Where Every Turn Counts – Ontario
What Ontario lacks in vertical, it more than makes up in backcountry powder.
Late February snowbanks were cramping the style of Forestry Tower Road as it snaked deeper and higher into the timber. What was normally a two-lane road with good sightlines was down to not much more than a single lane, with every turn made blind by the plowed banks that reached higher than the car’s roof.
The good news was the banks looked soft, because I would be headed into them in a hurry if the grille of a logging truck were to suddenly appear before me.
As it was, the only truck I saw was loaded but still idling at the landing where I crunched my car to a stop.
What followed was a fairly typical scene to start a day of backcountry skiing in Canada: casual banter back and forth while skins were stretched over skis, and the logging truck—the only reason the road was plowed this far—waited to leave with another load for the mill.
Except the truck wasn’t loaded with a handful of beefy B.C. firs, it was packed tight with spindly hardwoods from the picked-over Algonquin Highlands of Central Ontario.
There are no imposing mountain ranges in Ontario. Even the tallest peaks don’t reach 700m. Ask Jeff Edwards if he cares. The checkered, second-hand chef pants and whitewater paddling helmet he’s wearing while we skin off into the trees suggest he’s not too worried by conventional thinking. As we cross the ice over a narrow section of the Magnetewan River, I try to stay close behind, listening to him tell me where we are going and why.
Ahead of us rises Nickle Peak, though you can’t see it for all the trees. Edwards has been exploring the area for 20 years, but Nickle had escaped his attention at first.
“I’d been exploring nearby but this peak happened to lie on a fold in the map. The crease was hiding a few contour lines. When I realized it was a hundred feet higher than the other hills around here, I came to have a look.”
A hundred feet might not sound like much to some, but it means a few more centimetres of lake-effect snow, and at least a dozen more turns (turns are tight here, as I will soon find out). Such is the decidedly finite calculus of the Ontario backcountry skier. It’s not a category that has included many people, or at least not many well-publicized or organized people, but they are out there, and their ranks and their cause were given a huge boost last season with the formation of the West Wind Highlands Ski Touring Association (WWHSTA).
As Edwards tells me, people like him have been getting what they can out of the hills around here for untold years—there is no official history. Only last season did they start to come out of the woodwork. Last fall, Edwards and a handful of others formed the association, with memberships costing $45. Come wintertime, they had 98 members signed up. Since then, Edwards has spent a little less time negotiating tree-choked hillsides and more time navigating land use applications through the Ministry of Natural Resources.
But he’s not complaining.
“It’s still working out in my favour,” says Edwards. “It was self-interest that led me to want to have more people to ski and explore with. Now we are starting to do that.”
After growing up in North Toronto and bouncing around the outdoor recreation industry, Edwards ended up in Huntsville 20 years ago. He was a multi-discipline ski instructor and patroller and once worked at Ski Trax, a cross-country ski magazine, but it’s fair to say neither the instruction stream nor Nordic world made much of an impact on him.
“I don’t give a shit about technique,” says Edwards. “You can make fun of my skiing if you want, but most people don’t bother because I beat them to it.” As for cross-country skiing, he says he “gave up on it 30 years ago when the fitness freaks took over.”
So instead of carving up corduroy or confining himself to trackset grooves, Edwards pockets a map, sticks on climbing skins, snaps into his tele bindings and heads for the woods.
The $45 question is obvious: So how is the skiing? As we progress up a gently ascending skidder track along the northeast side of Nickle Peak, I look uphill and start to sense that the flavour of the skiing here will be mostly maple.
A mature hardwood canopy above means the trunks below are spaced reasonably far apart, but this is still officially ungladed terrain. Every turn will be a test of wits and reaction time.
We come to a flat shelf at the base of the slope where Edwards has set up a canvas prospector tent with an airtight stove inside. It’s a test case for what the WWHSTA board hopes will one day be a series of huts along a region-wide traverse linking the under-development network of ski areas. It’s here we catch up to two other members of that braintrust: President Jeff Mann and Treasurer Scott Turnbull.
Impressive titles aside, the first order of business is to fix the tent, the ridgepole of which has broken under the weight of the year’s impressive snowfall.
