Trees, Please

One from The Vault: This article originally appeared in Mountain Life Ontario, Winter 2011. By Glen Harris.

We’ve all experienced it. Those of us who ski here regularly catch it. When it’s on, happiness ensues, hoots echo amid the quiet snowfall, and then it’s over. Until the next northerly system blows in from across the Bay.


It’s elusive for us around here. There are spells of dry powder everywhere along the Escarpment but when it’s on, it goes fast. The runs get schralped, groomers compact it into impermeable sheets of manmade snow … and the glades? Well, the glades get skied out quickly.

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pow day Blue Dec 16 #2
Glades at Blue Mountain, December 2013. Photo by Glen Harris.

Along the hundreds of acres of Escarpment piste, there aren’t many options for the tree skier. The trees are tight – unnaturally tight.

The hills in this region were heavily logged throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Famed engineer, inventor and Craigleith resident Sir Sanford Fleming used some of the lumber to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Happy Valley was a logging road. Another ran up the Craigleith Ski Club towards Banks. The bulk of the wood ended up in Collingwood harbour, where steamships took it away.

There was no replant per se. These clearcuts were left to their own devices and, as seedlings blew across from fields and forests, a juvenile forest developed where saplings competed vigorously for sun.

All these years later, the result is a dense forest of smallish, tightly woven trees. This is not only unhealthy for the forest, but also, selfishly, impossible to ski. Spacing out the trees would not only bring back a natural canopy – room to breathe and get larger – but would open up skiable terrain.

So far, for those who ski trees around here, it’s still just a pipe dream. Meanwhile, Mont Sutton, a resort in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, boasts over 40 percent glade skiing, and repeatedly receives awards for the best glade skiing in the country.

So why is Sutton, in a region with a logging history similar to our own, so dialed when it comes to glading? The answer stretches back more than 50 years to the resort’s founder, Réal Boulanger.

Sutton, the early years. Courtesy Mont Sutton.
Sutton, the early years. Courtesy Mont Sutton.

“Réal Boulanger realized skiing is not just going up the mountain, then down the mountain,” says Sutton’s Director of Marketing Nadya Baron. “He understood that people loved skiing, but also enjoyed the natural surroundings. To him, a trail could not go straight. Skiing amongst large trees is natural and feels right.”

“The Boulanger family decided tree by tree, which tree is going and which tree is not. The result is you have less wind, you keep your snow longer, and you always feel as if you are on your own.”

Three generations of Boulanger. Courtesy Mont Sutton.
Three generations of Boulanger. Courtesy Mont Sutton.

“People are afraid to come to Sutton because they picture tight trees and bush with little branches smacking you in the face. But what we have is not skiing in the woods but skiing in the glades, and our concept of glades goes from beginner to expert.”

Photo courtesy Mont Sutton.
Réal Boulanger’s vision. Photo courtesy Mont Sutton.

Although there hasn’t been a lot of gladed terrain put in, Blue Mountain is leading the way in tree skiing regionally. Blue’s President and COO Dan Skelton is a longtime advocate of gladed skiing. The Skelton clan has been skiing at Blue longer than the resort-founding Weider clan. And Dan Skelton knows the trails better than anyone: his year career on the resort has focused mostly on operations.

“We used to ski a lot as kids through the trees,” he says, “so I’ve always been an avid tree skier. When I go to other resorts my first instinct is to see where the glades are. We went through a period where we liked to add something new every year for season’s passholders and regulars. We were chasing a lot of kids out of trees and out of little chutes, so I did a little research trip out to Mont Sutton. I talked to their operators about the injury rates in the glades, how they cut and maintain them, and measured some of the spacing between trees. It looked like a pretty interesting model so we started cutting in between Smart Alec and Mogul Alley.

More of these, please.
More of these, please. Photo courtesy Blue Mountain.

“This was eight or nine years ago. The glades go wherever there is a nice south-facing fall line. So there are not a lot of places that make for great glade skiing but the ones that do work tend to be quite popular. For full runs you need to start at a lift and end at a lift, and you need a straight fall line in between. A lot of the wooded areas either have fall lines down to a river or watercourse or flow away from a lift.”

Blue does have some amazing beginner glades in along the traverse from the Silver Bullet chair towards Happy Valley. Anyone interested in trying tree skiing locally can thank Skelton for the opportunity.

“I did a little research trip out to Mont Sutton. I talked to their operators about the injury rates in the glades, how they cut and maintain them, and measured some of the spacing between trees.”

“We have a few spots we’d like to develop,” Skelton adds. “We have to be careful with integrating them with our night skiing and we have a fairly complicated grooming pattern at night that involves closing trails. Glades kind of complicate things, so we have to be strategic about where they go but we do have spots in mind.”

But when?

Jay Peak in Vermont has offered ski passes in exchange for volunteer glading work. Let me be the first to volunteer under Skelton’s direction. We’d open up some great fall line skiing in patches all around the Blue (like the backside of Hogg’s Back into Happy Valley).

With the Bay not freezing over completely, northerly weather picks up more condensation now as it sweeps across the Bay and dumps it on the resorts. Which means the snow is here to make gladed runs viable, and so is the terrain. But hundreds of acres are too dense with brush and small, tightly woven trees.

Next time you ride up the lifts at Blue or drive along the stretch of road between Craigleith and Thornbury, have a look at the hillside and picture it all gladed: imagine bringing back a healthy forest hundreds of acres in size. More selfishly, imagine the skiing.