Aerial view of the "Dance Hall" lodge. Photo courtesy of BNB Studios.

Falcon Ridge Ski Slopes, Manitoba

Small, Remote & Mighty Hard To Beat

Ski Hill: Falcon Ridge Ski Slopes, Manitoba
Map: Location
Vertical: 36 m (119 ft)
Snowfall: 47 cm (1.5 ft)

Falcon Ridge brings to mind Mark Twain’s adage that ‘there are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies and statistics.’ Of the three, Twain especially despised statistics because they can be as deceptive and misleading as they are descriptive and definitive. Take Falcon Ridge’s Mountain Stats: Vertical Drop: 36 metres (119 feet); Average annual snowfall: 0.47 metres (1.5 feet); Expert Trails: 0; Chairlifts: 0. So why and how has Falcon Ridge thrived for over 60 years? For that, you’ll have to look well beyond the stats. Here is their incredible story …

If our children are the lifeblood of skiing, then community ski areas are its heart and soul. Often small and remote, they’re where most of us once learned to ski. And where we’re now introducing our children and grandchildren to the lifelong joys of our favourite winter sport. Community Ski Areas: True Stories From The Heartland Of Canadian Skiing examines the past, present and future of Canada’s community ski areas. || Creative Director: Gordie Bowles | Writer: Dave Fonda

Conceived As A Government Program 

Falcon Ridge Ski Slopes and its nearby namesake golf course were opened by Premier ‘Duff’ Roblin’s Progressive Conservative government in 1959 as part of a program to promote outdoor recreation in Manitoba. 

Situated near the Ontario border, Falcon Lake was named after Pierre Falcon, ‘The Bard of the Prairie Métis’. Long a favourite summer retreat for anglers, campers, travellers and cottagers alike, many wondered: would skiers follow suit?

Gerry Malaher (right) and a conservation officer (left). Images courtesy of Barb Hamilton.

Local ice cutters. Images courtesy of Barb Hamilton.

Falcon Ridge Takes Off!

The hill was an instant hit, drawing skiers from Kenora and Winnipeg. Despite its modest size, it became the place families and friends went to every weekend to ski, socialize and, if need be, help out.

Locals Sandra and Grant Boutillier contributed a chalet that became the first ski club house. Bob Gawne and his ski club volunteers remodelled it (it is now the first aid shack). Meanwhile, the magnificently moustachioed Gord Hood cleared the frozen lake of snow for parking when he wasn’t teaching skiing. By the early 90s, skiing’s popularity began to wane. Spurred by sparse snowfalls, declining ticket sales and rising insurance costs, the government opted to close Falcon Ridge. The community was horrified. 

You Can’t Spell Skilled Without ‘Ski’

Enter Barbara Hamilton and her husband Craig Christie. Barb was the first woman to complete the journeyman carpentry program in Winnipeg, while Craig was also a highly skilled carpenter. Neither one knew a thing about ski area management. But they both dreamed of opening a resort and they had a plan to build and lease cabins in the area. If they could secure a loan to buy the hill, they would launch their dream business and run it full-time.  

In 1996, they got their loan and permission to run their new business on Treaty 3 territory, in Whiteshell Provincial Park. While Craig cut cross-country ski trails and built cabins, Barbara started lining up staff and figuring out the ins and outs of running a ski hill. Everyone bought in. The regulars returned, including Everyday Bob who skied there… everyday. But they didn’t just come back. They came ready and eager to help keep their hill alive. 

Adolf and Olive Zimmerman (to left of gas pump). Images courtesy of Barb Hamilton.

[from left] Brooke, Emily, Caleigh. Photo by Joannie Lafreniere.

The Three Sisters Step Up

While Craig and Barbara still help out most days, their 30-something daughters Emily, Brooke and Caleigh now run Falcon Ridge. Says GM Caleigh, “by age 16, we’d worked in every position from lift operator to rental shop to kitchen duty and sales. We lived and breathed it … we still do.”

While locals (i.e. the several hundred cottagers who live nearby, year-round) still make up the core of Falcon Ridge’s business, the sisters knew they needed to broaden their base.

When Ideas And Communities Converge

While attending university in Winnipeg, the sisters befriended musicians who’d come up to the hill to work with them on weekends. “One time, during a bad snow year,” Caleigh explains, “We thought, ‘how can we entice people to come out to the ski hill?’ We had all these musicians on staff, so we put on a little festival.” The Snow Dance Festival of Music and Winter has since become an annual, sold out, must-see event. 

Adds Brooke, “to this day, up to 75 percent of Falcon Ridge staff are musicians.” Their shows pack the chalet every Sunday!

Artist: Dana Lee. Photo by Emily Christie.

Photo by Joannie Lafreniere.

An Invested Snowboarder Community

To connect with snowboarders, the Christies devised a volunteer program. In exchange for helping Caleigh’s husband and Mountain Ops Director, Ryan design, build and maintain the terrain park, volunteer snowboarders get a lift pass and lunch. “They love it,” says Caleigh. “It’s low responsibility. It’s creative. It’s a way for them to feel they’re a part of the park.” 

Plus, their sense of involvement and pride drives them to invite their friends who love Falcon because the vibe is so great! “That,” Caleigh beams, “is the terrain park community.”

“A community ski area is a centre where the focus is less on making a profit and more on how we can make this community more vibrant.”

— Caleigh Christie, General Manager, Falcon Ridge Ski Slopes

A Growing Biathlon Community

Falcon Ridge is also the provincial training centre for Team Manitoba Biathlon. “They come about seven times a year to race at our facilities,” says Caleigh. “That’s a big community that joins our little ski hill.”

One of those biathletes is a local named Megan Imrie. She and the Christie sisters trained biathlon together as kids. A two-time Olympic biathlete, Megan now works with Spirit North. Fellow Olympian Becky Scott started the organisation which uses land-based activities to help improve the health and well-being of Indigenous youth. Megan and Caleigh are now discussing how to bring Spirit North to Treaty 3. Says Caleigh, “it’s Megan’s homeland and training grounds, and she’d love to see that program here at Falcon Ridge.”

Photo by Dave Spence.

Photo by Emily Christie.

Rinse & Repeat

Not surprisingly, the girls are constantly reaching out to more and more communities. So far they’ve created sustainable community programs with local school kids, First Nations schoolchildren from Northwestern Ontario and Shoal Lake, Nordic skiers and racers, tubing fans, Skijörers, frozen turkey curlers, mountain bikers … the list goes on and on. No wonder they call Falcon Ridge, ‘The Biggest Little Hill’.

Falcon Ridge in photos

Photo by Emily Christie
Photo by Emily Christie
Photo by Emily Christie
Photo by Emily Christie
Photo by Emily Christie

Falcon Ridge

The Biggest Little Hill

If you have any photos, videos or anectdotes that you’d like us to add to this story or if you have a story about any other ski area is your province or territory that you’d like us to add to this collection, please contact: [email protected]