January 2, 2007 //

North of 60

Although Whitehorse’s Mt. Sima has technically been in operation since 1993, it flew below the radar for its first decade and won’t debut on the national stage until February-March 2007 when it hosts the 40th issue of the Canada Winter Games (CWG). This will be the first time the Games have been held north of the 60th parallel.

Always on the lookout for historical moments in the development of Canadian snowsports, I’ve made a commitment to preview the mountain and Games here, then I’ll mosey on up the Alaska Highway next February to cover the athletic action as it unfolds. From my perspective, there’s a new kid on the block in Canadian ski racing and I want to be part of the Welcome Wagon making introductions to Canada’s southern skiers.

Of course, everybody in Canada, thanks to Pierre Berton, is familiar with the Yukon and the Klondike Gold Rush, but not all realize the territory has had a long and lasting love affair with sports almost from the very beginning. The building in Dawson City that now houses Diamond Tooth Gertie’s gambling hall, for the longest time the only legal casino in Canada, was originally called the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association when it was built in 1902. There were curling rinks, hockey rinks, gymnasiums, ski racing tracks, baseball fields and dog racing back in the days when the argonauts were going from the Klondike to the next rush at Nome, Alaska, just a couple thousand klicks down the Yukon River. The baseball tournament held every August during Discovery Days was begun in 1898 and has run continuously ever since. But perhaps the most famous Yukon athletic moment was in 1905 when the Dawson City Nuggets travelled to Ottawa to challenge the Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup and lost 23-2 to a one-eyed goaltender named McKee. It remains the most lopsided score in Stanley Cup history and the farthest distance any team travelled to try to win Canada’s most coveted trophy.

In the 1960s, a legendary Whitehorse hotelier named “Calgary” Miller was instrumental in starting the Arctic Winter Games, which features competitions between Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, and are still ongoing—the 2006 games were held on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Ski racing has always been big in northern Canada, but it was nordic, or cross-country, not alpine and certainly not snowboards. At one time the TEST (Territorial Experimental Ski Track) facility in Whitehorse was considered the best in North America, and it was also the first to install lights for night racing. The famed Firth sisters from Inuvik raced there, and it was also the home course for Lucy Steele, a Whitehorse girl who went on to the World Cup.

And don’t get me started on the century-old discussion about whether dog mushing is a sport, a recreation, a means of transportation or an outdoor act of idiocy. (It’s most definitely a sport, requiring great athletes both in front of the sleds and behind them.) To this day, I can’t decide which I enjoyed more, covering Canada’s top dogs and mushers up and down the circuit on the Alaska Highway when I was sports editor of the Yukon News or the world’s greatest alpine ski racers in Europe when I did the same job out of Whistler. World Cup female ski racers are powerful athletes, but none of them have the strength and power of Libby Riddles or Susan Butcher, both of whom won The Iditarod, possibly the world’s toughest sporting event. Ski races last two minutes or less. The Iditarod goes on for 10 days or more and covers some of the roughest terrain and temperatures in North America.

But alpine ski racing in the Yukon? Nyet. Snowboarding in the Yukon? Nope. Freestyle in the Yukon? Hardly. These are all going to be first-time experiences next February for this observer at the CWG, and will likely endure longer in my memory than the 2010 Winter Olympics because I’ve already been there and done them. There’s nothing warm and endearing about the Olympics after all their greedy, crooked and dopey scandals, but the idea of a bunch of Canadian youngsters frolicking in the Yukon snow warms me down to the tips of my mukluks.

Mt. Sima is not a big western mountain with its 335 metres of vertical. In fact, with Canada’s tallest mountain, Mt. Logan, up the road in Kluane National Park, Mt. Sima is just a bump alongside the Alcan, which you wouldn’t even notice if they hadn’t cut ski runs into it. In the summer of 2005, the “ski chalet” was a trailer with a small lunch room serving chili, but that changed in the summer of 2006 with the funding in place to build a proper log base lodge that will be the headquarters for the alpine events. The halfpipe is already built and was in use last winter for the first time, another snow cannon will be added before the Games and a new T-bar was installed in the off-season to complete the infrastructure. Whitehorse and Mt. Sima will definitely be ready for next February, and everyone is hoping Mother Nature co-operates because generally the area shuts down if the temperature drops below -40 C, which it can do anytime between November and April. Canadian kids are tough but, hey, frostbite is frostbite.

The Canada Games began in 1967 as part of the centennial celebrations and have run continuously for the last 40 years, alternating between Summer and Winter Games. The 2007 issue will feature 2,700 young athletes in 22 sports, none of whom are allowed to be older than 20 on the day the Games begin. The Games budget is $18 million, as compared to $4 million for the last Arctic Winter Games and $1.2 billion for the Vancouver/Whistler 2010 Olympics. Generally, hockey is the main attraction in the Winter Games and baseball in the Summer, but this time it appears the alpine events will receive top billing because of their historical context. Of course, that could just be a unique Ski Canada perspective because, like palm trees in Tuktoyuktuk, alpine ski racing in the Yukon is something we never thought we would see or report to Canadian skiers.

In the dozen years since Mt. Sima has been open, things have progressed steadily. There is now a Yukon Alpine Ski Racing Association. It has a Nancy Greene Ski League going on and even a pre-NGSL program called Snow Stars. There are ads on the Web site for snowboard instructors. Several big competitions have been held there before the Canada Games, such as the 2006 K2 Westerns (alpine), the North of 60 Showdown (snowboarding) and the Canadian National Junior Freestyle Skiing Championships last March. This was the first time the national championships had ever been held north of 60° and included aerials, moguls, dual moguls and halfpipe.

Near as I can tell from memory and glancing at the Canadian Alpine Ski Team’s roster of ex-athletes, there has never been a worldclass Canadian ski racer who developed north of the provinces. Alaska has produced several, the best being Hilary Lindh and Tommy Moe, both of whom learned their racing at Juneau’s Eaglecrest. Although improbable, it’s not impossible some hot Yukon racer will come along and make it to the World Cup. Who knows, maybe one will identify himself or herself at these 2007 Canada Winter Games and be ready for the 2010 Olympics.

So, for now, I will just officially welcome the Yukon, Whitehorse and Mt. Sima to Canada’s alpine ski world and look forward to a trip up the Alaska Highway next February to see what’s going on in the northern hinterlands. It’s paved now, you know, and has a pretty yellow stripe down the middle informing you when it’s safe to pass. I’ve been up and down it many times, but never before to watch and report alpine skiing events.

Who needs Europe when you have alpine skiing in the Yukon, the most beautiful part of the world’s most beautiful country? And it won’t be the first time young people headed north to the Canadian sub-Arctic looking for gold.

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