Riding in a winter wonderland
Ken Dobush likes to make hay while the sun is still shining, so to speak. But it’s usually during a time of year when the outdoor illumination isn’t so bright. And all that hay provides an idyllic lining to his family business otherwise known as Longriders Sleigh & Haywagon Rides, an operation that’s been lucrative for years.
“I have maintained what was originally a hobby that got way out of control and now it’s an extremely a viable business,” said Dobush, who runs the operation from a ranch near Gibbons. “Approximately 90 percent of my income annually is done from the middle of November to the end of February. And it’s a crazy thing.”
For more than 30 years, Longriders has supplied hay rides to patrons from Edmonton and the surrounding area, fulfilling an extensive itinerary of booking from community leagues, church groups, elementary schools and even corporations. With a massive arsenal that includes 16 pieces of equipment and four teams of horses (it takes two to move a wagon), Longriders still barely managed to service all their clients.
But the Longriders brand extends beyond horses and wagons. The name used to designate a country and western nightclub Dobush started in 1990 before selling it 15 years later. Shortly after that, he parlayed the proceeds from the sale into an RV campground—also called Longriders—just outside Gibbons. Meanwhile, the family also ran a trail-riding sideline from the ranch before converting it into a hayride enterprise.
“We’ve always been in the horse racket; that’s actually what propelled Longriders,” added Dubush. “I knew a lot of the country folk and cowboys and that’s what kind of put us on the map.”
That all changed in 2020 when the Alberta government issued lockdown and quarantine orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. All of a sudden, the clientele that provided a decent revenue stream for Longriders plumetted.
“With COVID last year, we got shut down complete,” Dobush recalled. “It was an impossible task to do sleighrides, so everybody canceled. We didn’t do one for the first time in 30 years.”
This winter, Longriders isn’t likely to go back to the well servicing its regular clientele that was scared off by the pandemic. But it doesn’t seem like they have to. Recently, organizers of the Winter Wonder Forest that was staged in Edmonton’s Rainbow Valley in 2020 called Dobush about the possibility of running the event at his campsite. It didn’t take him long to strike an agreement.
It turned out that the “contactless” festival had become a victim of its own success during its inaugural run. Traffic congestion to Rainbow Valley during the event became so severe that organizers thought a more relocation would be a better fit. The RV park’s facilities that include firepits and a toboggan run tipped the scales in the site’s favor, making it ideal for the festival to stage mazes, snow and ice sculptures, and massively lit trees throughout its engagement which ends Jan. 9.
“All of a sudden I don’t need to go anywhere,” noted Dobush. Everything will be staying right at the RV park and people will be able to buy their tickets to the festival and the hayrides online.”
Dobush plans to run at least eight teams of hayride wagons daily throughout the entire festival, although he admits sticking to pandemic restrictions could be a challenge. At its capacity, a wagon can carry 20 passengers. If social distancing continues to be the norm, he’ll be lucky if he can carry six. To make those rides more viable, Dobush is counting on the government to relax some of those regulations. What might help is that 80 percent of Albertans older than 11 years of age have already been double-vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“Last year, for example, they eased off and you could have family groups of 10 or less,” recalled Dobush about how the festival dealt with the restrictions. “I imagine that might happen again, because the rules have a tendency to change as this COVID thing moves along, and the government allows a certain leeway.”
But despite one lean year, there’s always something about running a hayride operation that keeps Dobush interested in what used to be a hobby. “It’s hard for me to quit,” he said. “We just keep rolling.” t8n
Longriders Sleigh & Haywagon Rides
Winter Wonder Forest Festival
Ends Jan. 9, 2022
Directions from St. Albert:
north on Hwy. 2, east on Hwy. 37, north on Hwy. 28A, east on Hwy. 643