Commentary: Outdoor recreation proved essential during COVID-19 pandemic

One year ago, the staff of the Upper Valley Trails Alliance was busy cleaning our trail tools after a season of use and storing them in our lending toolshed.

We had just completed a long and successful trail-building and maintenance season and were looking forward to spending time traveling or seeing family for the holidays. At home, I was awaiting the beginning of ski season (a favorite winter activity for my wife and two children, ages 11 and 9), taking our arsenal of winter gear out of the shed and anticipating a season of cold and snow.

For the most part, last winter went on as expected, although I always want more snow.

That all changed on March 15, when our region essentially shut down and we were told to stay at home. School went remote, work meetings went to Zoom and our community waited to see what would happen next.

One thing that did not change was the desire of Upper Valley residents to recreate on the plethora of trails in our region. My family and I found solace in walking and hiking outside whenever possible.

And with that, the UVTA became an essential COVID-19 resource.

Working with senior recreation officials in Vermont and New Hampshire, the UVTA disseminated the message that it was safe to recreate during the pandemic. Usage of our Trail Finder website, www.trailfinder.info, increased more 100% from the previous year as the “hike local” message spread.

Dozens of local trail groups around the Twin State area, eager to help manage crowds and spread the word about recreation during COVID-19, opted to add their trails to Trail Finder. Even though kids were not in school, they continued to get exercise outside through the Passport to Winter Fun program, where nearly 5,000 students from more than 60 school and homeschool groups participated.

While many summer camps had to stay closed this past summer, the UVTA was lucky to be able to offer our High School Trail Corps program to 40 students who contributed more than 1,800 hours on local trails. Although the program looked different this year with masks, social distancing and smaller crews, we expanded from four to five weeks and built and improved more than 75 miles of trail.

We have all been impacted, either directly or indirectly, by COVID-19. I have not been able to visit my family out of state since last year. I have mourned the death of loved ones and rejoiced when others have recovered. I have attended Zoom weddings and bat mitzvahs when I would normally celebrate these occasions in person.

And I have a lot for which to be thankful. Personally, I have been healthy through this pandemic, as have my family and friends. My kids have been able to go back to school (masked and distanced, but still in school). My wife has been able to stay safe as a physician in the DHMC emergency department.

I have always been thankful to be able to live in the Upper Valley, and even more so during a pandemic.

I am also extremely thankful to the board of the UVTA, whose guidance and support have allowed us to succeed during these unprecedented and trying times. Additionally, my amazing colleagues continue to be the heartbeat of the organization and have kept it fun when it could easily not be.

Finally and mostly, I would like to thank you, the Upper Valley community, for all you have done for the UVTA. Donors, members and businesses have stepped up with financial support and words of encouragement which have allowed us to continue to maintain and improve the local trails, ones we not only use and love but truly need.

I wish you a happy and healthy holiday and new year. See you on the trails.

Written by Russell Hirschler and published in the Valley News on December 28th, 2020.