Free loaner programs for outdoor winter gear are up and running across Vermont, as communities encourage people to stay active and get outdoors during the pandemic.
The Hard'Ack Recreation Area in St. Albans has free terrain for skiing or snowboarding, as well as a sledding hill and trails for snowshoeing and Nordic skiing.
Hard'Ack is free to visit, though donations are accepted. Borrowing a sled is free, too.
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"Any time you get outside, you never regret that," said Kelly Viens, the recreation director for St. Albans. "It's always a nice part of every day."
Snowshoes are available to borrow free in 60 public libraries across Vermont, thanks to a partnership between RiseVT and the Vermont Department of Health.
"We don't want winter to be a barrier," said Marissa Parisi, who leads RiseVT, the prevention program for OneCare, the Vermont healthcare reform organization.
Parisi encouraged people to scan this list for a participating library near them, where they can find snowshoes to use in parks or on trails near their homes.
"So that everybody in the community could enjoy those public lands and get exercise and get out," Parisi said, describing the shared goal of RiseVT and the Vermont Department of Health. "Because it's not only good physical health to get out on this beautiful snowy day, but it's also great for your mental health."
That same focus on wellness has the city of Burlington saying it's beach weather on Lake Champlain — even in February.
North Beach is now home to groomed cross-country ski trails that connect to neighboring property. The Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront Department is loaning skis free, in a range of kids' sizes, to help more families explore the outdoors.
Experts have said throughout the pandemic that it is far safer to visit with friends outdoors compared to indoors, because the coronavirus spreads easier in less-ventilated spaces.
"It's gorgeous," Emma Allen of the Burlington Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department said of the opportunity to cross-country ski alongside Lake Champlain. "We've talked to a lot of people as they come down and they're excited to recreate in a space that's not normally available."
Masks are required in Vermont in public spaces, although the Vermont Department of Health said if you are doing strenuous exercise or going for a walk alone or with people you live with, a mask is not required.
In Burlington's Lakeside neighborhood, folks who live around a community ice rink have contributed hockey gear such as pucks and sticks so that more people can enjoy the rink.
One neighbor even turned his porch into a place where you can borrow hockey or figure skates, indicating the COVID-19-era mantra "we're all in this together" clearly applies to having fun, too.
Back at Hard'Ack, sledder Jamie Bushey said she hopes — even after the current public health emergency — that the focus on helping more people access the outdoors and stay moving will be here to stay.
"I think it's going to be bigger and better than ever," Bushey predicted about interest in outdoor activities becoming a lasting legacy of this chapter in our history. "A lot of great lessons learned during this pandemic."