Making tracks:

🕔Jan 28, 2008
In the last issue, we took Northword readers on a wind-burnt, whirlwind tour of northern BC’s alpine ski hills, from tiny Tabor to massive Marmot. For our second winter-oriented iteration we’re flattening things out a bit, donning a dazzling spandex one-piece, applying some klister, and kicking and gliding our way on a tour of the North’s cross-country skiing destinations.

Otway Nordic Centre – Prince George

We start in Prince George, where following any west-bound Subaru Legacy with a ski box has a good chance of landing you at the Otway Nordic Centre, located just five kilometres from the city’s downtown.
John Petersen, the Norwegian-born skinny-ski fanatic who championed the growth of Nordic skiing in BC in the 60s and 70s, founded Prince George’s Hickory Wing Ski Club in 1958. The club’s original trails were located at Tabor Mountain, east of the city, and it wasn’t until 1984 that the Otway Road Cross-country Ski Centre opened on crown land sub-leased from the City.
Today, Otway boasts 40 kilometres of groomed trails and BC’s second largest cross-country ski club, the Caledonia Nordics. The facility’s lodge was expanded considerably in the 2004-2005 season, coinciding with the club’s hosting of that year’s National Cross Country Skiing Championships. It’s now a mammoth 4700-square-foot facility, offering running water, washrooms, lounge area, rental shop, waxing room, and a concession.
With snow coverage since the first week of November, this season is looking good for Otway’s trails. “One Interesting thing about Otway is that its north-facing aspect means the temperature is usually a few degrees colder than in town,” says Caledonia Nordics President Don Cadden. “We tend to get a little bit more snow and a little bit colder temperatures.”
In terms of terrain, recreational skiers will enjoy the gently undulating Pine Flats trails, while racers and more cardiovascularly advanced skiers can take on the facility’s steeper trails.
New for this year is a quarter-million dollar Pisten Bully groomer, which will help the club groom the trails both earlier and later in the season. And five kilometers of trails have been dedicated as two-way, allowing both skate and classic skiing in both directions. The club’s equipment rental program (begun last year) continues, as does its School Ski Program.

Mackenzie Nordiques – Mackenzie

Cross-country skiing isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of northern economic development. Yet, the town of Mackenzie hopes that attracting skiers in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympic Games might help bolster its floundering forestry economy.
“We’ve been pushing to have Olympic and national ski teams come to Mackenzie to train,” explains Mackenzie Nordiques Ski Club President Darin Hancock. “We honestly think we have some of the best trails available, and we want people to know Mackenzie is open for business.”
Indeed, for a town of only 4,000, Mackenzie’s cross-country skiing infrastructure is impressive. It has 30 kilometres of groomed trails accessed via the trailhead at the golf clubhouse on Cicada Road. These wind around a series of three lakes and eventually join up with another five kilometres of groomed trails right in town.
“We sent some people to homologation (certification of race courses) training in Vernon and Whistler. When they came home, they realized there was only a little bit of work needed to upgrade our trails to world-class standards,” says Hancock. “We modified the terrain and added some new trails so we now have a racing circuit that exceeds world cup standards.”
The Mackenzie Nordiques, which boasts over 200 paid members, organizes a variety of events and programs over the course of the season. These include the year’s hallmark event, the Finlay Blizzard Challenge, an annual race weekend at the end of January that features both classic and freestyle racing, a potluck dinner, music, a bonfire and other festivities.
This season, the club is seeking to motivate its younger members by hosting Canadian Olympic Team skier Milaine Theriault. “We want to show our young skiers that there are bigger things that are attainable for them. The problem that all ski clubs have is that they lose a lot of their skiers in the 13-15 year range. We’re trying to keep them into it by offering them the next levels in their development,” says Hancock.

Onion Lake Ski Trails – Terrace and Kitimat

Originally started as the Kitimat Cross-country Ski Club in 1976, the now 115-member-strong Snow Valley Nordic Ski Club maintains the Onion Lake Ski Trails, located in a Coast Mountain snowbelt midway between Kitimat and Terrace.
The facility has 30 kilometres of groomed trails (five kilometres of which are lit), providing easy access to many small lakes and spectacular views of the valley.
“Our ski conditions are comparable with Whistler; we have the same type of snow and we’re about the same distance from the ocean,” says club vice-president Bob Oliver, who adds he’s hoping the similarity will entice Olympic athletes to choose the area for pre-games practice.
A warming hut, toilets, and parking are available for season’s pass holders and day users. The club’s Moose Hut, located approximately seven kilometress from the trailhead, is also available for day and overnight use.
Night skiing at Onion Lake is again available, thanks to BC Hydro replacing power poles that snapped last spring due to snow on the lines. Skiers turn on the lights by way of a big red button on the side of the ticket booth. (This unique system must also provide an extra bit of motivation for the extremely slow skier, since pushing the button gives two hours of light.)
Looking forward, the club is expanding its parking and adding signage in preparation for the 2010 BC Winter Games in Terrace. It’s also looking for a snow-clearing machine for its parking lot. Anyone have a D4 bulldozer gathering dust?

