Pandemic border closure leaves northern neighbors missing the New York mountains and trails they love
By Stephen Leon
For six years, Patrick-André Poisson and his family would cross the U.S. border and rent a house in the Adirondacks near Whiteface Mountain for the ski season.
Now, like many Canadians who routinely enjoyed the Adirondack outdoors before the coronavirus pandemic, they’re missing their mountains. North Country businesses and municipalities in turn are missing their money—though not as badly as some had feared.
Poisson, a former competitive racer who lives in Montreal, had three children participating in alpine ski-racing programs at Whiteface through the New York Ski Educational Foundation (NYSEF), and he served as a volunteer coach. A vice president and portfolio manager at RBC Financial Group, Poisson would travel to the Lake Placid area with his family on weekends. Over those six years, they fell in love with Whiteface, the region and the people in the local ski community.
In March 2020, the Poissons had to pack up their rental cottage with a month still to go on the lease. COVID-19 had struck, and the U.S. and Canadian governments had closed the border—a closure that is still in effect for an undetermined length of time. This winter, Patrick and his family have skied in Canada.
“We miss (Whiteface) a lot,” Poisson said, “but there is nothing we can do about it.”
In New York State, the economic effects vary, at least partially offset by an increase in American customers. But for outdoor enthusiasts from Canada, it has been a long, frustrating year.
John Bell, who works in the greater Toronto area, is going through a similar Adirondack withdrawal.
“We miss it terribly,” said Bell, a regional manager at Sika Canada’s office in Mississauga. “It’s always the highlight of our summer to go to the Adirondacks.”
Bell and his wife, Carol, are avid hikers. In a phone conversation, he ticked off a handful of High Peaks they have hiked: Whiteface, Algonquin, Giant, Cascade, Mount Marcy. The Bells’ home is in Collingwood, northwest of Toronto on Georgian Bay. While the region they live in is also noted for its outdoor attractions, to John and Carol, there is nothing quite like the Adirondacks. Before the pandemic they visited annually for three decades, joining friends from Ottawa who have a cottage on Middle Saranac Lake.
“It’s one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen, and we just love it,” Bell said, “whether we’re standing on the top of a mountain or sitting on the dock at Saranac Lake.”
Poisson feels the same way about Whiteface. He considers it one of the region’s greatest ski mountains for its relaxed people and relatively noncommercial feel. “Half of my friends are now from the United States,” he said, and the area is like a second home to his family.
His children are now skiing an hour and a half in the other direction from Montreal. Poisson said he couldn’t find a decent cottage there, in the Mont Tremblant area, and so are basing their training out of their home.
All-American license plates
“On any given day,” Michael Cashman said, “you could stand in a parking lot pretty much anywhere in Plattsburgh and see a sea of Canadian license plates.
“Not so this year.”
Cashman, supervisor of the Town of Plattsburgh, is well aware of the economic damage the border closure has done to local business and to sales-tax revenue in Clinton County, which straddles the Adirondack Park’s northeast boundary.
“The economic impact to Clinton County is approximately $300 million annually” in Canadian spending, Cashman said, adding that the town does not have a property tax. The loss in sales taxes totaled $12 million, not counting the absence of northward travelers who exit I-87 at Route 3 to eat, shop and fill their tanks on the way to Quebec.
Many Canadians, Cashman said, “venture over the border to spend their money locally because they can’t get those services to the north. They also consider Plattsburgh a suburb of Montreal.”
Canadians keep boats in marinas on the U.S. portion of Lake Champlain, but didn’t use them last year, he said.
“We’re a tourist community,” said Christopher Rosenquest, mayor of the City of Plattsburgh. “We miss the Canadian visitors, a ton. It’s not just the money, it’s the cultural exchange that many of us have come to appreciate.”
The “Lake City,” as Plattsburgh calls itself, canceled festivals and braced for losses of up to 30% in sales taxes, but ultimately lost just 3%.
“Even though we didn’t see a lot of out-of-towners, we did see a lot of people staying local and shopping local,” Rosenquest said.
While Cashman has not called for a rush to reopen the border, he has been critical of the months-long absence of a coordinated set of reopening metrics from the two federal governments.
“As people struggle on Main Street, America, people need to know what they need to do to reopen,” he said just after President Joe Biden’s inauguration. “I hear from business leaders”—small, mid-sized and especially legacy businesses that have changed hands among family members—“that there has been a lot of worry moving forward.”
Biden has since issued an executive order calling on several U.S. agencies to begin talks with their counterparts in Canada and Mexico to develop health and safety metrics to reopen the borders, earning Cashman’s applause.
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“From the start I have been advocating for metrics and/or a dashboard system that sets the transparent expectations for a safe reopening from both sides,” he said in a written statement. “Public health must remain at the forefront of that plan. My hope is that border communities will be engaged in some way moving forward.”
Garry Douglas, president and CEO of the North Country Chamber of Commerce in Plattsburgh, echoed Cashman’s sentiment in a statement of his own.
“This is the sort of official planning effort we have been calling for,” Douglas said. “Not a rush to reopening … but a commitment now to exploring agreed conditions and metrics along with possible steps that might eventually begin.”
