‘They’re coming out in droves’: Outdoor activities offer freedom during Covid winter

Outdoors. From skiing to snowshoeing to bird watching, local residents are braving the cold to spend more time outdoors this winter.

Vernon /
| 29 Jan 2021 | 10:52

As temperatures drop and snow piles up, the urge to get outside this winter is stronger than ever. To get out of the house in the age of Covid, residents hit the slopes and strap on snowshoes.

In a recent survey of over 200 readers, 75% said they participate in outdoor winter activities, reporting everything from sleigh riding, to chopping wood and ice fishing to getting some fresh air.

And many are feeling adventurous: one in four readers plan to pick up a new outdoor activity this season.

Meanwhile, local ski destinations and sport shops are seeing a surge in sales as residents brave the cold for a little winter fun.

Dusting off the ole snowshoes

Regina Ang lives at Kemah Lake in Hampton, N.J., with her partner of nearly 23 years, Sue Davies. “Our snowshoes have been sitting in our attic for three years now,” Ang said. “We’ve actually been able to brush them off and explore the area, see what we can do and take advantage of them now.”

The couple stays active during warmer months with pickleball, kayaking, swimming, and fishing. “We’re actually failures at fishing, but we try,” jokes Davies.

Ang and Davies prefer to travel in the colder months. They produce a blog, “Travel for Life Now,” where they report on their adventures from Singapore to Antarctica. But since Covid hit they’ve been kicking it, quarantine-style.

“Snowshoeing has been a godsend since the pandemic,” said Davies. “It’s quiet and peaceful, and oftentimes you don’t see a lot of people. You can also walk along the beaten paths that you wouldn’t normally see in the summertime because of the brush.”

There are many places to hike and snowshoe in and around Sussex County. Some of their favorite spots include Stokes State Forest and High Point State Park.

A recent poll conducted by Straus News found that 30 percent of our readers enjoy hiking and snowshoeing in winter. Hiking has become such a staple activity in local communities during the warmer months, it’s not surprising the next step would be in snowshoes.

“This was the first year we took to snowshoeing on actual hiking trails,” said Davies. “We used to only use them when we didn’t plow our driveway. Now we plow our driveway.”

An unlikely winter hobby

Alayna Vreeland, a 21-year-old recent college graduate from Warwick, N.Y., got into bird watching during the pandemic with her mother, Laura.

“We just wanted to figure out which duck was which, and it became this huge thing from there,” she said.

In the beginning, they would spend hours driving around Warwick, spotting birds and taking pictures. “It’s been a huge bonding experience with my mom and I,” she said.

Up until recently, both Vreelands have had less time to birdwatch, but Alayna has gotten involved with local bird-watching groups like the Orange County Audubon Society and the Edgar A. Mearns Bird Club . “Their live online broadcasts of bird watching have gone up hundreds since the beginning of the pandemic,” she said.

And is there much of a difference between bird watching during the colder months as opposed to the warmer? “Of course,” said Alayna. “During the winter there’s fewer tropical birds since they’ve all moved down South for the most part.”

Even so, Alayna has enjoyed watching winter birds, like birds of prey. “It’s really cool to see right now,” she said. “I know it’s an activity that’s becoming more popular as it’s naturally socially distant.”

Alayna said Wickham Lake in Warwick and the Black Dirt region in nearby Pine Island are some of the finest areas locally to spot some cool-looking birds. “We have nearly 310 species in Orange County, so it’s really impressive compared to other places,” she said.

Alayna will be returning to college to study Wildlife Conservation at the Unity College in Maine this year, something she credits getting into after her bird watching hobby took flight.

‘I didn’t have an excuse not to try’

Other wintertime sports that have risen in popularity dramatically during the pandemic are, of course, skiing and snowboarding. According to our survey, around 30 percent of respondents said they wanted to learn to ski or snowboard sometime this winter.

Erin McCarthy, a skier of 15 years, is one of those people. She decided to try out snowboarding at Mt. Peter in Warwick for the first time ever last month with her daughter, Emma.

Emma is an experienced skateboarder and a natural at snowboarding. Erin, on the other hand... “Let’s just say I was definitely slumming it on the bunny hill,” she said.

McCarthy, coincidentally, also works at Mt. Peter as a shopkeeper, and had been eyeing the board for a while. “I didn’t have an excuse not to try it out, especially now with all of my free time and working at a ski and snowboard mountain.”

