Tawatinaw Valley, Alberta

The Little Hill With A Big Heart

Ski Hill: Tawatinaw Valley Ski Area, Alberta
Map: Location
Vertical: 61 m (200 ft)
Snowfall: 127 cm (50 in)

1967 was a magical time in Canada. We all celebrated our Centennial and sang, “It’s the 100th anniversary of Confederation, everybody sing together!” While Expo ’67 invited the whole world to come join in, Tawatinaw Valley officially opened its five slopes and one T-bar to skiers throughout Central Alberta. Tawatinaw is a Cree word meaning ‘the valley between two hills’. Today, it’s known as a warm and friendly place where successive generations happily ski, play, eat and, sometimes, even work together. But first things first …

Community ski areas can be found in every Canadian province and territory, from Whitehorse, Yukon to London, Ontario and from Prince Edward Island to Vancouver Island. Community Ski Areas: Stories from the Heartland of Canadian Skiing shows you who created these areas, why and when they came into being and how they’re continuing to make skiing accessible, affordable and fun for everyone, from coast to coast to coast. || Creative Director: Gordie Bowles. Writer: Dave Fonda

Nine Men, One Plan And A Centennial Grant

In 1965, seven men founded the Tawatinaw Valley Ski Club: Harvey Brinton, Raymond Clapperton, Dr. John Deacon, John Harry, Nick Kostyck, Wesley Prazak, and Clarence Truckey. Their goal was to bring alpine skiing to Westlock County. The thing is the land around Westlock is as “flat as pancake” and ideal for farming wheat, barley and canola. 

Unfazed, the club approached Jack Frances and Adolph Geiger, who owned the only ‘hills’ in the area. Though the hills are actually riverbanks formed eons ago when the rushing waters of the Tawatinaw and Athabasca Rivers converged there, the club didn’t care. They were more interested in the slopes’ 200-foot vertical drop. 

Supported by a $5,000 Centennial federal grant and a bank loan, the ambitious locals went to work at clearing brush, cutting trails, erecting a 60-foot chalet and installing a 1,200-foot long T-bar. 

This classic riverbank ski area is the perfect setting for this classic Ski Doo.

A History Of Climbing, Sliding And Gliding

Fortunately, Westlock families had a history of climbing, sliding and gliding down those hills in winter. Recalls Board member Toni Siegle, “in 1962, when my husband was three, his Dad would walk him up to the top and then basically guide him down the hill.”

Adds former Board member Heather Toporowski, “people in the surrounding communities were starting to get into sports such as downhill skiing. They all identified with these hills and this area of natural beauty.” Instinctively, everyone knew that Tawatinaw Valley would be, “a great place for kids to come and ski with their families.”

How To Grow A 200-Vertical Foot Hill

Over the next 50 years, Tawatinaw Valley grew in size, scope and popularity.  While some families donated their used ski equipment and snowshoes to liven up the chalet, others, like co-founder Wesley Prazak, managed the hill while his wife worked in and ran the concession. To this day, local folks and businesses still give their time, money, labour and expertise freely.

After purchasing a new self-loading T-bar, the all-volunteer club moved heaven (and mostly earth) to raise the summit elevation by 50 feet for a new and longer T-bar. In the 1990s, the club added a terrain park with jumps, fun-boxes and rails. And, most recently, it re-introduced some tubing runs. 

Skiers riding the hydraulic T-bar in the 1970s.

After first taking off in the 1980s, cross-country skiing’s popularity continues to soar at Tawatinaw.

It’s A Family Affair

During the ‘80s, the club asked its neighbours if they would lend their land for cross-country skiing. Everyone said yes.

When landowner Dr. Little sold his property to the Boelman family, Reint Boelman Sr. donated his time to cutting, grooming and maintaining Tawatinaw’s 15 km Nordic network. Today, the area has 11 trails with both classic and skate lanes that Reint Jr. maintains when not he’s working as club treasurer or at his real job.

“A community ski hill primarily serves the residents of the surrounding areas. It has a particular ‘family’ or ‘small town feel’ to it. People know and recognize their friends and neighbours. Over time, it serves multiple generations of the same families, so the community values it and views it as a positive asset and a point of pride.” 

– Heather Toporowski, former member of the Tawatinaw Valley Board of Directors

The Inside Story

In 1971, the original chalet was relocated and rebuilt with restrooms and running water. In 2014, the old chalet was demolished and replaced by a much larger and more accommodating one. It now houses a cafeteria and a conference room that doubles as a ski team meeting area and banquet hall. Most importantly, its full-service kitchen is staffed by wizards who can whip up anything from delicious homemade soups to full-course feasts of prime Grade A Alberta roast beef. 

Says club president, Wendy Batog, “Everything is homemade. If you order a burger, it comes on a homemade bun. When you place an order, we actually get your name and call you. We know who you are. We recognize you. And we’re appreciative of your visit because the $20 you spend for your family on a snack or whatever helps us stay alive.”

Members of the club and community during a cheque presentation from the Westlock Rotary Club in 2018; a three-year commitment to donate $75,000 for the purchase of new rental equipment.

A view of the chalet from above the big air jumps.

A Near-Death Experience

In 2018, Tawatinaw Valley almost closed. The community wouldn’t hear of it. Rallying under the banner, ‘The Friends of Tawatinaw Ski Hill’, Westlock citizens lobbied, held community meetings and raised awareness. They also submitted a proposal to the County Council that they would operate the hill under a volunteer board. When the County agreed, the Board went to work raising funds from donations and grants. It purchased rental equipment and made the necessary repairs and upgrades. Volunteers chipped in and did everything from cleaning the chalet and grounds, to building racks, repairing equipment, hiring staff and writing up policies. In turn, the Board was assisted by a network of Alberta ski area operators who provided advice and support, and by local community groups who contributed donations and manpower. 

Tawatinaw Valley Today… and Tomorrow

Today, Tawatinaw Valley is a thriving, 160-acre playground that averages 15,000 skier-visits a year, depending on the weather (the lifts stay closed when the mercury dips below -20 degrees Celsius). While alpine skiers and snowboarders account for most of those visits, Tawatinaw Valley also draws many cross-country skiers including a large Nordic contingent from Edmonton. The Westlock Nordic Club stages a yearly loppet cross-country ski race and, in recent years, Becky Scott’s Spirit North has held youth loppets here. 

Come summer, the Nordic trails resound with hikers and mountain bikers, while the chalet hosts meetings, weddings, conferences and the occasional funeral. How’s that for serving the whole community?

Tawatinaw Valley Ski Area

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