Former Red Deer Mayor J.M. McAfee (right) cuts the ribbon, opening the Canyon ski area in 1958. (Contributed photo).

Can-do spirit helped carve Red Deer’s Canyon Ski Resort out of the trees

Members of the Red Deer Ski Club made their dream a reality in 1957

George Smith is thrilled that Red Deer’s Canyon Ski Resort was recently upgraded to become an alpine venue for the 2019 Canada Winter Games.

But it won’t be the first time the local ski area makes national headlines.

Smith can recall a time, in the 1960s, when Canada’s national ski team did all of its training at Canyon. The Red Deer-area ski resort was among the first to get snow-making equipment and was, therefore, the first run to open in Canada.

Smith, who co-founded the Red Deer Ski Club and what’s now Canyon Ski Resort, still has a black-and-white photograph of national ski champ Nancy Greene, looking mod in a polyester mini-dress, checking out the skis in the sporting good shop he used to own in the city.

Greene, who’s now a Canadian senator from B.C., was voted Canada’s female athlete of the 20th century. Her illustrious alpine ski career was kick-started by her giant slalom victory in Grenoble, France, in the 1968 Olympics.

After being scoped out by Canada’s national ski team, Canyon was found lacking in length for the slalom event, so more dirt was added to the top of a run to make up the difference, recalled Smith, with a chuckle.

The former Calgarian moved to Red Deer in 1957 to take a job at a hardware store. He discovered there was no nearby downhill skiing runs here — and, at the time, it would take nearly four hours to drive to Banff.

Olympic experts helps Canyon upgrade runs

With a handful of other Red Deer skiers, he became a member of the newly formed Red Deer Ski Club. The first order on the agenda was to find a suitable site to create a downhill run.

A couple of Penhold airbase members helped the club by zooming “up and down the Red Deer River” on training flights in Harvard airplanes “looking for the ideal spot,” recalled Smith.

A property at what’s now River Bend Golf Course was first thought suitable, but a logging road interfered with where the run would go, recalled Smith.

Soon, the pilots spotted a well-treed slope that was steep and long enough, and on the shady side of the river with lots of snowpack. Smith believes the site was generously donated to the club by the Bower family.

Club members had to put in a lot of volunteer labour, clearing trees by hand and putting in drainage culverts. Local businesses eventually lent clearing equipment and even brought in a double garage on a flat bed truck, which became the first ski lodge after it was equipped with a wood-burning stove.

Ski club members raised funds to build a larger, new lodge — but ran out of money.

“The project got too big for us,” recalled Smith, as once gung-ho volunteers got burned out.

He believes the land was first sold to a private owner in the mid-1960s, and then passed through several hands before being purchased in 2010 by the local Kunc and Martel families.

The current owners made many improvements to prepare the facility for the 2019 Canada Winter Games’s alpine events.

Canyon Ski Resort is considered Alberta’s largest non-mountain family ski area, with 22 runs and six lifts, two chair lifts, two T-bars and a magic carpet to transport more than 5,000 people per hour.

Canyon‘s snow-making system was also improved and an Olympic ski course designer was brought in to create a new ski- and snowboard-cross course.

Smith, who became a local realtor, continued to be an avid skier and ski instructor at Canyon for decades, and was also on the ski patrol. He still recalls the many parties club members held there.

“We sure had a lot of fun …

“We were young and we had a goal,” he recalled. “We wanted a ski hill, so we said, ‘Let’s cut this out of the trees’ …We never would have started it if we thought we couldn’t do it.”

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George Smith, a co-founder of the Red Deer ski Club as well as the Canyon ski area looks at historic records. (Contributed photo).

George Smith on the slopes, circa 1957. (Contributed photo).

Nancy Greene checks out some skis in George Smith’s former sporting goods shop in Red Deer. She was part of the Canadian ski team, which was training at the Canyon ski area because its snowmaking equipment allowed it to open early (circa 1960s). (Contributed photo).

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