Feature Article - September 2021
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Playing in a Winter Wonderland

Make the Most of Your Outdoor Recreation

By Kelli Ra Anderson


A roaring bonfire. Mitten-hugged mugs of chocolate. Glassy ice sculptures sparkling in the winter sun. Crazy cardboard snow-sled races. Snowshoe volleyball. Sled hockey. Snowman competitions. Ice fishing. Cross-country skiing. Candlelit nature hikes under a frosty moon.

There is no shortage of creative attractions to entice people to bundle up and enjoy all that winter fun and recreation have to offer. Best of all, they can be a catalyst for significant economic growth, an opportunity for creating community partnerships, and even a ridiculous amount of fun to imagine, plan and enjoy.

While COVID-19 did its best to disrupt lives in 2020, outdoor winter programming was one of the few areas of life that not only survived better than most, but even thrived. In fact, veterans of sell-out winter events anticipate that the 2021/22 season could be just as popular or even better. Venues that had record number turnouts last year hope to further fuel the public's newfound hunger for all things winter wonderland with even more creative ideas.

But as with any program or event, a lot goes into making them successful, ranging from good management, and strategies for multi-seasonal use to new technology, vigorous brainstorming and smart research, to name a few. (Of course, a little cooperation with Mother Nature for optimum winter weather doesn't hurt, either.)

Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?

The Madison Winter Festival, now almost 20 years old, is proof positive that interest in winter outdoor activity has been on the rise for quite some time. In 2005, the fledgling festival was a simple, one-weekend, one-event attraction of free cross-country skiing around the Capitol Building started by a husband and wife team with a passion for promoting awareness about and experiencing the benefits of cross-country skiing.

Wisconsin certainly has no shortage of freezing temperatures. However, it doesn't always produce snow according to the dictates of the calendar. Solution? Artificial snow. "We had to make snow around the capitol square and scoop it all up after it was over," said Irena Komarova, the project's co-founder. "It was a spectacle but also so sad to make it happen and then just let it melt away after three days of activities. So we began contemplating if there was a way to make it last longer for the general public."

Within a few years, building on local business relationships with ski clubs and rentals, the city and the park district, the festival was transferred to a local park. Today, the festival has morphed into a nearly three-month-long snow-covered attraction that hosts a number of activities complete with lessons and rentals for cross-country skiing, sledding and ice skating. Most impressively, it has developed an extensive trail system for cross-country skiing in partnership with cooperative efforts of groups like the Central Cross Country Skiing Foundation, the city and other clubs.

"All that partnership generates a manmade loop of about one mile in the park that creates a draw and guarantees available snow people can hop on and start skiing on early on," Komarova explained about a well-conceived trail system that naturally connects to existing trails.

Between the daily and seasonal passes, rentals, lessons and community spending for restaurants and food trucks, there has been significant financial benefit for everyone involved as the attraction has grown year after year, adding one new festival feature after another.

Of course, the phenomenon of the winter festival isn't anything new. But its features don't have to be limited to a weekend celebration. For many park districts around the country, winter season competitions and activities are only limited by the imaginations of those who come up with them.

Seize the Day

COVID-19, however, has certainly made an impact. In 2020/21, rentals and registrations for winter events in Madison's festival quickly maxed out. Similarly, for the DuPage County Forest Preserve in Illinois, COVID made "every day a Saturday," according to Jay Johnson, district supervisor. "People rediscovered us, and as we got into winter programming, we did have to adjust. We saw a trend that there were more people." For their annual ice-fishing competition dubbed the "Hard Water Classic," this was an even greater boon. But not all their winter programming stayed the course.

"We couldn't offer all our original programming so we got creative with new things on the books including Fresh Air Fridays," he says about one of their most popular events throughout the winter and into the spring. Pulling the numbers, he verified that they pushed capacity during the coldest months.

Mother Nature also had a hand in the seasonal success that followed. Snowshoe rental and cross-country skiing took off, greater than in years past, in part thanks to a snowfall that stayed longer than usual.