Locals in the lift lines
Thanks to its location near the border in Malone, Titus Mountain, in a normal year, draws 60% of its skiers from Canada. Asked if sales receipts are down this season, Titus brand ambassador Bruce Monette III did not give specific numbers, but he reported what seems to be a consistent trend throughout the Adirondacks in pandemic times: People who live relatively nearby are filling in at least part of the business that has been lost. Interstate travel restrictions have, like the border closure, reshaped vacations.
“People that may have gone out west, or skied in Vermont or other parts of the East Coast, are now staying home and skiing the mountains in their own state,” he said.
Reflecting on the 2020 Adirondack travel market, Jim McKenna, president and CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST) in Lake Placid, said, “overall, the Canadians weren’t missed as much (as anticipated) because it was filled in with other people.”
Still, the forced cancellations of large events, including some that are designed to draw Canadian visitors, has had an impact. The annual Can-Am Rugby Tournament, scheduled for last July 31–August 2 in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, was canceled. And CAN/AM, an unrelated organization that runs a busy schedule of hockey tournaments in the United States and Canada, also canceled its slate of tournaments in Lake Placid due to state government restrictions.
The rugby tournament, a local fixture for the last 47 years, draws more than 100 teams a year—15 to 20 of them Canadian—and close to 3,000 visitors total. Can-Am Rugby is planning for this summer’s tournament and “hoping for the best,” according to the organization’s president, Cameron Moody.
Although the Canadian market normally accounts for 20% to 30% of the business in the Lake Placid region, McKenna said, occupancy taxes in Essex County were off by only about 10% for 2020.
And the Olympic Regional Development Authority reports that even with capacity restrictions business has been brisk at its ski centers. Those include Whiteface and Gore mountains for downhill, and Mount Van Hoevenberg for Nordic.
“Honestly, we haven’t really felt an absence here in Lake Placid or at our resorts,” ORDA communications manager Elise Ruocco said.
Again, part of the story is the increase in local and regional tourism. “I think we’ve gotten more visitors from within the state, especially given some of the restrictions in Vermont,” Ruocco said. “We’ve been really busy this season. A lot of people want to get outside and get the fresh air.”
As for warm-weather visitors in 2020, anecdotally, at least, the story is the same. The Adirondack Mountain Club, which operates out of the Heart Lake Program Center in Lake Placid, supports the park and its many trails with a combination of stewardship and encouragement of “responsible recreation.” Thousands of hikers enter the High Peaks through Heart Lake. In a normal year, 10% to 20% of them are Canadian, ADK spokesman Ben Brosseau estimated.
To the rescue
In 2020, of course, “we didn’t see any Canadian hikers,” Brosseau said. “However, we were just as busy—at times busier—than other summers.”
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation gathers search-and-rescue statistics, which can suggest trends but are far from concrete indicators of the numbers of visitors on the trails. For the two DEC regions that encompass the Adirondacks, these operations rose to 324 in 2020 from 229 in 2019.
Brosseau pointed out that the last major economic downturn, in 2008, led to more people taking “staycations,” which began an upward trend of people seeking outdoor activities closer to home. That led to “a large population of people in their 30s and 40s looking to get out, and social media promoting the outdoors”—a “perfect storm” to get more people into the Adirondacks from shorter distances.
“It will be interesting to see if this economic downturn yields a similar result, as people continue to pursue local vacations because they’re more affordable,” Brosseau said.
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With the likely reopening of the Canadian border sometime this year, Brosseau worries about the park’s natural resources being overwhelmed.
“What ADK would like to see is a proper balance of front-country and backcountry infrastructure,” he said, with more comprehensive outdoor education “so that when people show up, they have a good sense of what they need to have a safe and responsible experience in the backcountry.”
An open border could drive new parking problems, Brosseau said, noting that he has seen cars parked on the road as far away as 3 miles from Heart Lake.
Down the road from Lake Placid is a cabin in Keene, owned by the Montreal Section of the Alpine Club of Canada. The cabin has sat empty now for almost a year, as the club’s several hundred members have not been able to cross the border to use it.
“We used to organize outings in the Adirondacks almost every weekend before the pandemic,” said Louise André, communications director of the Montreal chapter. The group organizes hiking, camping, climbing, skiing and snowshoeing outings for Quebecers.
Members were disappointed to lose their usual barbecue weekend, she said, “and that our winterfest also seems compromised.”
The border closure has hurt membership, at least temporarily, as the club cannot plan any Adirondack activities. “Our members love the Adirondacks, and the activities we organize in the region play an important role in their joining the club,” André said. “We estimate that a third of the members did not renew their membership last year.”
When the border does reopen, she said, “we will probably program several group activities in the Adirondacks to make up for the time we have not been able to enjoy your beautiful region!”
For skier Poisson and his family, re-entry to their former Adirondack winter lifestyle won’t be so simple if the closure drags on for months, or if there are restrictions with uncertain expiration dates. For one thing, he has to look for a winter cottage to rent, and get his children back into the NYSEF program.
And, Poisson noted, in the past he balanced work and skiing by making weekly trips back and forth over the border. Quarantine rules could thwart that schedule. “I can’t be isolated for 14 days,” he said.