Canada’s spectacular ski country is some of the best in the world
From glorious mountains to man-made ski hills and trails, Canada has embraced the customs and techniques of ski and snowboard culture from coast to coast. Our nation’s ski and snowboard enthusiasts have innovated, experimented and created communities and infrastructure unlike no other. Throughout the decades, talented Canadians have explored the art of snowsports, finding and sharing unique ways to improve experiences for well over a hundred years.
Although Canadians may not always agree on which ski area accomplished a particular feat for the first time, there is no doubt that across the country, great minds have found unique ways to improve the experience for skiers and snowboarders.
The First Ski Club in Canada
Although other ski clubs may have existed prior, the Revelstoke Ski Club holds the record of being the oldest continually operating ski club in the country. The proof dates back to a photograph found in the late 1800s, inscribed with “Revelstoke Ski Club, 1891.” The photo shows local resident F.B. Wells, a founding member of the club and one of the first to sell skis in the area.
Revelstoke Ski Club, 1891. CSHFM Collection.
The Scandinavians Who Inspired a Nation
What led to Revelstoke being the oldest club in the entire country? The first known use of skis in this area was sometime earlier when a Scandinavian immigrant named Ole Sandberg made use of homemade skis to get around, then known as “Norwegian snowshoes″. A fellow Norwegian immigrant, Ole Westerberg, was a local mailman who used his skis to deliver mail as far as 80 kilometers north of Revelstoke! The locals must have marvelled at this curious, yet wonderful new technology.
North America’s First Ski Resort
The Chalet Cochand in Ste Marguerite Station, Québec, was established in 1914 by Emile and Lea Cochand who purchased a little one-storey cottage along with 500 acres of land for $500. Upon purchasing the simple cottage and land, the couple dreamt of transforming it into Canada’s first resort hotel. Emile arrived in Canada from Switzerland as the nation’s first professional ski instructor, sponsored by Montreal Ski Club. Combining both the skills and passion for the ski industry helped the couple to bring their vision to life.
Emile and Lea Cochand with their daughter Yvonne in 1915 Source: The Incredible Emile Cochand, Canadian Ski History Writers Project. CSHFM Skiing Heritage Chawkers Articles.
An Ambitious Project
Emile and Lea Cochand had dreams of transforming the modest one-story cottage into a one-of-a-kind resort hotel and sports centre. But in the beginning stages of development, there were significant challenges in maintaining the property, while at the same time accommodating guests. A fire had to be kept going at all times throughout the winter and trails had to be blazed. Still, between Emile’s teaching and Lea’s wonderful cooking, the word spread about the initial modest ski accommodations and guests wanted to join in on the fun! Even the downfall of the economy during the First World War did not ruin the budding business for Chalet Cochand (initially called Chalet St. Marguerite). This was largely thanks to the support generated by the Montreal Ski Club.
The First Ski Resort in the Rockies
Mt. Norquay has the bragging rights as both the first ski resort and the first downhill ski area in the Rockies. It was named in honour of the premier of Manitoba, John Norquay, who bravely climbed its peak in 1887 (or 1888). While avid skiers were always drawn to the beauty of Banff, alpine skiing truly took off in the region in the 1920s, especially at Mt. Norquay.
A photograph from J. Ross Larway’s trip to Banff, Alberta in 1937. CSHFM Collection.
The Essential Infrastructure
Ski pioneer Gus Johnson chose the slope to best teach children to ski in a dedicated learn-to-ski area. This would eventually become the Mt. Norquay resort. Soon after, in the late 1920s, its trails and ski cabin were created.
“Just about everybody contributed to the little log cabin. It was the early years that set the personality for Mt. Norquay; it was local and it was community development.”
– Eddie Hunter, Banff resident. Source: Louie 2011, p. 28.
Canada’s First All-Women’s Ski Club
The Penguin Club was the very first ski club originating at McGill University, created by women and for women. Friends from the graduating class of 1928 with a love of skiing created this group in 1932. But, this was not a purely social club. Soon after it focused on competition. The very next year, women started to take lessons and demonstrate their skills in the Laurentians, embracing the newly popularized discipline of alpine skiing.
Less than a decade after its founding, Penguin Ski Club members are seen here on the slopes of Mont Saint-Sauveur in 1941. Skiing History Journal.
The Club’s mission is “to help its members enjoy skiing to the fullest, and to advance the standard of ski proficiency amongst women.”
– Betty Sherrard, founder and first president Source: Armstrong & Knowles 2018.
Canada’s First Chairlift
Canada’s first chairlift, and only the second in all of North America, was installed by American developer Joseph B. Ryan, at Mont Tremblant, Quebec. This cutting-edge infrastructure was installed in time for the 1938-39 season. The chairlift was named after Ryan’s favourite race horse, the “Flying Mile”. Tremblant started its modernization process after a push from celebrated American broadcaster, actor and writer Lowell Thomas. This provoked a wave of visits of the rich and famous to frequent the new ski destination including the Kennedys and the Rockefellers.
“This has to be the most beautiful sight in the world. There is only one thing wrong. It is too difficult getting up here. I believe I’ll fix that!”
– Joe Ryan, in 1937. Source: Canadian Ski Museum, “Joseph ‘Joe’ Ryan”.
The First Private Ski Hill in Canada
Did you know that the concept of private ski clubs was founded in Ontario? The excitement around Tremblant’s innovation at the time meant many lines at the hill. To mitigate this frustration two young couples decided to purchase their own personal piece of skiing bliss in 1949. For the nominal price of $100, 30 people now owned 50 beautiful acres of the picturesque Blue Mountain ridge. While the facilities and infrastructure were makeshift at first – including their very first lift powered by a Chrysler engine – it was theirs.
“The private ski club experience is as much about family and safety and community as it is about the actual skiing and snowboarding”
– Tim Oliver, General Manager of Beaver Valley, a private Ontario ski club. Source: Stephens, 2019
Three of Osler Bluff’s founding members celebrating the club’s 25th anniversary. Osler Bluff Ski Club.
Nova Scotia’s Longest Running Loppet
Bryan Scallion created the Honey Pot Loppet, an enjoyable and social cross-country gathering and friendly ski event, in Wentworth, Nova Scotia in 1977. While it was typically a Scandinavian tradition, now there are loppets organized nationwide to bring laughter and light to the dark of winter.
A Sweet Prize
Bryan Scallion, an accomplished coach and national athlete, organized the first event to raise money for the provincial cross-country ski team in 1977. For Bryan, there was no sweeter prize than rewarding finishers with honey from the bees from their property. His wife Dianne Powell recalls there were over 200 people skiing the Honeypot in the early years, and all the registrants came through their kitchen. The original course was accessible from their backdoor. This activity has survived the times and is ongoing still today!
To Learn More
Check out these incredible photographs from the history of the Osler Bluff Ski Club on their official website.
Next time you’re in Nova Scotia, see if you can’t experience a loppet for yourself.
Read more about Chalet Cochand in Vallée Cochand, by Jacques Poulin, June 4th 2019, Zone Ski