Hello everyone –
Story & Photos by Joe Stevens
There is a saying in the ski industry that goes something like this, “If you want to make a little bit of money in the ski industry, start with a lot” or something like that as I remember. If you have noticed, there hasn’t been a new ski area started in this neck of the woods since Whitetail Ski Resort in southern Pennsylvania in the early 90’s.
That’s why the opening of the Snow Riders Tubing Park in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia last week was a pretty big occasion for the eastern panhandle portion of the mountain state.
Taking a step back really quick, while there haven’t been any resorts built recently, just about every resort has done some sort of infrastructure update in recent time, such as new trails, lifts and of course snowmaking. Those improvements have a price tag in the millions, so that can’t be taken for granted, by no means.
Now back to the new Snow Riders operation that officially opened on February 6. You see Snow Riders is the winter cousin of an existing whitewater operation, owned by Matt and Laura Knott of River Riders.
During the spring, summer and fall months, the Knotts are providing a fun whitewater rafting experience on the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers on the Maryland and West Virginia state lines.
Not long after acquiring the whitewater rafting company from the previous owner, the couple, fresh out of college, Matt 24, and Laura 23, wanted to figure a way to have a year-round operation and snow tubing came to mind. Coming up with the first plan in 2010.
“Harpers Ferry is a really popular tourist destination for people from the DC and Baltimore areas four seasons of the year. People would still come to our area in the winter and say there was nothing to do when it was cold out. So, we put a plan together, it took a little longer than expected, but we finally made it.” Matt Knott, the company’s CEO told me during a recent chat on the phone, when we caught up after the first five days of operation.
Both Matt and Laura worked at Whitetail Ski Resort in Pennsylvania, so they were not coming into the ski industry blind.
Snow Riders Tubing Park features 16 groomed lanes with a state of the art snowmaking system. As any visitor to this column knows, if you don’t have snowmaking, except for cross-country skiing, sliding operations of any kind during the winter in this region do not exist .
So, it has been one of those “if you build it, they will come” moments for the Knotts, “The response for the first week has been awesome. We have been pretty steady during the evening and conditions permitting are pretty much sold out through President’s weekend. So far, we have more demand, than we have opportunity.”
Every skier, snowboarder and snowtuber in the southeast knows just how fickle Mother Nature has been this season. Pretty much forgetting about natural snow and providing just enough cold temperatures to cover the majority of the slopes in the region.
Knott realized a long time ago it was a gamble being weather dependent, but wanted to give it a try nonetheless. “We did do quite a bit of research before we got started. We did a weather analysis and feasibility study. We had a snowmaking system designed, double the size we really needed, just to make sure when the temperatures allowed, we were making more snow than what was recommended. The key in our parts will be keeping enough snow on the hill for visitors to have a good time and, so far so good.”
Starting up any business, getting all of the infrastructure in place is going to be a challenge, but doing it when inventories at manufacturers are not at their best, challenges will occur. Just ask Knott, “2022 was the biggest year of expansion for the ski industry nationwide, so all the manufacturers, all the installers were super busy, so it was tough to get people available to do work, there was a lot of permitting involved.”
Knott added, “Yes, it was quite a challenge to get to the point to get started and then the window for everything to get finished in time for this season was tight, but we did it on February 6. It was quite a road to get here, but here we go, we are super excited.”
One thing that has helped is their familiarity with dealing with the public and Knott fully understands that. “Even though this is a snow sport, this is very similar to the running of our whitewater rafting trips, so far as staffing and running the operation. Dealing with customers and providing the service they expect comes naturally for us and it just made sense to offer snowtubing as an add-on opportunity.”
When you think of it, for whitewater trips, Knotts uses underdeveloped snow, that is the free flowing Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and turns it to developed snow, that is the frozen water that now covers the tubing hill.
“With this activity, we are getting a location (tubing hill), turning water into snow, putting it down on the hill and in the summer we drive people down to the rivers and away they go. It looks like we now have the best of both worlds, when it comes to providing fun using Mother Nature’s cold and warm temperatures,” says Knott.
Any opening day, anywhere in the ski industry is pretty special, but that very first operational opening has to been even more special and Knott couldn’t agree more. “Seeing those first folks come down the hill on opening day was very gratifying. Like I said there have been a lot of people involved, a lot of decisions being made and seeing that first person going down the hill was very special for all of us.”
Growing up I read about the little train that could, well now I know about the tubing park that could.
That’s it for this week, so thanks for joining me for my weekly ramblings. Just remember whether it be cold or whether it be warm, we’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather will be. Be safe and “Let Gravity Be Your Friend.”