Downhill skiers have lost a big chunk of the season with ski hills closed during the lockdown.
For some enthusiasts, this has been an excuse to get out in the woods and make their own ski runs.
There’s nothing new about back country skiing, of course. Long before there were groomed ski runs and high-speed lifts, alpine adventurers were using skis and techniques that allowed them to go up hills as well as down them.
For many skiers, those days have never gone away. Back country skiing remains a big part of the sport, but it is primarily found in areas that are much more mountainous. The smaller ski hills of central Ontario generally discourage people from going off the groomed runs.
But all that means is that you need to look a bit harder to find a place to ski the powder among the trees.
For many years people in the know have been enjoying the excellent backcountry skiing conditions that Muskoka in particular has to offer. Last year, a number of those enthusiasts came together to form the West Wind Highlands Ski Touring Association, a club exclusively devoted to promoting human-powered skiing.
Members of the WWHSTA have mapped out “lines” and created trails at three locations in the area just north and east of Huntsville.
Why there? It turns out that region has a magical combination of attributes that offer some of the best backcountry skiing in Ontario.
For starters, there are a lot of steep hills. If you’ve ever driven on Hwy 11 north of Huntsville, you’ve seen the dramatic change in terrain as you suddenly enter a belt of steep, rocky cliffs. Those hills continue in a band to the eastward, encompassing a broad swath of territory that extends into Algonquin Park.
The hills are often too steep for roads or even for effective logging, so a lot of them contain forests of mature hardwoods – meaning the trees are larger and farther apart, which is perfect for skiing.
Not only do those hills offer some excellent ski terrain, they also trap snow. As anyone knows who’s spent a winter in Muskoka, this region gets a lot of snow – on average, more than three metres every winter. But some of the canyons and cliffs in this region can create mini snow traps that slow the squalls as they pass overhead, so even more of the white stuff piles up. And, because the temperature can be two to five degrees colder in the hills, a rainy day in Huntsville can still bring snow to the hills, all of which adds up to perfect conditions for lovers of deep powder.
On top of that, there is a lot of Crown land in this region, as well as some large private reserves, meaning club members have been able to find several spots to create ski runs.
The Limberlost Forest Reserve – a large, private land reserve just off Hwy 60 – is home base for the WWHSTA. There they have created a number of runs centred around the Top of the World ski hill, which operated from the 1930s to the 1970s.
To take full advantage of this kind of skiing, you’ll need some different equipment. Typical back-country skis have bindings that allow you to free your heel when going uphill or on a flat. Some kinds of bindings then let you lock your heel back down when you want to go downhill; others leave your heels free and require you to practice a different kind of turn, called a telemark turn.
You’ll also want to get some “skins” for your skis – self-adhesive strips that fasten to the bottom of your skis, giving you grip to go uphill. To come down, you remove the skins and put them in your pocket or pack.
Snowboarders can take part, too, thanks to the advent of split boards, which separate into two ski-like halves for uphill travel, then clip back together for downhill runs.
To give the sport a try, you can rent gear from an outfitter (both Algonquin Outfitters in Huntsville and Liv Outdoors in Bracebridge have back country skis for rent). A membership in the WWHSTA is just $45 per person.