A new local ski touring association is ready to welcome skiers and snowboarders to experience the thrill of backcountry pursuits. Jeff Mann, president of West Wind Highlands Ski Touring Association (WWHSTA) says the association hopes to inspire new members to explore the activity.
“WWHSTA came about as the culmination of several years of growing interest in the sport of backcountry ski touring in our region,” says Mann. “There have been individuals and small groups who’ve been skiing the slopes in the bush in Muskoka and the Almaguin Highlands for decades.”
These aren’t your regular slopes, however; these are the kind you have to work for in order to reap the reward. It’s what hitting the hills would have been like before the convenience of chairlifts, gondolas, and tow bars made commercial skiing what it is today. But with that extra effort comes the prize of fresh powder and a unique experience of navigating new terrain.
“Ski touring is essentially going skiing in a place where there is not a groomed trail. The terrain may be flat, rolling or steep. The type of terrain a skier chooses to challenge themselves depends on their level of experience, equipment, and conditions,” says Mann. “It takes a particular sort of person to want to break trail on skis for fun.”
The WWHSTA was established this year as a registered not-for-profit association in order to “advocate for and support the development of self-propelled winter backcountry touring opportunities in Muskoka, the Almaquin Highlands, Haliburton, and surrounding areas,” according to their website.
“We are hoping to involve both locals and tourists,” says Mann. “Muskoka is traditionally a place with committed locals and many visitors, particularly in the summer. We believe that the skiing in our area is worth travelling here for, and worth taking advantage of if you live here. There is enough terrain here to support a large number of skiers. For locals, we hope to instil a sense of pride in our hills. The skiing here is spectacular, if one is prepared to do the work of accessing it.”
Typical gear required to enjoy backcountry ski touring could include alpine terrain skis, telemark skis, snowboard or nordic backcountry gear, all of which can be found locally.
Members of the WWHSTA have been working hard behind the scenes for the last several years, preparing the hills and negotiating agreements for land use before the group decided to become an established entity.
The new association will focus on strengthening the winter backcountry touring community through several means: promoting the sport, encouraging environmental stewardship by guiding forest management to minimize ecosystem impact in trail development, and developing infrastructure such as bridge-building, signage, waste management, and restrooms.
“Our board has spent countless hours working to create WWHSTA and to lay the foundation for growth,” says Mann.
Over the years, board members have been involved in local annual events that celebrated backcountry ski touring, including Twigfest at Nickle Peak, east of Kearney, and World Telemark Day at Limberlost Forest and Wildlife Reserve. These two ski areas, as well as Tasso Highlands in the Township of Lake of Bays, are some of the main areas the association will focus on.
“Limberlost, and general manager, Gareth Cockwell, have been hugely supportive of backcountry ski touring specifically, and public outdoor recreation in general. We are very lucky to have Limberlost in Muskoka,” says Mann. A historical ski hill still exists on the Limberlost property, which operated commercially in the early and mid-twentieth century.
“People used to come up on the train from the city to Limberlost Lodge. There are some awesome photos and posters from this period in the Top of the World cabin at Limberlost. However, by the last third of the 1900s, the hill fell out of use and re-forested,” says Mann. “The old ski hill at Limberlost is special in the same ways that makes several others in our area good for skiing. It is north facing, gets good snow because of the winter snow squalls in Muskoka, has a good pitch for some speed on the face, and the vertical rise is just under 300 feet, which is pretty short for a mountain, but pretty good for around here.”
Mann and other WWHSTA members have been glading—thinning of the forest to allow for downhill skiing—the area since 2017. “We go in with a small number of skilled and qualified chainsaw operators for a day or two in late September to do the bulk of the clearing.” Later, they bring in a large crew to do some fine-tuning with loppers and handsaws. “The idea is not to completely clear the slope, but to open it up just enough to allow a skier to pass through. Our approach to the sport, and to the forest, seems to fit well with Limberlost’s interest in having the public enjoy the property, and with their focus on sustainable forestry.”
Sustainable environmental stewardship is important to the WWHSTA. The association intends to create a guiding document for all of their forest work related to trail-building activities which will provide guidance on stand-density, species for removal and those to avoid, and the importance of regeneration, protected species, landforms and waterways. “It is very important to us that, when we do work in the forest, we have as little negative impact on forest health as possible,”said Mann.
He is optimistic that there will be keen interest from the ski touring community. “I think the momentum has been building in our region around ski touring in such a way that something like this was bound to happen,” he says. “We encourage people to join in order to support the work that goes into creating and maintaining [the backcountry areas]. When learning about ski touring, it can be very helpful to have a mentor: someone who knows the sport and the area. Joining WWHSTA allows skiers to join a community of experienced and helpful folks who want to see others succeed in the sport.”
Of course, backcountry skiing inherently has risks associated with it, which is one of the reasons the association is trying to build a community for support.
“Ski touring is an activity that requires good judgement and care. These are remote backcountry areas, and skiing is a risky activity. Anyone planning a visit should make sure they do not travel alone, that they let a trusted contact know exactly where they are going and when they will return, to prepare for the potential of injury or equipment failure, to know their limits and stay within them, and to take care of each other, the land and be kind to neighbours and other stakeholders.”
The WWHSTA hopes to promote increased backcountry interest in the coming year. “We would like to host two events, one at Nickle Peak and one at Limberlost, if public health protocols will allow us to, and we feel it is safe. We are hopeful to run a fundraising and social event in conjunction with our AGM next fall,” says Mann. “We also plan to continue to partner with local businesses to promote their products and services, and perhaps offer discounts for our members.”
In the longer term, the association would like to continue to grow the sport by opening up new areas for members to ski. “We have a dream to build a hut-to-hut ski trail that would connect all of our skiing terrain up the west side of Algonquin Park. Many other parts of Canada have similar hut systems. We think it’s time we had something similar here.”
With the current pandemic restrictions, there’s perhaps never been a better time to explore and enjoy outdoor pursuits in the community. “Ski touring is a way to reconnect to what the sport of skiing is all about: having an adventure outdoor with friends. It’s true there are no groomed trails, or lifts, or cafeterias, but if you like powder, don’t like standing in line, and enjoy the idea of a little sweat with your skiing, you should look us up.”
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