KIMBALL — A pandemic that has curtailed many indoor recreational activities, combined with mild winter weather, has meant increased interest in outdoor venues like Powder Ridge ski resort in Kimball.

“It’s been a whirlwind of a season so far,” said Shelby Hedtke, manager and marketing director at Powder Ridge. “There’s a huge boom in the sport.”

With a “very high demand to be outside,” Hedtke said Powder Ridge has seen a boom in business. “It’s crazy.”

Granted, their total capacity has been reduced to meet COVID-19 safety standards, but the numbers have exceeded expectations, she said.

Only a set number of customers are allowed onto the slopes and sledding hills at one time and all lift tickets and passes must be reserved and purchased in advance online at www.powderridge.com. Check-in times are scheduled to prevent a large crowd at one time, with check-in available at an outside window or inside.

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Weekends times for skiing and snowboarding sell out very quickly and passes for the giant tubing hill are typically sold out a week in advance, said Hedtke. The crowds, and the prices, are less during weekdays.

COVID-19 rules apply

Until this past week, there had been no indoor dining allowed in the chalet, however, take-out was — and is — available. Hedtke said customers were understanding and creative with eating in their cars or their own fish houses they set up in the parking lot. They also warmed up by bonfires that staff kept stoked on the grounds.

Hedtke said staff has a “great attitude about everything” and are appreciative of the customers’ “resiliency” and willingness to adapt.

“They’ve been phenomenal,” she said of Powder Ridge guests. “We are so blessed.”

Many COVID-19 safety measures remain in place, including requiring that face masks be worn inside buildings and outside while waiting in lift lines and when social distancing isn’t possible.

Free lessons for new skiers and snowboards are still being taught, but are one-on-one with one of the 50 volunteer instructors unless the group includes people from the same household.

Staff are required to wear masks at all times.

Day trip

Located about 50 miles from Willmar or St. Cloud, Powder Ridge is an easy day trip for downhill skiing, snowboarding or tubing for families. The resort typically attracts people from a two-hour radius, but Hedtke said there is high demand and people fly in from all over the country for their special, late-night weekend laser light tubing events that feature strobe lights and music.

Built in 1954 and currently owned by Jerry Wahlin and Layne Anderson, Powder Ridge includes 15 different runs for skiers and snowboarders and a separate area for tubing.

“We’re family-owned and -operated and our main focus is families,” said Hedtke.

When the West Central Tribune traveled there last February — before COVID-19 had gripped Minnesota — families with young children were taking advantage of the Presidents Day holiday to have fun.

Jessica Hollenkamp was there for the first time with her two pre-teen daughters, Olivia and Audrey. “We live in Minnesota. They need to learn how to downhill ski,” she said. “If they fall, they get back up.”

Jasmine Lee, who has taught beginners how to ski for five years, said her students have ranged in age from 3 to 70 years.

There are some tricks to teaching a rookie, no matter what age, like being supportive and encouraging.

“It’s a lot of patience and a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had in my life.”

Hedtke said they’re seeing more first-time customers this year than ever, which she partially attributes to the circumstances of the pandemic.

“We hope we’ve created some lifelong skiers through this process,” she said. “Hopefully we gave them a good experience and they’ll be back again next year.”

Before heading out to any ski slope, Hedtke advises people to check out a resort’s websites to become familiar with their COVID protocol. She said just showing up without advance information or reservations could result in disappointment.

As do most Minnesota ski resorts, Powder Ridge starts making manmade snow in November to lay down a solid base before nature provides snow. “Manmade snow melts slower than real snow,” said Hedtke.

Depending on the weather, the season at Powder Ridge typically ends around mid-March.