Mt. Peter is popular for its beginner-friendly trails, night skiing, and snow-tubing. It’s been a huge destination for people around the area looking to learn a new skill and keep busy. It’s gotten to the point that online ski and snowboard reservations are necessary, and snow-tubing tickets are all but sold out.

‘Demand is sky high’

Julie Groth, manager of Orange County Snowboards, Ski & Bike Shop in Goshen, N.Y., said she’s seen a big change since the pandemic.

“There’s definitely more people hitting the hill recently, and it’s a lot of beginners,” she said.

The store sells a wide selection of ski and snowboards, winter apparel, and bike equipment. “Just like how there was a huge run on bikes last summer because of the pandemic, there’s a huge demand for skis and snowboards right now, and it’s reflected in the sales,” said Groth.

Groth is a snowboarder herself. “The slopes are even busy on Mondays,” she said. “I’ve never seen that in winters past.”

The 29-year-old Vernon, N.J., native is a regular at local ski and snowboard mountains. “I can only imagine what they’re feeling,” she said. “I’m sure they’re doing great right now.”

Evan Kovach, assistant general manager at Mountain Creek in Vernon, has never in his 14 years of working at the mountain seen anything like the current interest.

“We’re selling out these days, which is something we’ve never had in the past,” said Kovach. “From the highly committed skiers and snowboarders, to the never-touched-skis-ever, they’re coming out in droves.”

People have been looking to the mountains for things to do in winter.

“The activity itself is naturally socially distant which we’re very thankful for,” said Kovach. “Going to a park or other summer activities aren’t an option right now. This is probably one of the few options to do in the wintertime, and since we’re so close to New York City, our demand is sky high.”

The mountain must still adhere to the New Jersey State guidelines, which include reduced capacities and online reservations for ski, snowboarding, and snow tubing tickets. “We’re trying to keep the community here as safe as possible, and if that means having fewer people on the slope, so be it,” said Kovach.

Lori Phillips, general manager at Big Bear in the Poconos, is also seeing a large increase of interest in skiing and snowboarding, which she says has come with a few more difficulties due to COVID.

“The hardest thing for us is that it takes longer to process things and harder to find employees,” said Phillips. “Some people aren’t comfortable working at this time because of the pandemic, so it’s a lot of demand with little help.”

Kovach remains hopeful for this newfound interest in winter sports. “I think there’s a lot of good things to do when we disconnect from our cell phone, Netflix. It’s good for your mental health, it’s good for your well being and so I certainly think this interest will continue, or at least have momentum for years to come.” Evan Kovach.

Some local places for fun outdoor winter activities:
Mt. Peter Ski Area in Warwick, N.Y.
Mountain Creek in Vernon, N.J.
Shawnee Mountain Ski Area in East Stroudsburg, Pa.
Ski Big Bear at Masthope Mountain in Lackawaxen, Pa.
Ice skating:
Bear Mountain in Tomkins Cove, N.Y.
Crystal Springs Resort in Sussex, N.J. (Glice — synthetic ice — skating)
Skylands Ice World in Stockholm, N.J.
Hiking, snowshoeing:
Appalachian Trail in Southfields, N.J.
Delaware State Forest in Dingmans Ferry, Pa.
Heritage Trail in Goshen, N.Y.
High Point State Park in Sussex, N.J.
Highlands Trail in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Milford Knob Trail in Milford, Pa.
Pochuck State Forest in Pine Island, N.Y.
Schunnemunk Mountain in Cornwall, N.Y.
Sledding Spots:
Scotchtown Avenue School in Goshen, N.Y.
Hopatcong State Park in Landing, N.J.
Sussex County Community College in Newton, N.J.
Bubbling Springs Park in West Milford, N.J.
Stanley Deming Park in Warwick, N.Y.
Knapp’s View in Chester, N.Y.
Bird Watching:
6 ½ Station Sanctuary in Goshen, N.Y.
Stony Creek Sanctuary in Warwick, N.Y.
Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
“Search for Eagles” trips in Dingman’s Ferry, Pa. led by Jack Padalino, president emeritus of the Pocono Environmental Education Center: 2/7, 2/14, 3/7, 3/14. Email jackpeec@aol.com or call 845-325-0536 to participate. There is no charge.