Skaters Jan. 29 at The Rink at Thompson’s Point, where demand for ice time means the rink is seeing more use throughout the day. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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In a normal winter, Mainers trying to make it to spring can augment the usual assortment of indoor diversions – movies, plays, museums, galleries, dining, concerts, professional hockey and basketball games – with outdoor activities like skiing, snowshoeing, and ice skating.

But this isn’t a normal winter. This year, as the coronavirus pandemic stretches into its 11th month, those winter sports may be the only excuse to get out of the house. As a result, equipment retailers and resort operators say the pandemic is fueling strong sales.

With physical distance and face coverings built into sports like skiing and snowboarding, some resorts across the region are seeing more demand for lift tickets. Many are encouraging customers to put their gear on and eat lunch in their cars, rather than gathering in lodges, to maintain social distance.

Skis for sale at Portland Gear Hub. Equipment for outdoor winter sports is in high demand at the Washington Avenue nonprofit and at other Portland retailers. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Cannon Mountain in Franconia, New Hampshire, has eliminated any gear storage at its indoor facilities. Its website instructs patrons to plan to use their vehicles “as their lodge.”

Despite the new regulations, John DeVivo, manager of Cannon Mountain, told NPR earlier this month that his mountain has sold 20 percent more season passes this winter compared to last year, or a thousand more than usual. 

The spike in winter sports interest is apparent among local students, too.

Deering High School Athletic Director Michael Daly said last month that Portland’s high schools have seen a marked increase this year in the number of students who signed up for Nordic or cross-country skiing.

Portland and Deering high schools currently only offer cross-country skiing, but Daly said there has been discussion this year about introducing an alpine, or downhill, ski team at the high school level next winter.

Many people have also rediscovered the city’s skating rinks – with gear purchased to facilitate their new hobby.

Michelle Fennewald of Portland revived her childhood pastime of ice skating this winter and said some of her neighbors have, too. She grew up in Rhode Island, with two ice rinks near her childhood home, but did not often pond skate. She said she feels more confident about skating on city ponds this season.

“I go out and even if it’s nighttime there are other people out there,” Fennewald said last week.

Kat Bemis, a Portland resident who moved to Maine from Colorado last month, has also taken up ice skating this winter.

Bemis said she thinks skating is a great way to socialize from a safe distance, “soak up some vitamin D and pretend to be a kid again.”

“It’s a simple pleasure,” she said, “which is something everyone can use right now.”

Portland maintains five public outdoor rinks, including Deering Oaks Pond, which Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston skated on while filming the 1996 film “The Preacher’s Wife.”

The public is also free to skate at Payson Park, Ludlow Pond, and the two ponds at Riverside Golf Course. Capisic Pond is also open to the public, but it is not maintained, according to the city website. The Troubh Ice Arena is the only city-owned indoor rink.

Sara Ramirez repairs a bicycle Jan. 29 at Portland Gear Hub, where bikes, skis, boots and other outdoor sports equipment has been hard to keep in stock. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Ryan Scott, general manager of Riverside Golf Course & Grill, said while this winter “hasn’t been the greatest so far” in terms of weather for winter activities, cross-country skiing at Riverside has “definitely picked up.”

His colleagues in the Parks and Recreation Department, he added, have seen more use at the city’s outdoor facilities this winter, especially for ice skating at Deering Oaks.

Fennewald works at Gorham Bike & Ski on Congress Street, which offers a variety of rental options including bikes, skis, and snowboarding gear, as well as a range of outdoor gear for purchase. 

She said the store sold out of snowshoes and cross-country ski packages earlier this season, and rentals have not increased much since then due to a lack of snow. Ski sales have also been similar to last year.

Fennewald said she thinks the large snowstorm that hit Maine before Christmas inspired people to “come out and get their stuff early,” so it wouldn’t be surprising to see another increase in demand after this week’s big storm.

At Portland Gear Hub on Washington Avenue, Brian Danz said his store has had a “very high-volume year” in terms of sales. The shop is a nonprofit that accepts and repairs donated gear for resale; Danz is its adult education and technology coordinator.

“People have been coming in and getting pretty much everything they can,” he said last week.

A message on Portland Gear Hub’s website said the shop has been “overwhelmed” since the COVID-19 pandemic began – so much so that it can no longer keep up with inquiries received via the website – although Danz said demand for winter gear has not been as intense as people’s requests for bikes last spring when his shop was forced to upgrade its phone line to keep up with the number of orders being called in.

He said the store’s business model can sometimes be challenging, because employees are always trying to mix and match equipment to see what will work for customers, including matching used boots and skis.

The showroom at the Portland Gear Hub. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The shop has experienced some supply shortages this winter, Danz said, including not being able to get all of the ski boots it ordered from one of its distributors.

Snowshoes sold out “pretty much right away,” he added, though Danz said the store still has a few kids pairs left, and the same goes for ice skates.

Portland Gear Hub also operates a ski rental business in Oxford, which Danz said has seen “pretty steady” demand, even when there has not been much snow.

“People are definitely eager to get out even when the conditions aren’t prime,” he said.

Julia May, director of operations at Thompson’s Point, said COVID-19 has had a “surprising effect” on her organization’s rink this year.

“We were assuming that we would see a lower turnout, but it’s actually been quite steady,” she said. 

Ticket sales at The Rink at Thompson’s Point have been roughly the same as previous years, but due to remote learning and the closure of several indoor facilities, May said the hours that visitors are using the rink have expanded, which makes it easier to manage capacity.

The venue is usually open until 10 p.m. daily.

May said the rink strictly enforces state COVID-19 regulations. Rentals are sanitized after every use along with high-touch areas every two hours, and contact tracing is completed as part of the ticketing process.

Masks are also required for everyone at the rink at all times.

The rink is typically closed for public skating each year at the end of February to accommodate hockey tournaments, but May said the rink may stay open a while longer this year and a closing date has not yet been determined.

She added that staff at Thompson’s Point have worked to create safe programming at the venue since last March, and they know people trust them to “keep things on the calendar.”

“We’d love to think that it has kept our community members optimistic that eventually, things will get back to normal,” May said. “And when they do, we’ll be here.”