I flip open my tele bindings, step off my skis…and immediately sink up to my crotch. We spend 20 minutes doing what would have been a five-minute job had we not had to swim through a bottomless snowpack.
Mann, a teacher by trade and builder by and by, is someone I had gotten to know 20 years earlier while ski bumming in B.C. We both came back to Ontario and are raising families, though find it difficult to raise much enthusiasm for resort skiing here. At least Mann, as a driving force behind WWHSTA, is doing something about it. His to-do list now includes media interviews, promotional videos, website design, board meetings and, first and foremost, negotiating handshake agreements with lumber companies for parking allowances. No parking, no powder.
Even more polished than his negotiating skills is his skiing. We are at the top now—it didn’t take too long—of a run called Nose Candy. It runs down the eastern nose of Nickle and, yes, looks to be a rush.
Mann makes quick work of his line. He plays the terrain features of bulbous rock outcrops with such fluidity it’s as though they aren’t riddled with stout trunks that make all turns must-make moves.
He’s bottomed out about 100 vertical metres below, a distance I make up with a necessary stop halfway down to chastise myself for arriving with a too-heavy pack and too-skinny skis. And thighs. I resolve to do something about at least two of the three before my next trip. As it is, even with my gear and game in form, the hills here are high enough and the skiing tough enough that no one will be getting to the bottom without thinking it’s a hell of a good spot for a rest. Runs may be (many times) longer out west, but if you have to climb anything you descend, I’d argue that you get more skiing out of shorter, more compact runs where you don’t have to negotiate mountain terrain to get where you’re going.
This efficiency effect seemed especially true the next day at Limberlost Forest and Wildlife Reserve. If Nickle Peak and deep-woods exploration are Vice-President Jeff Edwards’ department, the park and play ease of Limberlost can be credited to President Mann. He’s worked closely with the extraordinarily permissive and welcoming managers at Limberlost to breathe, heavily, new life into a part of Ontario’s ski history.
In 1921, Gordon Hill, the grandson of one of the area’s first pioneers, got sick of trying to farm the Canadian Shield east of Huntsville and started an eco-tourism lodge a full 75 years before anyone started using such terms. Soon the four-season Limberlost was rivalling Niagara Falls, in the minds of some, as a destination for honeymooners from southern Ontario and Upstate New York. In 1939 the Hills put up the first ski tow that anyone in the area had laid eyes on. While the so-called Top of the World ski run might have been overstating things a bit, there’s no denying Limberlost played a central role in developing skiing in central Ontario (read more at limberlostforest.com).
By the late 1970s the ski tow was in disrepair, the lodge had burnt down a few times and the property was sold to Bovis Corporation, with plans in place to build 2,000 condo units on one of the huge property’s 20 lakes. Enter a partnership of benevolent families who bought it in 1985 and started logging it with a very gentle touch and a commitment to sharing it with outdoor enthusiasts. As Managing Director Gareth Cockwell modestly explains, “There aren’t many other examples of what we are doing here.”
There are seven lodges and cottages for rent, 70 km of trails for skiing and snowshoeing, and no entry fee for day users at the 4,000-hectare property. Skiers who have done an online safety waiver just drive in, park a hundred metres from the bottom of the old ski hill and start the 10-minute skin to the top.
In addition to not charging for day use, Limberlost’s owners have given Mann the go-ahead to undertake a careful glading effort to open up, just a little, some of the historic ski runs. According to forester Cockwell, “Removing a certain level of understory isn’t necessarily a negative thing for the forest, it can be a positive thing.”
I’m in complete agreement as I let the skis run freer and stretch the turns out a little longer than the day before at Nickle. This is the type of skiing where you cherish every turn—because you earned it, because there’s a limited supply, because it means you won’t hit that tree right in front of you. As good as it was last season, this season it will be better, with a further parking area servicing a new ski area and glading having started this fall.
After five or six hero runs, we take a break to poke around outside the rustic log cabin at the summit. Seeing it open to skiers as a warming hut and hang-out hub will soon be an action item on the agenda of a WWHSTA board meeting, but last February it was locked up as tightly as the rest of Doug Ford’s province. The snowpack that rested on the roof displayed a perfect cross section of the individual snowfalls that had built up since Christmas. WWHSTA member David Stevens, who lives nearby and says he skis every day of the winter, ran his pole down the edge of the snowpack, commenting on how there were no crusty layers, the region having avoided a January thaw this year.
