By Darren Lum
It’s easy to hear the passion in the voice of the president of West Wind Highlands Ski Touring Association (WWHSTA) when he speaks about what he loves about backcountry ski touring.
“I love being in the quiet winter woods with my friends and for me that’s a place where I experience everything else drop away,” Jeff Mann said. “All of my concerns, my work worries, my life outside that moment becomes less of a distraction, and I’m able to just enjoy being present in nature and with the people who I’m fortunate enough to be there with. That’s a huge part of it for me.”
The newly formed association is a registered not-for-profit association that was officially started in December of last year. It advocates “for and supports the development of self-propelled winter backcountry touring opportunities in Muskoka, the Almaguin Highlands, Haliburton and surrounding areas.”
In the first three days after memberships were available on Dec. 1, 30 people had signed up for paid memberships, which was more than half of the association’s goal of 50 memberships.
Mann and his fellow board members of the association all love getting outdoors.
For him skiing is a lifelong passion, as he started when he could barely walk.
Ski touring includes two aspects such as skiing on any un-groomed terrain, and completing “runs,” which is when individuals climb up a hill on their skis, using what are known as climbing skins on the base of the ski. They then remove the skin to ski down forested hills.
Earning his turns, Mann said, is part of his enjoyment.
“For me it’s almost as much fun to climb up a hill and think about what the most efficient way to do it is and where I should be putting in a switchback to make the climb a little bit easier as it is to ski down the hill,” he said. These excursions have provided him quality time with his children and his dog in nature.
The association was formed by a group of friends, who wanted to share their love with others, but also give a voice to skiers like them.
Informally, this group of outdoor enthusiasts had been going out in the Muskoka and Haliburton Highlands area for more than a dozen years, Mann said. Through Facebook, the group created the Almaguin Backcountry Skiers page and as of last year, it included more than 250 members.
Mann said the association is following in the footsteps of other organizations such as Granite Backcountry Alliance based in the U.S.
The relationship with Limberlost Forest and Wildlife Reserve with 10,000 acres of mixed forest, located east of Oxtongue River in Huntsville which is a venue for some of the association’s adventures, started three years ago when Mann and his friends approached the owners about thinning the forest so they could use it to ski on the former ski hill property.
“That was a big part of the genesis of this project too, was us realizing, ‘Hey, there are significant land owners in this area who are interested in having skiers come and work on their property and use their property for recreation,’” he said.
Like cycling, there are plenty of options for gear and there is an initial investment to buying equipment, from specific bindings to specific skis such as the “Hok” model, which combines design features of a Nordic ski and a snowshoe. It offers greater efficiency traversing the snow and is adept at descents.
Nordic skis can be used for excursions, but so can downhill ski boots and alpine skis paired with specific backcountry bindings that allow the heel to lift. Mann said when he skis downhill he uses the telemarking technique – think Olympic ski jumpers and visualize the form they often take when they land in a lunge position.
Mann said for novices renting is the best option so check with outfitters about renting, as the Huntsville location for Algonquin Outfitters offers rental services.
The goal beyond gaining members for the association, the president said, is organizing and holding two ski tour events later this year, if that is permitted by the health unit amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. One will be held on World Telemark Day on March 7 at Limberlost Forest Reserve and the other will be close to Kearney at Nickle Peak in the Almaguin Highlands in early February.
The association, which focuses on conservationist practices, hopes to establish a “West Wind Standard” to ensure they are “having the least impact possible.” This forestry standard will be created in consultation with foresters, botanists and biologists. He adds the standard also includes an effort to not just adhere to a sustainability ideal, but improve the forest. Mann believes the standard could be applied to public land. He compared this standard to the Whistler Trail Standard, which is used to build mountain bike trails and has become an internationally recognized standard for mountain bike trails, Mann said.
Membership in the association offers people benefits from being allowed to attend events for liability coverage, to being eligible for discounts and offers with area retailers and restaurants, and being allowed influence over association decisions through voting at the annual general meeting.
“In general, it’s a vote of support for doing things like developing the West Wind Standard and for doing all the other work we do, whether it’s environmental awareness work and those kinds of things too,” he said.
The credit for the formation of the association includes the board members, who are Scott Turnbull, treasurer, Annie Scherz, membership director, Gord Baker, secretary, and Jeff “Le Chef” Edwards, vice-president and director of operations. Also deserving of credit is Toronto-based law firm, Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt LLP. Through a person with a connection with the firm, Mann said the association has established a “pro bono relationship.” From this relationship, they have provided legal advice to drafting bylaws, create a liability waiver, and facilitated the association to become a federally incorporated not-for-profit.
It’s important for novices, Mann said, to find someone that can provide guidance.
“Like a mentor,” he said. “And that’s something we can really offer through our events and things like that is to help mentor people.”
It’s a good practice to let someone know where you’re going and when you’re expecting to return. However, the ideal is to go with someone so you can look out for each other. Be prepared for equipment to fail, so carry spare parts and tools to install them in the case of failure. It’s also good to take a first aid kit and know how to administer first aid. A helmet is recommended for downhill skiing. Remember to layer up with clothing and carry supplies such as water and snacks, including a flashlight and a means to start a fire.
One of the most important pieces of advice?
“Stay within your limits with what you’re comfortable with,” he said.
Glade downhill skiing is for expert skiers, but ski touring can be done by almost anyone and virtually anywhere there is open land and snow.
When asked what he would tell his young self after the years of backcountry activities he has been involved with, Mann says, “Accept the conditions and the day for what it is. Every day is a good day to ski as long as you are making appropriate choices. So it doesn’t always have to be a powder day for you to be able to go and enjoy an incredible day of adventuring in the woods.”
The association’s vision for the future, Mann said, is to create a multi-day ski tour route similar to the hut-to-hut tour options available in Alberta and in Quebec.
“It’s that sort of ambition and that sort of long range planning and thinking, when people are signing up is, that’s what they are joining,” he said. “It’s that sort of idea of we have an amazing area here with everything you need for ski touring. You have the snow. You have the terrain. And you have empty accessible space. Those are the things you really need to practice the sport.”