People & Culture

Head for the hills: skiing in the Canadian Prairies

As unexpected as they are unexpectedly popular: welcome to Canada’s prairie ski destinations 

  • Published Jan 26, 2024
  • Updated Jan 31
  • 747 words
  • 3 minutes
  • with words by Marcello Di Cintio

Eric Ylioja wore a gray ballcap on his head, ski boots on his feet and denim everywhere in between. He’d driven 250 kilometres from Outlook, Sask., to spend a spring Saturday on the slopes of Table Mountain. Ylioja’s plan was simple: “Goin’ fast. Hittin’ jumps.” It was his first ski day of the year. “I might as well get ’er done before the season’s done,” he said.

Unlike the mountain resorts that attract skiers from around the world, these Prairie hills serve the neighbours. They are exclusive clubs, in their way: a winter secret shared among the towns-folk and farmers who live within a (relatively) short highway drive. The ski hills give the locals a reason to brave the bleak winters on the plains.

Children grow up learning to ski on these modest hills, and the resorts provide many of them with their first jobs. As teens, they work the T-bars or fill paper cups with hot chocolate at the concession. Or they teach the new generation of Prairie kids their first S-turns and snowplow stops. Some bring their skills to higher altitudes, working in the mountains or joining ski race teams. “Even on simple little hills like this, where our terrain is not as large as it is in B.C. or Alberta, we’re still giving people the basics,” said Craig Brock, manager of Saskatchewan’s Duck Mountain. “When they leave here to go visit the mountains, they feel the connection they had when they were back home.”

Brock loves the gifts of solitude and concentration the slopes provide him. Skiing and snowboarding are just risky enough that a skier must pay close attention. “For the length of time it takes you to take that run, your mind has to be clear,” Brock said. For those few moments, the other problems in your life must be laid aside. “All you can focus on is the snow in front of you, and what you’re going to do to make the next turn.” Even small hills can teach big lessons.

For most, though, the Prairie ski areas are more about acceleration than personal reflection — the simple thrill born of speed. Ski Valley, in Minnedosa, Man., is the home hill of Renae Stahl and Anya Waldner. Ski Valley might only boast an 80-metre vertical, but the two friends from the nearby Odanah Hutterite Colony can really fly. They are proper rippers, even in their long, patterned skirts.“I love the feeling of the wind when I go down the hill,” Stahl said. “It’s a really cool feeling — especially when we’re going fast.”

“I like how we have control over how we move,” Waldner added.

At Thunderhill Ski Area, which straddles the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border, skiers park their cars at the top of the hill and ski down into the Swan River Valley, a counterintuitive descent to start a day of skiing. The resort was launched in 1967 as a centennial project and has been run by a board of volunteers ever since. Only the maintenance staff and “lifties” are paid. Thunderhill is less a business than the beloved ward of the locals who ski there. “The board never needs to canvas for donations,” board member Carolyn Baldwin said. “People come to us.” She’s been skiing Thunderhill since she was 15 years old. “The community is bent on keeping this place up and running and thriving.”

Nobody owns the slopes of Thunderhill, but there is a woman in charge. “We don’t have snow-making equipment so we rely strictly on Mother Nature,” Baldwin said. “Our season begins when she tells us to, and we quit when she tells us to.”

All the Prairie hills must succumb to the whims of winter weather. Brutal temperatures can make skiing dangerous and cripple lift equipment, and storms can shut down the rural highways, rendering the hills themselves unreachable.

Though Baldwin has skied the more lofty hills of Lake Louise, Panorama and Marmot Basin, she raised her daughters at Thunderhill. While the Prairie ski hills cannot compare with the mountain resorts for dizzying elevation, vertical drops and posh lodges, the flatlands boast one advantage a skier cannot find on those alpine slopes. “You can see for miles around,” Baldwin said. “The panoramic view is awesome. You never get tired of looking at the view across the valley.”

In a landscape iconic for its long views, these hilltop vistas beneath the vast Prairie sky may be the longest views of all.

Eric Ylioja, in the parking lot of the Table Mountain Regional Park ski area near Battleford, Sask., traveled more than two hours from Outlook, Sask.
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Members of the community visit the Ski Valley ski area in Minnedosa, Man., once a year.
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Renae Stahl and Anya Waldner from the Odanah Hutterite Colony in Rufford, Man.
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A ski racer starts a run on a balmy spring evening at Snow Valley ski area in Edmonton.
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(Illustration: Katy Dockrill)
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The rope tow at Stony Mountain ski area north of Winnipeg.
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Justin Holodniuk with wife Robyn and kids Jake and Roy at Thunderhill Ski Area in Manitoba.
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Collin Dosselman and Ryan Verth from Rose Valley, Sask., at the Wapiti Valley Ski Resort near Gronlid, Sask.
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Daughter and father duo Kyla Bosomworth and Mike Bosomworth at Canyon Ski Area in Red Deer, Alta.
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A ski racer starts a run on a balmy spring evening at Snow Valley ski area in Edmonton.
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Teens Sawyer Obyrne, Thomas Gibbon and Kaiden Keane (left to right) meet at Snow Valley to train with their ski racing team.
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This story is from the January/February 2024 Issue

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