Bell Mountain and Dore River Ski Trails – McBride

In 1972, Bjorger Petersen, son of John Petersen who founded Prince George’s cross-country scene, founded McBride’s Yellowhead Ski Club. With Bjorger’s expertise as an official with the International Olympic Committee, the club developed what was, for a small town such as McBride, a fairly active competitive skiing scene.
More recently, however, the club has traded in its racing tights for a wineskin and set off on a more contemplative ski through the trees.
“We quickly realized that we were holding all these loppets [cross-country ski races], but because our community was so small, none of our club members could participate,” recounts Kjell Valestrand, the club’s current president. “We all had to volunteer!”
In cooperation with the Ministry of Forests, the Yellowhead Ski Club now maintains, grooms and sets between 15 and 20 kilometres of track on Bell Mountain, west of McBride. (The area’s lower-elevation Dore River trails–once the club’s mainstay—have not been maintained in recent years due to lack of snow.)
A highlight of the Bell Mountain trail network is the Pine Lake cabin, located approximately three kilometres from the trailhead. Built in 2000 with a grant from the BC government’s Millenium Fund, the cabin provides a great destination for day excursions and can be rented for overnight adventures at a cost of $10 per person.
Most of the club revenue comes from renting out the cabin,” says Valestrand. “In the last three winters it’s been rented out a lot by Jasper people. We also get a lot of UNBC people who rent it.”
The annual club event is a poker ski, in which skiers collect playing cards at checkpoints located around the trail circuit. It culminates with a social event at the Pine Lake Cabin. As Valestrand explains, the event seems to attract more locals, and is generally less stressful. “We’re kind of a more laid-back club now,” he says.
To get to the Bell Mountain trails, skiers drive nine kilometres west of McBride, then five more kilometers on Bell Mountain Road to the trailhead and warming shack. Look for Valestrand astride one of the club’s two twin-track Ski-doos.

Omineca Ski Club—Burns Lake

BC’s oldest cross-country ski club owes its existence to a large group of Scandinavians who settled in the area in the early 1900s and founded the club in 1927. To this day, the club continues to benefit from its founders’ descendants, providing programs and facilities that seem super-sized when one considers Burns Lake’s small population.
“Our membership base of 500 isn’t as big as one might imagine, but if you take a town of 2500, it’s quite a component,” says club president Mark West.
The Club’s facilities include over 35 kilometres of trails, including racing trails groomed to international standards and three kilometres of lit trails. There’s even a short loop designed for those with an aversion to hills!
Omineca’s competitive program has produced two Olympians (Kari Engstad and Esther Miller), and several national and provincial-level athletes. Races centre on the facility’s stadium area where spectators can view the starts and finishes. A special track has been developed in the terrain surrounding the stadium to cater to sprint racing, a particularly spectator-friendly event.
Like other clubs around the North, the past few years have seen significant infrastructure improvements. A grant two years ago from the BC government’s Olympic and Paralympic Live Site program funded expansion of the club’s lodge and the purchase of a new groomer.
“All our equipment is state-of-the-art,” adds West. “If somebody is coming to Burns Lake to go skiing, they can expect not to be skiing on a trail groomed by a skidoo.”
To reach the Omineca Ski Club’s trails, take highway 35 south of town for five kilometres.

Bulkley Valley Nordic Centre – Smithers

Long regarded as a hotbed of endurance athletes, it’s no surprise that Smithers has developed a top-notch cross-country skiing facility, run by the Bulkley Valley Cross Country Ski Club. The Bulkley Valley Nordic Centre is located on a mountain bench west of the town, accessed via Hudson Bay Mountain Road.
The centrepiece of the BV Nordic Centre is Buchfink Lodge, an impressive two-story day lodge. It is named for the members of the Buchfink family—great supporters of cross-country skiing in the Bulkley Valley—who tragically lost their lives in a 1994 helicopter accident. Part of the family’s legacy was a cash endowment to the ski club, which enabled lodge construction.
From the Buchfink Lodge and surrounding staging area, skiers can access some 45 kilometres of trails groomed regularly for both classic and skating techniques. Five kilometres of trail are lit until 9:30 pm, offering a nocturnal option for the diehard crowd (and anyone who wishes to ski after 4pm in January!). Here, even four-legged ski buffs have options: the centre’s Dog Trail is a four-kilometre loop especially for those who like to ski with their pooch. (Check the club’s website for more info on its policy concerning dogs.)
Last winter, the Bulkley Valley Nordic Centre played host to the Western Canadian Championships. The event saw 270 athletes compete in three full days of racing and cemented Smithers’ reputation as a cross-country skiing destination.

Other options?

Does your community have ski trails that were not covered here? Please send us an email (, write a comment on our website (, or send a letter to Box 817, Smithers BC, VOJ 2NO with details.