The St. Albert Nordic Ski Club formed almost half a century ago in 1973, when a group of St. Albert families banded together to turn our city’s winter trail system into a paradise for cross-country skiers. Though it started off with just a few families, the club has grown tremendously over the years, and now offers services to hundreds of skiers throughout the city. But this public interest in the club didn’t come out of nowhere. According to two of the current club executives, Laurie Hunt and Ken Chin, all of the club’s popularity and success is owed to the hard work of their volunteer team.
All aspects of the club, from coaching to trail maintenance, are run by volunteers hoping to make the winters of St. Albert a little more accessible and exciting. For the most part, the accessibility comes in the form of skiing lessons. Every January, parent coaches and youth instructors begin to offer ski lessons for kids on a weekly basis. These lessons are affectionately called “The Jackrabbit Program” and according to Laurie, this is one of the most popular aspects of the club, attracting about 100 kids from around the city every year. Through the help of city funding and government grants, the Nordic Ski Club has been able to expand their programming to a wider audience. “About ten years ago, the Nordic Ski Club was able to acquired a lot of youth ski equipment, things for the kids to use during lessons. The rentals real help parents out. They don’t have to keep buying new equipment every year as their kids are growing.”
In addition to youth lessons, the club teaches adults as well. Drop-in lessons and workshops can help out-of-practice skiers sharpen up their skills before they head out onto the trails, and latecomers to the sport are able to get the fundamentals down and start developing skills of their own. “In the past there has been a real focus on kids and families,” says Laurie. “Moving forward, we’re really trying to expand our adult programming to include adults that might want to ski socially, or just develop some of those finer skills.”
For members of the club who have put the practice in and have developed the necessary skills, the club also plans excisions to trails outside of the city. “A lot of club members take advantage of programs like our loppet training to prepare for some of these out-of-town events like the Birkebeiner out in Elk Island.” Loppets are essentially fun, long-distance races, and the Birkebeiner is one of the best in the world. The race itself is based off of a medieval Scandinavian legend, where Norse skiers were tasked with carrying the crown-prince to safety during a time of war. To replicate this legend, contestants from St. Albert’s ski club, as well as ski clubs all over the country, ski 55 kilometres through Elk Island Park with a prince-sized load on their backs. “There are only about four races like it in the world,” says Ken. “We’re really lucky to have one so close to home.”
The other side of the volunteer-run club is comprised of the maintenance workers. It might come as a surprise to learn that unlike the majority of the city’s recreational infrastructure, the skiing trails of St. Albert are constructed and maintained by the Nordic Ski Club and not the city’s parks department. “There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work when it comes to trail maintenance here in St. Albert,” says Ken. “In winters like the one we had last year, there can be a lot of melting and freezing of the trails. Our volunteers wake up as early as five in the morning to break up the ice and re-form the trails.” In addition to their river-trail duties, club volunteers also travel around to a number of St. Albert’s schools to set tracks for the students to use during their gym classes, making ski tracks available to as many people as possible.
“Eventually we’d like to expand our trail system all the way though the city and turn the river into a major river corridor,” says Laurie. “It would be great if residents of St. Albert could get down to the river, and then ski all the way downtown to visit the library or grab a coffee. It would really give people the option to be more active during the winter months.”
Though the trails don’t extend the entire length of the city quite yet, the Nordic Ski Club has already built an extensive system of trails throughout the city, and the city as a whole has benefited from their efforts. “We always welcome anyone who wants to get involved with the club,” says Laurie. “Whether they want to take on a planning role, a maintenance role, or just get involved in lessons, we’re always eager to get new volunteers.”
To find out more about the club, or to sign up for lessons, you can visit their website here.