A thick slice of Ontario ski heritage on the banks of the Beaver River. Words & photos :: Kristin Schnelten.
In 1976, Knute Dohnberg bought a little ski chalet at the base of Beaver Valley Ski Club. It wasn’t much—an open main floor, bedroom upstairs, running water, some well-worn furniture. He paid just $18,000 for the place, which sat right on the bank of the Beaver River.
“I was in my 20s then. I was single, too busy with girlfriends and skiing to care about a fancy house. The place was perfect for me at the time,” laughs Dohnberg.
But he wasn’t just any young, single guy carving up the hill a day or two a week. Dohnberg had recently been hired as the club’s ski school director (a position he’d go on to hold for almost 15 years) and would eventually become both the general manager and director of marketing. Big Jim’s Ski and Rental Shop, a fixture at the hill for decades, was a side project for Dohnberg, as well. At a time when each Ontario ski area had its own big personality, Knute Dohnberg was the man at Beaver Valley.
Fifteen years prior to Dohnberg’s arrival at the club, back when it was just Beaver Valley Resort, Malcolm MacLean constructed three chalets on the edge of the river, just across the bridge from the main lodge. The centre chalet was a dining space for skiers as well as living quarters for the innkeeper and cook, Chris Parfree, who later became Beaver Valley’s first general manager. Guests of the matching cabins on either side—one for men and one for women, bring your own sleeping bag—gathered at the centre chalet and its long, communal table.
“It was very simple stuff, a sort of early, budget bed and breakfast,” says Dohnberg. After a particularly poor-weather winter, the owner threw in the towel, severing lots and selling the buildings separately. Howard Hawke purchased the larger centre chalet, then sold it to Bob Henderson before Dohnberg became the new owner, a young man now with his own permanent place to party.
“Those were really fun times,” he remembers. “Society just doesn’t give kids the opportunity to get into the same kind of trouble as we did back then.”
When he did choose to settle down, Dohnberg and his first wife held their wedding ceremony on the river side of the chalet, and a horse and carriage carried guests to the lodge reception. A son followed a couple years later, and two major additions to the chalet made room for the growing family.
“I did all kinds of renovations over the years, but kept the integrity of the place. I always used pine, never drywall,” says Dohnberg. “I wanted to keep it as a true ski chalet.”
For 43 years Dohnberg cared for his winter home—adding a dormer or two here, three or four dormers there. But maintaining the ski-chalet vibe is what eventually led to its sale. “We wanted to move to the area permanently, but with little storage and no garage, we decided to move down the road to Markdale,” says Knute. “People always say to me, I can’t believe you sold that place! But hey, life changes.”
The new owners fully embrace its story. The son of charter member David Byers, Ted and Dorothy Byers had been renting near the club for years. “We always said that if the right place came along, we would seriously consider it. This chalet is the right place,” says Dorothy. “We’re thrilled to be the guardians of this historical site.” The Byers welcomed their grandchildren to the chalet this winter, adding a fourth generation to their own family’s history on the hill.
“I think it speaks to the atmosphere of the place, really. I sold to people who appreciate what I appreciated as a skier,” says Dohnberg. “They replaced my photos with their photos, but other than that it’s exactly the same. They love it just the way it is.”
“I do miss sitting on the deck, listening to the river, watching the water go by,” he admits. “But the Byers and I have become good friends, and I stop by from time to time for a beer.”
Eventually asked to choose between the many hats he wore at the club, Dohnberg is now a trainer at Beaver Valley’s snow school, content with the eight-minute commute from his new Markdale home. One artifact that made its way there from the chalet is a large crest from the exterior that reads, “Knute’s Ski Chalet.”
“It’s not a home, and it’s not a cottage. It’s a ski chalet,” he says. “I’m at peace with no longer being there, and I’m really pleased that the right people bought it.”
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