How Our Ski Resorts Brought a Sense of Joy, Escape, and Community Spirit This Season
It’s that time of year: when Albertans peel back the winter layers, slap on the sunscreen, and head into the soft-snow, warm-rays-on-the-face, bluebird-day, fun of spring ski season. It’s always a highlight of Alberta’s ski calendar, as skiers and snowboarders of all ages lap up the bright, sunny days and celebrate another awesome season.
This year, as we make the most of the spring ski days, we think it’s also the perfect time to reflect on how our Province’s ski industry was able to keep us all skiing and snowboarding safely, despite it being a season like no other.
Because in the time of government restrictions, no social gatherings, and life as we know it turning upside down, our trusty local ski resort remained a place to retreat to; to get the household crew together and head outdoors for some much-needed Albertan fresh air; to breathe in some respite from the stress we’ve all been living through – not to mention, burn off some energy and get the endorphins pumping.
Ahead of the 2020-21 season, Alberta’s ski areas collectively prepared, planned, and altered every detail of their operations to ensure the Province could keep skiing and snowboarding despite the pandemic. And this hard work paid off, with Alberta’s resorts continuing to operate throughout the winter months – thanks to a commitment to providing a safe resort visit; one that promoted cleanliness, social distancing, and minimal contact.
So as some of our leisure pursuits and family-favourite activities became off-limits, this winter, our collective love of skiing, snowboarding, tubing, skating, pretty much any way to get outside and revel in the joy of Alberta’s wintertime, became even more valuable.
Our local ski resorts gave us a pass to let loose and find some normalcy in our free-time (alongside a whole lot of not-normal). They reminded us of the ski communities we were part of, and why they were such an integral part of our hometowns and mountain destinations. Over the season, Albertans (sensibly, and at 2m apart) warmly embraced their local ski area and found connection in a time of no person-to-person contact and non-existent social interactions.
So, what is it about ski culture that Alberta finds so alluring? Well for starters, we have one of the longest snow seasons in the world, and the fortune of a climate that creates dry, fluffy, powdery snow that’s considered the crème de la crème by skiers and snowboarders. Skiing also has a long legacy within our Province, with Albertans’ strong love affair with enjoying time on two planks (and later, one) going way back.
It was actually in 1926 when the first ski resort in the Canadian Rockies opened, later welcoming skiers to make use of its tow rope chair lift – and saving locals from the grind of hiking up the hill to find their run back down. This was Mt. Norquay, in Banff.
And where Norquay started, many others followed. Today, there are 32 ski areas currently in operation across the Province. Some are small, community ski hills; some are large mountain resorts in Banff and Jasper National Parks; some have multiple gondolas, and some operate with simply a rope tow; some are found in surprising places, such as in the most rural Prairie spots.
And the significance of a ski resort in Alberta doesn’t stop at being simply a place to carve a few turns; they become a hub for residents and hold their own as being a true fabric of the community. One clear example of this small town, big community spirit for ski is at Pass Powderkeg in the Crowsnest Pass, just off Highway 3 in Southern Alberta.
“Pass Powderkeg holds such a very special place within our community,” says Katherine Seleski, Ski Area Manager.
She continues: “It’s a unique relationship our local residents have to this place, as it was built from the ground up on the backs of local volunteer groups, locals who were passionate about creating a place for residents to ski with their families.”
These local volunteers began work back in 1938; they built out the runs and constructed a ski shack at the bottom of the hill. It’s true to say that this community of 5500 has very much had its hand in the development, continued existence, and success of Pass Powderkeg as a winter resort.
“There are residents here in town that will tell you about building the first shack, or that they helped to develop this or that around the resort,” Katherine adds.
“It’s living history. You hear the stories of how the resort came together first-hand from the people that made it happen. It has been very much a community effort from the very outset, and it’s wonderful to be a part of”.
Katherine reminiscences about the local seniors that grew up at the resort and now return with their grandchildren to enjoy laps of their favourite runs, the resort being the right of passage for local teenagers coming of working age, and that most youngsters in the town have a Pass Powderkeg season pass – and are frequent visitors.
All of this became even more significant to Katherine this season, when the threat of losing access to the resort became a reality in the spring of 2020, due to COVID-19 closures.
“It really feels like home here,” Katherine says, “which is why it was so satisfying – and a relief – to see our skiing community return for the start of this season and to have the resort come alive again.”
She adds: “Skiers came home, and you could see that being back out here was a comfort, a reminder of normality.”
And it’s not just the resort itself that the community feels well and truly connected to, but the Pass Powderkeg team too.
“The community get to know all our team members, it becomes like family,” she says. She then continues to tell the story of one of the resort’s newly-hired Patrollers being stopped by an eight-year old snowboarder:
“‘I see you’re a new Patroller. I know all the good spots here; I’ll give you a tour’”, he sweetly offered to the Patroller, showing the clear sense of familiarity even Pass Powderkeg’s youngest guests have for this place and its people.
And outside of a sense of home, there’s the thrills, adventures, and all the adrenalin that resorts can offer residents in their vicinities throughout the winter months.
Travel far, far north in Alberta to Fort McMurray and you’ll find Vista Ridge ski resort.
Here, local residents can not only test out skiing and snowboarding but ride along on the four-lane tube area, practice tricks on the terrain park, and skate on the community rink. This season, the resort is also marking cross country ski trails, to offer the community even more ways to get out and enjoy the snowy season.
With 420 feet of vertical, two quad chairs, 10 full-size runs and a beginner area, this ski area is one of the largest non-mountain resorts in Alberta.
“We get creative across the resort, to be able to offer all kinds of winter activities for all the family despite our Northern Prairies location,” says Dan Wilson, resort General Manager.
“And we have our signature way of doing things to keep our resort interesting, such as the snowcat sleigh that transports our guests down to the tube park – it’s a talking point, and an experience in itself!”, he says with a smile.
He continues: “Because our resort visitors are all either residents, or visiting family of residents, we like to give our community plenty of reasons to keep coming back to spend the day with us.
We often see families will tube at the resort, then on their walk to the chair lift they’ll watch skiers and snowboarders on the runs and are tempted to give it a try; we always want to offer opportunities to try something new. We want to be that place where family memories are made, season after season.
And despite everything we’ve all faced, we really have had the best season possible,” Dan says.
So, Alberta, on behalf of all the ski resorts up and down the Province, we thank you – for staying strong, being patient, and adapting to your local ski resort’s new ways of doing things. Together, we were able to safely ski and ride right through the season!
Please continue to share your favourite moments, seasonal highlights, and what you love about your local ski resort with us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, and we hope you not only enjoy those warm rays of sunshine, but the warm spirit of your ski community – right ‘til the close of the season!
See y’all next year!!