COVID," said Chris Blackwell, general manager of Afton Alps, in Hastings in the St. Croix River Valley.
So how are folks reacting to the changes?
"It's all smiles. They are so happy to just be out skiing and snowboarding," Vick said.
Last ski season was cut short due to the spring lockdown, so many resort operators are hoping to make up for lost revenue. Most people are pleased the governor's new shutdown order exempts outdoor activities, ski operators say.
Lutsen does not release attendance numbers, but Vick said he's hopeful it will recover from last year's lost spring season and even see some growth.
"It's a long, cold winter in Minnesota. Being shut in by yourself makes it even longer. Finding things to do outside is essential," Vick said.
Blenda Björk of Lake Elmo is pivoting from weekly golfing leagues to downhill skiing. She anticipates hitting the slopes at Afton Alps several times a week.
"It's something we can do outside and be with people," she said.
The pandemic, which is clearing schedules, canceling youth activities and sinking far-flung vacation plans, could expand snow sports, similar to the surge in golfing interest this past summer.
The Loppet Foundation, which offers youth and adult mountain biking and running in the summer, said those programs sold out. The nonprofit, founded on cross-country skiing, said it anticipates an even busier winter.
"Outdoor activities are really the only thing we are allowed to do. It's a great outlet for people," Ledermann said.
In Duluth, Spirit Mountain's interim Executive Director Ann Glumac said she is hoping a good run of snow and cold will lead to a strong winter season.
Glumac said with fewer families traveling, Duluth could be a good getaway option for Twin Cities families looking for outdoor winter activities.
Lutsen, 90 miles north of Duluth on the North Shore, can sleep about 900 people in condos and hotel rooms at the resort. The resort is already taking bookings as far out as April, Vick said.
In the parking lot at Afton, Minneapolis mom Betsy Morris was helping Maggie, 3, and Henry, 6, into their ski boots. She and her husband, Phil, and their two kids anticipate spending even more time on the slopes as youth hockey and soccer leagues are called off. Even outings to the library have been cut.
"It's pretty sad. It's pretty hard," Betsy Morris said. "We are going to ski and make the most of it."
Staff writer Katie Galioto contributed to this report.
Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037