The past year struck a devastating blow to industries across Wisconsin.
Many restaurants and hotels saw their revenue reduced by at least 25 percent since pre-COVID days.
Movie theaters crumbled without the regular release of Hollywood hits.
Tribal casinos shut down for months, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
But in a year with so much loss, at least one area saw significant gains – outdoor recreation.
“Things took off,” said Mitch Mode, the owner of Mel's Trading Post in Downtown Rhinelander. “We didn’t run a smarter business, we got luckier.”
Mel’s Trading Post sells all kinds of outdoor equipment – from bikes and kayaks to snowshoes and skis.
Mode said these items have always been popular.
“But in the year of COVID became increasingly strong to the point where it’s no secret in the world that that bicycles were difficult to find on a good day, impossible the rest of the time,” he said.
On the ground floor of his store, 11 bicycles are lined up.
“You should be counting a lot more, and in the basement there should be a whole lot more,” Mode said. “They’re just not there.”
Mode said normally, he’ll have 100 to 150 bikes stored in the basement as inventory.
But these days, supply can’t keep up with demand.
He’s been told his next shipment of bikes won’t arrive until October or November.
And bikes aren’t the only in-demand item.
Mode said canoes sell before they hit the shelves, and he’s been selling kayaks every week.
“We never sell kayaks in January,” he said.
Northwoods ATV and snowmobile dealers are in a similar boat.
Joe Yakey is the general manager at Antigo Yamaha. We spoke with him last month about record sales.
“2019 was the best year we ever had. 2020 was about 25 percent ahead of that,” he said. “I mean literally off the charts here.”
The International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association estimates snowmobile sales will be up 15 to 20 percent this winter.
That would be the highest it’s been since the winter of 1995-96.
Outside of sports shops, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Policy Forum both have evidence suggesting more people spent time outside last year – whether they were camping at state parks or out fishing and hunting.
Missy Vanlanduyt, the DNR’s Recreation Partnerships Section Chief, said Wisconsin state parks typically see a two to three percent increase in visitors from year to year.
“During 2020 we saw a just over 22 percent increase in visitation for the calendar year,” she said.
That’s more than 20 million total visitors.
Sales of fishing and hunting licenses also jumped last year, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum.
Fishing licenses are at their highest level in five years, following years of steady decline.
License sales to out-of-state anglers were especially high, up by 6 percent compared to 2019.
That points to a trend many full-time Northwoods residents noticed last year – a burst in summer tourism.
Matthew Leitner, the director of the Rhinelander-Oneida County airport, noticed that surge as well when we spoke with him in June.
“We’ve always been a hot summer market,” he said. “I don’t think the demand has necessarily ebbed because of the coronavirus pandemic. If anything, it might have been amplified by it for people that are looking to escape cities.”
He says the Rhinelander airport performed noticeably better than other Wisconsin and Michigan airports during the pandemic.
So will this surge in summer visitors and interest in outdoor recreation continue into coming years?
The pandemic isn’t over yet.
Despite an ongoing vaccination effort, experts are still urging caution against COVID-19.
It’s hard to say when sporting and concert venues will host crowds of pre-COVID numbers.
Until people can resume those other summer activities, Missy Vanlanduyt from the DNR said state parks are getting ready for another record year.
“We’re expecting to see pretty high visitation this year, if not even higher than last year,” she said.
Already, she said state parks hosted over 60 percent more visitors in January of 2021 compared to last year.
So, at least for now, it sounds like we’re not out of the woods yet.