A warm weather snap is running roughshod over the Highlands’ tourism sector, with some businesses scaling back operations and cancelling events.

Tegan Legge, general manager of tourism and operations at Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve, confirmed Feb. 5 that the 33rd annual Poker Run snowmobile fundraiser, slated for this coming weekend, has been cancelled.

With temperatures rising as high as eight degrees Celcius Feb. 8 and 9, Legge said she couldn’t guarantee the Forest’s trail network would be in good enough condition to host the 400 to 600 riders that usually participate.

The event is a fundraiser for the Dysart et al Fire Department, bringing in $20,000 last year. Legge said past donations have gone towards purchasing equipment such as jaws of life, a ‘snowbulance’ and rescue boat.

“It’s a massive disappointment, but given the weather, we didn’t have any other choice. We could have looked at pushing the event back and doing something in March, but it’s very unlikely, given the way things are looking, that we’d be able to host it then,” Legge said.

She noted some of the Forest’s other activities – trail hiking, ice climbing and the wolf centre, are going strong.

“It’s been a nail-biter of a season so far… we could be doing better, but we’re in a good position compared to a lot of other places in Ontario. The trails aren’t pristine, they’re a little bumpy, but people are just happy to get out there,” she said.

Meghan Orr, owner of Buttermilk Falls Resort, said the winter ice fishing season has been a disaster so far. The rural retreat, which overlooks Boshkung Lake, boasts eight winterized cottages, which Orr said are usually full now.

She noted the resort had 29 weekend bookings in February 2022, 28 in February 2023, but just 12 this year.

Not all bad for some operators

“A lot of people come here for ice fishing… we don’t have any of our huts out there yet,” Orr said.

She noted this wasn’t a new issue – in the three years she and husband, Stephen, have owned the resort, the winter season has been getting shorter and shorter.

“The previous owners aimed to have huts out for the third weekend in January. We had one season where we got them out in the last week of January, then the past two years it’s been February,” Orr said. “Now, we’re not sure we’re going to get them out at all this season.”

Neil Vanderstoop, president of the Haliburton County Snowmobile Association (HCSA), has warned people to exercise extreme caution when debating whether to take their machine onto a lake. The Highlander has received reports of snowmobiles going through the ice on Redstone and Gull lakes in recent weeks.

“If the lake isn’t staked, then it’s not safe,” Vanderstoop said, noting HCSA hasn’t staked any lakes in the County yet this season, and likely won’t.

He noted less than half of HCSA’s snowmobile trails are open, but the group was working around the clock to maintain anything passable, including the Hydro Line Trail that travels south to Whitby and several loops around Haliburton village. He noted access to the B112 South into Minden is very limited.

Angelica Ingram, the County’s tourism manager, said that while the mild winter season is disappointing for some, there’s still lots for locals and visitors to do.

Sir Sam’s Ski/Ride has 14 runs and is open as usual, while Winterdance Dogsled Tours is still taking bookings. Ingram noted Hike Haliburton Winter Edition, which took place Feb. 3 and 4, was a great success, with people participating in 12 hikes across the County. There’s plenty of free events for people to enjoy too, she said.

“People can visit Abbey Gardens, where they have so many things happening – there are trails and an outdoor rink. There’s the Haliburton Sculpture Forest, which is just beautiful at this time of year, and we have art galleries open in Haliburton and Minden that are both debuting new exhibits this weekend,” Ingram said.

“It’s been a slower start to winter. We’re trying to stay positive though – it’s not completely green out there. We just have to hope more snow comes, while at the same time emphasizing there’s lots to do even if you can’t ice fish or do a ton of snowmobiling.”

County warden Liz Danielsen said the upper-tier government may have to come up with a different long-term plan for winter tourism.

“The traditional activities are rapidly going out the door. I was talking to someone recently who said they bought a new [snowmobile] a couple of years ago and they’ve only used it once,” Danielsen said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. It’s going to change how we deal with tourism, how we offer tourism packages going forward.”