Stevens designs roof trusses for a construction company. It’s part of his job to study snow loads. So he knows a few salient facts. One, it’s almost never necessary to climb up onto a roof to shovel snow off it. Two, this area gets more snow than anywhere else in Ontario except Owen Sound and Goulais River, just north of Sault Ste. Marie (see sidebar on Bellevue Valley Lodge and its decades of backcountry pioneering).
The common denominator in all these destinations is lake-effect snow, the tendency for air to suck up moisture over large bodies of water and then dump it leeward. Huntsville may be some ways inland from Georgian Bay, but as Mann observes, the terrain from Parry Sound to Huntsville is relatively flat. Not far east of Huntsville, rivers like the Petawawa and Madawaska start flowing downhill all the way to the Ottawa River. The height of land in between isn’t dramatic, but it has a measurable effect on wringing all available snow out of the clouds that stream in off the lake.
In fact, the highest single point in the Muskoka region, Tasso Peak, is just down the road from Limberlost. It also happens to be the third area that the WWHSTA is developing and promoting.
The third, but not the last. A quick scan of posts on the Facebook page of the Amalguin Highlands Backcountry Skiers, the very casual precursor to the WWHSTA, shows a history of Edwards reporting on exploratory missions to new territory, places where the map shows a promising convergence of nearby roads and converging contour lines.
“I’ve always considered skiing to be a wilderness skill,” says Edwards. “Sometimes I’d go out with a pack and spend a few nights out there.”
Lately, new terrain covered includes helping to launch a small but growing organization. On one skin ascent, Mann and Edwards discussed whether to have a land acknowledgement nod toward indigenous history on their website and at future meetings and events.
“To be honest,” Edwards admits, “one reason to do it is to remind people not to be too territorial about sharing with people who aren’t local. It puts things in perspective.”
Though it’s true that with paid membership about to pass the 100-skier mark, Limberlost can get tracked out between snowfalls, Edwards scoffs at the idea of territorialism.
“There is so much Crown land,” he says. “So many 100-metre peaks.” As far as Edwards and Mann are concerned, if the areas ever get too popular, that’s just another reason to explore and find new ones. Which might be the whole point.
“I just like being out in the woods,” says Edwards. “And it’s more fun with more people.”
MORE ONTARIO BACKCOUNTRY
BELLEVUE VALLEY LODGE, GOULAIS RIVER: Enn Poldmaa and Robin MacIntyre became the prescient, if patient, godparents of Ontario backcountry skiing when they opened Bellevue Valley Lodge near Sault Ste. Marie way back in 1984. Almost 40 years later they preside over a domain of more than 500 hectares encompassing three ridges that drop almost 150m through hardwood forests. Their carefully tended land use permit has resulted in a collection of 20 painstakingly gladed lines through hills that get more snow than anywhere else in Ontario. The on-site chalet accommodations sleep up to 10 skiers, and Searchmont Resort and Stokely Creek Lodge nordic centre are short drives away. bellevuevalleylodge.ca
DACRE HEIGHTS: When Peter Schutt bought the site of the old Dacre Heights (previously Candiac) ski hill in 2017, he thought he was buying a woodlot to keep himself busy in retirement. Then people started pulling into the parking lot and asking if they could still ski there. So Peter read the Occupier’s Liability Act of Ontario and decided that as long as he wasn’t charging people money for access, he wouldn’t be responsible for risks “willingly assumed” by visitors. Good for Schutt, and good for skiers! Schutt happily said, “Have at it,” and the skiers, and volunteers, obliged. There are five semi-cleared ski runs that drop 180 vertical metres across 93 hectares, with lots of tree lines in between. A rental cabin at the base is nearing completion, and there’s an effort underway to blaze a 40-km backcountry traverse to link Dacre with Madawaska Nordic and Calabogie Peaks Resort, 40 meandering kilometres to the south. dacreheights.cabackcountry, Bellevue Valley Lodge, Dacre Heights, Limberlost, Ontario, West Wind Highlands Ski Touring