Omineca Ski Club celebrates 85 years

“Early in 1927, a gathering of timber cruisers and trappers settled down for a comfortable evening in the Omineca Hotel.

Pete Sandnes airborne over Burns Lake during the 1930 B.C. Championships in Burns Lake.  The Omineca Ski Club in Burns Lake has turned out many champions over the years.  Ski-jumping is no longer a part of club activities

Pete Sandnes airborne over Burns Lake during the 1930 B.C. Championships in Burns Lake. The Omineca Ski Club in Burns Lake has turned out many champions over the years. Ski-jumping is no longer a part of club activities

“Early in December, 1927, an impromptu gathering of timber cruisers and trappers settled down for a comfortable evening in the cozy sitting room of the Omineca Hotel. The personnel of the party was decidedly cosmopolitan, with a slight Scandinavian majority, and in the course of the evening the matter of forming a Ski Club was discussed, decided on, and a general meeting called for October 15 in the Community Hall at Burn’s Lake.” Canadian Ski Journal year book, 1927.

So began the Burns Lake Omineca Ski Club 85 years ago, making it one of the oldest ski clubs in B.C.  The original ski area included a large timber-framed jump just on the southside of the current bridge-crossing over Burns Lake.  Ski trails weren’t necessarily concentrated in one area.  The whole district, stretching south to what is now Tweedsmuir Provincial Park was considered a winter playground.

The ski gear of the day was very simple.  That ski jumpers in the 1927/28 season were willing to launch themselves almost 100 feet through the air is as much a testament to their lumberjack grit as to their skills as skiers, because they weren’t getting much help from the leather boots and flimsy bindings of the day.

Skiers in the early Omineca ski club days really put the ‘cross country’ into cross-country skiing.  A 1931 article encouraged visitors to explore the Lakes District with a ski trip allowing for virtually limitless backcountry adventure deep in the Southside.

“In the southern part of our Lakes District, principally Ootsa, White Sail and Eulsuk Lakes, where the hills attain a modest 6,000 feet, are many long slopes, carrying [on] for miles, utterly devoid of timber or brush, where any choice of grade may be made,” reads a page from the 1931 Ski Annual.  The same article also describes ‘motor boat journeys’ of anywhere from 16 to 320 kilometres to find some of those wide open, snow-covered, mountain ranges.

As if breaking trail throughout the Lakes District and in the mountain ranges of Tweedsmuir Park wasn’t enough work, the 1931 Canadian Ski Annual also announced plans for a 230 km ski from Burns Lake to Pondosy Camp.  There, ‘among the glacier-clad mountains,’ Omineca skiers would attempt to establish a new ski route from the Central Interior to the coast.

The journals in following years don’t mention if the trip was a success or not, but those early journals describe a period of club growth and province-wide events being held in Burns Lake.  With turn-out for events in Burns Lake from across the province ‘far exceeding the expectations of the Omineca Ski Club’, the early years of the club established Burns Lake as a premier ski destination for competition and adventure.

Eight-five years later, the skiing scene has divided itself into discrete units without as much crossover as there once was.  You’re no longer likely to find skiers, like Kaare Engstad, the 1931 Omineca Ski Club president, winning a 50 km ski race on one day and then the ski-jump event the next.

The development of grooming machines and modern ski technology and design has seen cross-country skiing morph into a high-speed, high-endurance Olympic sport with multiple sub-disciplines.  Ski-jumping no longer has a venue in Burns Lake.

Today, athletes, and the more recreationally inclined, can still ski in the classic style, with the kick-and-glide technique that one would have seen practised in 1927.  Or a person might ‘skate-ski’ on wide, machine groomed tracks what allow for a high speed ice-skating style of glide across the terrain with well-timed pole plants.

Other athletes might ski with a rifle slung over their shoulders in the Olympic sport of biathlon, which made its Olympic debut as a demonstration sport in the same year that the Omineca Ski Club was formed.

Races in all styles are held both in sprint form over short distances and over long distances in marathon events.

The Omineca ski club has a rich history of performing well on an elite level.  The club has hosted four Canadian National Championships, as well as several senior and junior championships.  The roll call of Olympian and national championship medal winners and BC Team members that have come out of the Omineca ski club are too long to list here, but it shows a lineage of strong competitive skiing going back to 1927.

Burns Lake resident Esther Miller represented Canada at the winter Olympics in 1976 and 1980.  Chris Werrell competed in the 2008 World Championships in Canmore, Alberta.  Chris Paulson, the current race team coach, is a two-time Canadian Junior Nationals medalist (gold and silver).  His current crop of athletes includes Emily Dickson, a young Burns Lake skier who is currently training in Prince George for a spot on the BC Ski Team.  Her achievements in the sport live up to the culture of performance that has thrived in Burns Lake since the start of the club.

But all this high-end performance and training requires a network or trails, facilities, expensive machinery, and lots of volunteer commitment.  Currently the club has more than 300 members, but even with a strong membership base, it falls a little short financially at times.

“Although the club remains in a solid financial position, we are operating with an annual deficit,” said Doug Campbell, one of the Omineca Ski Club’s executives.  “It costs more to operate the club than it takes in, and has done so for most of the past 30 years.”

Previously, strong ski club woodlot sales were used to supplement membership income, as well as grants.  At the height of the pine beetle logging uplift, the club was able to improve facilities and grooming equipment, as well as put aside money in an investment account for annual income.  But this income hasn’t been great because of low interest rates.

The club has recently begun working towards balancing the budget in light of the new fiscal realities of woodlot revenues.

“The club, unlike the [Tom Forsyth] Arena, does not receive any operating funding from the village or the regional district,” said Campbell.  “Four years ago, the executive set out to balance our budget within three years.  We are not there yet – but we are closer.”

The costs not covered through memberships or investments have traditionally been covered by community-minded businesses and individuals.

“We have always been fortunate to have good support from both businesses and individuals in the community,” said Campbell.  “Sometimes this is in the form of cash towards facility or equipment upgrades and sometimes in the form of services donated.”

The club can’t really cut operational expenses too much.  There just isn’t any fat to trim.

“The club does pay someone to operate our grooming equipment as this job takes an extraordinary amount of time,” Campbell said.  “Virtually everything else is done on a volunteer basis, and it takes a lot of volunteer hours.”

Eight-five years ago, the same men and women that built the jumps and cleared the trails with ‘axe and saw’ also competed in the first events held in Burns Lake.  They welcomed skiers from across the province and even housed them during their stay.

A strong community spirit had laid the foundations for the original Omineca Ski Club and its subsequent history and tradition have surely been more than those early ski pioneers could ever have anticipated.