Editor’s note: This article was published in Record-Eagle’s special release Momentum ’22. Click for more stories from Northern Michigan’s economic powerhouse here to read Momentum in its entirety online.
What did you do two years ago? If you haven’t caught up or learned how to cook from Netflix and televised pandemic press conferences, chances are you were one of the more than 161 million Americans who took part in at least one outdoor activity during the “lockdown.”
An Outdoor Participation Trends Report commissioned by the Outdoor Foundation found that 53 percent of Americans ages 6 and older participated in outdoor recreation at least once in 2020, the highest participation rate on record — and 7 million more people than the year before.
Parks and recreation areas in Michigan also saw a 30 percent increase in visitors in the first year of the pandemic, according to statistics released by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
As the COVID-19 pandemic devastated communities and forced a nationwide shutdown, outdoor spaces became havens to safely socialize, improve physical and mental health, connect with family, and recover from screen fatigue.
Nothing exemplifies this better than the interest in skiing, golfing, hiking, biking, swimming and gaming at Crystal Mountain that coined the phrase “nature never closes.”
But despite these advances, nearly half of the US population did not share the proven positive health effects of outdoor physical activity. And many have stopped participating in outdoor activities since the pandemic. This could make the number of participants a thing of the past.
Ski resorts across the country have reported huge sales of lift tickets and season passes in recent years. Crystal Mountain is no exception. But it’s not the increase in revenue that’s the highlight of the season, it’s the increase in people on the Hill – especially Bunny Hill.
New, unprecedented skiers and snowboarders – and some returning to their beloved sports – joined the ranks, trying out new gear but also bringing their old gear from years ago.
At least one hour of skiing or snowboarding was scheduled for each of the 114 days that the slopes were open at Crystal Mountain this ski season. And while that may seem like a small victory, it does align with the Outdoor Foundation’s report and sheds light on the bigger picture – more people are becoming fascinated with learning a new skill, a skill that could potentially lead to a lifelong hobby , or even a career.
But these new learning opportunities must be available to all, despite social and economic barriers.
The same Outdoor Foundation report, which paints a positive picture for outdoor participation, also sheds light on the lack of diversity. Approximately 72 percent of outdoor participants were white, 26 percent had college degrees, and 32 percent reported household incomes of $100,000 or more. And most were men.
The study also noted that history suggests that adults who have not been exposed to outdoor recreation are far less likely to become adult outdoor participants as children.
Therefore, collective action from the federal to the local level is required to break down the barriers.
That’s why Crystal Mountain and the Crystal Community Ski Club (CCSC) partnered with SOS Outreach and Detroit Outdoors in March to bring nearly two dozen metro Detroit students to northern Michigan. Many of Hamtramck High School’s students were first-generation immigrants from Yemen, Bangladesh, and Poland; and most of the group had never experienced life outside of town, let alone on skis or on a snowboard.
While at the resort, CCSC members made new friends and gave the Hamtramck teens a glimpse of northern Michigan winters. For Crystal Mountain, it helped the four-season resort introduce aspiring jobs to a new group of kids.
Last year, the resort partnered with the Flint YMCA to bring school kids, many of whom had never left Genesee County before, to the resort for a day of skiing and camaraderie.
One of the programs within the Crystal Community Ski Club is Nordic Rocks, a series of cross-country ski clinics at area elementary schools designed to help children get on snow and get sliding at a time when they need it most , expose to a healthy outdoor recreation – in winter. The group also hosted children from the Little River Band of the Ottawa Indians to learn cross-country skiing at the resort.
It’s community partnerships like this and others, as well as endorsement funding from nonprofits like SOS Outreach, Detroit Outdoors, PSIA-AASI Central Education Foundation, Share Winter, and others, that enable Crystal Community Ski Club and Crystal Mountain to help underserved youth harvest help the benefits of outdoor recreation.
But there is still more to do.
All outdoor leisure businesses must do their part for the collective well-being of our citizens, but also for the future growth of the industry.
Attracting and retaining outdoor recreation participants requires an investment in people, time and knowledge. Everyone should have the opportunity to learn “pizza” and “French fries” on a rabbit hill.