Winter season is booming at Hanson Hills following a challenging 2020
Sat, 01/23/2021 - 9:38am caleb
Local recreation area had to cancel some of its events and programs last year due to COVID-19 pandemic, but this winter has been a busy one so far
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
Hanson Hills Recreation Area and Grayling Recreation Authority – the government consortium that runs it – were not able to conduct all of their normal events in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they did not have to cancel everything, and the local sports park is now having a busy winter season as people look to continue outdoor recreation.
Hanson Hills had closed for the winter just prior to the governor’s stay-at-home orders in March of last year, so its 2019-2020 winter season was not affected by the pandemic. Hanson Hills stayed open to the public in March and through the spring and summer – with a few adjustments – to give people opportunities for outdoor exercise and activity.
“As an organization operations weren’t too different,” said Justin Andre, Director of Operations for Grayling Recreation Authority.
Andre said GRA opted to close the playground at Hanson Hills during the shutdown because of sanitization concerns, and some workers were laid off for the summer while others worked remotely at times.
“We took care of the place as best we could,” Andre said.
Disc golf, the softball field, and the hiking/biking trails have remained open throughout the pandemic.
“We knew people would be turning to that kind of activity. We’re pretty fortunate we were able to keep that going for the community,” Andre said.
Grayling Recreation Authority and Hanson Hills had to cancel some of their 2020 events and programs because of COVID-19, including the Firecracker Fun Run (a Fourth of July event featuring the Mighty Milers youth running club) and the Ragnar Michigan Trail (an overnight relay race that featured more than 1,000 participants at Hanson Hills in 2019). GRA did not conduct its flag football, Mighty Milers, or archery programs in 2020. Hanson Hills also had to cancel its Easter Eggstravaganza last year.
“A lot of our normal programs weren’t able to happen,” Andre said.
In July, Grayling Recreation Authority opted to conduct the 5K portion of its annual GRA 10K/5K race series, and 116 people competed. GRA utilized online registration and wave starts in an effort to keep people distanced.
“We did hold a shortened version of our 10K/5K,” Andre said. “That went very well.”
Grayling Recreation Authority also conducted its Grayling Middle School cross country program in the fall as normal.
Also in the fall, Grayling Recreation Authority – faced with often-changing regulations regarding gatherings in the state – had to decide what to do for winter. Be open? Close for the season? Be open with modifications? What modifications?
“Our ultimate decision is we’ve got to be ready, we owe it to the community. We have a responsibility to the community and we were going to provide the service we are here to do,” Andre said.
GRA opted to open with some changes to keep people from congregating inside the lodge. Hanson Hills implemented online registration for its tubing operations, added outdoor check-in for tubing, removed all of its indoor seating, and set up its concession stand for carry-out only. The bathrooms are open and people can still come into the lodge for ski rentals and lift tickets. Outside, Hanson Hills added fire pits for people to stay warm – some people have used them to make s’mores, Andre said – and GRA has encouraged people to bring tents and shanties and other temporary structures to use in place of the lodge’s shelter.
Andre said the winter season has gone very well so far and numbers are way up with regard to people using the park despite some warm temperatures early in the winter that hampered snowmaking efforts.
“We are seeing about triple our normal numbers,” Andre said. “It’s a shock to our system. Our weekend use is rivaling our normal Christmas break. We are beyond busy.”
Andre said he was concerned going into the winter season that there might be issues with people adapting to the necessary changes, but he said so far it’s gone well.
“The community, everyone has been very respectful of what we’ve got going on here,” Andre said. “So far everybody has been awesome.”
Andre said with the recent colder temperatures snowmaking efforts are improving, and Hanson Hills is looking to be open on Friday nights starting in late January.
Hanson Hills was able to conduct a somewhat shortened version of its annual Cote Dame Marie Ski Loppet – a series of cross country ski races – in mid-January using wave starts to keep people distanced.
Hanson Hills has also been able to keep its ski school, opting for one on one lessons instead of group sessions. Andre said the lessons – available for downhill skiing, cross country skiing, and snowboarding – are going well.
“There is a ton of people learning how to ski this year,” Andre said.
Grayling Recreation Authority is also running its Hanson Hills Race Team and the Grayling Middle School ski program this winter.
Andre said cross country skiing activity at Hanson Hills is also going well, and the park has a new groomer to help keep the trails in good condition.
“Cross country trails have been super busy,” Andre said. “We offer some world class ski conditions here.”
Andre said it’s been a positive for the community to be able to use the park while some other recreational opportunities have been limited during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re just pleased that we’re a place people can come to to get that outdoor recreation in. We offer something for everyone on that end. We’ve got a little bit of everything,” Andre said. “Little modifications, a little creativity, we have been able to do a few things to make winter feel a little more normal.”
Andre said Blizzardfest – a collaboration between Hanson Hills and the Grayling Youth Booster Club that features a beer tent and a new version of downhill canoe races – is not likely to happen this year. Instead, with user numbers up so much this winter, Hanson Hills plans to operate as normal to continue meeting the demand for its activities.
“We’ll just continue our normal operations on those days,” Andre said.
Hanson Hills plans to conduct its Fat Bike Race on February 6 and its Hanson Hills Challenge cross country ski race on February 21. People can register online for the Fat Bike Race at https://funpromotions.com. Online registration for the Hanson Hills Challenge will be available soon at https://hansonhills.org.
Andre said the Hanson Hills staff has done well in implementing the changes and keeping the park going.
“Thank you to all my staff for their understanding, their patience, in making this winter season happen. We truly couldn’t do this without their help,” Andre said.