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Newfoundland blizzard sparks flurry of interest in local winter activities

Brian Tobin skis on the groomed trails of Pippy Park in St. John’s on Tuesday, February 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly.

Eyes around the world were temporarily fixed on St. John’s, N.L., on Jan. 17 when a record-breaking blizzard hammered the coastal city.

A state of emergency invoked by the city lasted eight days, as snow plows moved to clear the colourful provincial capital’s streets.

Despite challenges to residents, the dramatic snowfall also sparked interest in winter activities the city offers – and interest in tourism to the province.

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Michael Whittle, staff at downtown St. John’s sporting store The Outfitters, said sales skyrocketed immediately after the blizzard. Snowshoes sold out, forcing the shop to order additional stock from suppliers twice this winter.

Whittle said he’s never seen such an enthusiastic bump in sales, something he credits to the immense snowfall that left people stranded at home from work and school, yearning to get outside.

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“They kind of saw what they were missing,” Whittle said by phone last week.

Skis for rent are on display at North Bank Lodge in Pippy Park, St. John’s on Tuesday, February 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

Whittle also points to the bright and sunny weather during the state of emergency that immediately followed the storm, enticing people out onto the snowy, car-free streets with skis, snowshoes and sleds.

Mayor Danny Breen said keeping people off the roads during the snow cleanup was a challenge, when the clear weather and pristine snow made homebound residents restless and excited to get out.

“It was just sunny days every day after we had that initial snowfall, so it really drove people outside, you know, and kind of made them aware of the fun,” Whittle said.

Sales of snowpants, goggles, skis and other outdoor products “across the board” increased after the blizzard, Whittle said, and more people were coming through the service shop to tune up their equipment than he’d seen in previous years.

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Whittle said the storm “did a number on showing people what’s there locally,” a trend he hopes to see continue in years to come.

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The city has a number of free, accessible trails that are groomed throughout the winter for use. There’s also the option of driving a few hours to in Clarenville to use the ski hill. Some nearby walking and showshoeing trails – such as the East White Hills Trail near Quidi Vidi Lake, and parts of the East Coast Trail along the coast and the T’Railway – aren’t maintained during the winter, though experienced hikers and snowshoers still use them.

Images from the aftermath of the storm also piqued prospective tourists’ interest.

News coverage and social media reports of neighbours helping each other with food and company, and making the best of the snowy situation, enticed those watching in other parts of Canada to pick up the phone and inquire about a trip to the island, according to Cathy Duke, CEO of Destination St. John’s.

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From monitoring social media comments, Duke said people commenting from around Canada were “endeared” by the authenticity and kindness displayed during the storm, which may have motivated them to finally plan a bucket-list trip to Newfoundland.

Lorna Andersen and Kelly Clarke pause on the groomed trails of Pippy Park in St. John’s on Tuesday, February 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

She said tour operators around the province reported an unusually high number of calls from interested travellers in the aftermath of the blizzard, happening as provincial tourism ads rolled out across Canada.

“It sort of raised the profile of Newfoundland and Labrador and brought it to people’s attention as a great place,” Duke said in a telephone interview. “There’s a silver lining that we had so much national exposure.”

With cars now back on the road, the spillover effect of winter activity fever can be seen on the city’s groomed trails most days of the week.

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At Pippy Park, located in the heart of the city near Memorial University and the provincial legislature, a well-lit network of trails is free and accessible for snowshoers and skiers from morning to evening most days of the week.

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Preparations underway for annual Canadian Birkebeiner Ski Festival – Feb 4, 2020

Visits to the rental centre in Pippy Park, where people can strap on snowshoes or cross-country skis to hit the trails, spiked this year after a few seasons with comparatively little snow. The city has recorded approximately 2,700 visitors coming through the Pippy Park rental shop so far this year, up from 2,400 last year and 2,000 in 2018.

On a mild Tuesday evening in late February, John and Flora Seymour were out in the park on skate skis, a weekly tradition for the siblings. The pair say it’s one way they guarantee spending time together at least once a week.

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John, who’s been frequenting the trails for more than two decades, said the amount of snow this winter has made for great skiing and winter biking conditions, and he’s noticed the trails are particularly busy.

Flora said it’s heartwarming to see so many people making use of the trails.

“If you come on a Saturday, it’ll do your heart good to see the kids and the families, just the smiles and the laughs,” Flora said.

An admittance sign is shown at North Bank Lodge in Pippy Park in St. John’s on Tuesday, February 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

Pausing on a walk through the trail network on snowshoes, Lorna Andersen said it’s been a great year for activity in the park.

Snowfalls in St. John’s are often quickly followed by rain, causing the snow to vanish, but this winter snowshoers are in luck with the consistent ground coverage on Pippy Park’s trails, where Andersen said she enjoys the “calm and peaceful walk” not far from her home.

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“It’s unreal,” she said. “You just hear a crunch, just walk and chat.”

Andersen also snowshoes along more rugged trails by Signal Hill, close to the downtown core, with “gorgeous views” of cliffs and the ocean.

She encouraged other winter-weary residents to take advantage of the local activities afforded by an extra-snowy season.

“If you live here, get outside and have fun,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2020.