My ski beginnings by Ed Innes (originally posted on January 25, 2002)
I got my first pair of wooden Splitkeins (yes they do & did split) in about 1971 or 72. They were absolute planks compared to anything today, but they did what anyone would want in the deep snows of the 70’s — go over them rather than through them — even with a heavy pack. I cannot imagine today’s skinny skis in those snow conditions. When I say planks, the “planks” I once skied on are nothing compared to the real traditional skis which were at least twice as wide again! I skied once with someone who had a pair of those, made in the 30’s, they had large wraparound spring bindings and must have been about 5 or 6 inches wide! Some shops still sold new ones as novelties until the early 1980’s. I regret not wasting the money on them now.
My original Splitkeins were pretty plain for any type of wooden ski. Straight and square except where you would expect them to thin out at the ends and curl up at the front. The width was constant behind the tip. The only “advanced” feature was that they had a camber. Nothing special was done to the edges, so they lost their edge fairly quickly. The boots were cheap with awful plastic soles and three holes in the toes that tore into slots rather easily. Where the boots were shoddy, the 75mm Troll bindings they fit could survive a nuclear war. Often the severe clamping pressure they could put on the extended boot toe was all that held the boots in. Such were the hazards of a cheap to mid range ski package. They were mixed. You took the good with the bad. The poles, metal Bonnas I still use, were absolute top of the line and bought separately for about $11, including only 5% sales tax.
The skis finally split, as far as I can tell on some errant soft snow flake, about late 1979 on a dinky slope at Little Mountain Park after a light push from behind. Since the boots were also coming apart, splitting across the soles, I graduated to a much better pair of skis and boots. These skis, also wooden Splitkeins, and about as wide, had hard lignestone edges, better spring, taper for better handling, and lighter construction. They were a good balance for backwoods and track. The new 75mm boots, San Marcos, were infinitely better than the first ones.
People who say that the old style boots weren’t any good, never tried these ones. They had steel reinforcing around the toe holes and wood reinforced polymer rubber soles that only let the foot flex exactly where it should. Nowadays, the bindings are expected to do this job. The heel plate was almost unnecessary for lateral stability. This package handled a 5 day trip to Lake Mantario wonderfully, with pack and supplies. Eventually, my feet grew out of the boots, the skis split on a piece of dry grass on a wimpy slope at Bird’s Hill Park, and I moved on to mostly fibreglass, but the wooden skis all held wax better than any fibreglass skis I’ve seen, were much more forgiving of selecting the wrong wax, and could even grip without wax if necessary. They were a joy to own. I would go to a similar setup again in an instant.
Ski packages used to come in a very wide variety of qualities and prices. The old $40 ski packages got a lot of people out on skis and trying it. Some eventually became more competitive. If there is one huge advantage that the skis of then had over those of today, it is that the boots and bindings were all standard and it was easy to outfit a complete beginner on a moment’s notice. I can’t count the number of people that I got interested in skiing with only a cheap old pair of borrowed skis that broke every “rule” the shops will tell you today. No pressure, fun with friends, some of them new friends, occasional hints and tips if you want them. Skiing with beginners was more often a social occasion than it was a sport, sometimes with as many as 20 people (and no club!). And knowing more people who ski just leads to a lot more skiing!
I first got out to Grand Beach sometime in the early seventies. It showed me what skiing could be like, what the city trails could never be. It’s what really got me hooked on skiing as something more than shuffling boards. Back then most of the trails went in the opposite direction to today (just like at Bird’s Hill). The biggest hill, the one with the “Jeff’s Outlook” sign, was much more fun going down than up. (Still is.) I found some of my old trail maps a few weeks ago and many of the trails followed different routes (just like at Bird’s Hill). Two way trails were also more common than today. In the 80’s, the trails began to follow the routes they do today.
Originally, the trails felt like they just followed the easiest path around the trees, which is probably why there were so many small turns and bumps. You needed to switch between a variety of skills to best handle the constantly changing trails as you traveled. The single track trails were much narrower than the double track Bird’s Hill trails of the same era, which were also narrower than they are today. Bird’s Hill needed wider trails because of heavy ski traffic and constant meeting and passing.
Bush cut widening was slower at Bird’s Hill than Grand, spread over many years. There are two abandoned narrow sections of Lime Kiln Trail that would give you a good idea what Bird’s Hill used to be like if you can imagine a double track on them. One is still marked on the map as a sharp point near the kiln, the other, located at the start of the Lime Kiln extension, an old skidoo trail, has another abandoned section beside it that would show you the first attempt at widening and straightening the trail. It used to be you could tell a skidoo trail because they were the wide ones. The ski trails today have wider bush cuts than the skidoo trails! Because Bird’s Hill was always pretty flat and straight anyway, the changes weren’t that noticeable.
The trails at Grand were once narrow enough that it was common to have to occasionally double-pole duck small branches from both sides of the trail at the same time. If you follow the outermost classic track today you can still get a little bit of that effect. Over the years these trails widened, but until recently, only slightly. Some trails of course were always a little wider and followed fire breaks and such. An example is the Lester Beach trail, but even it is now wider than it once was, and missing a few bumps. One oddity in the recent widening is the downhill slopes, which always were wider; they remain the same width as always, and thus now are generally narrower than the other sections.
Unfortunately for me, the scenic “Jackrabbit” trails that characterized Grand Beach for most of the last 3 decades were almost entirely replaced a few years ago by bland multi-lane “ski freeways”, combining wide skating and wide classic tracks side-by-side. Like the death of an old friend, I was shocked by this loss. All trails require much less skill & technique than before. Many wonderful features are straightened and widened out of existence that once made them more fun, excellent for hooking beginners into intermediate skiing, and good for viewing wildlife. They are not as intimate and sheltered from cold weather. I hope they are not part of a new Parks policy as it may discourage some people from taking up skiing the way I did.
I am not against the wide combined trails per se. I think they are a good idea where separate trails won’t fit, such as approaching the parking lots. I also think that some beginners might prefer the tamer classic track. It is also a good idea to bring skate skiing to the Grand Beach area. But for the same effort and extensive deforestation, miles of new trail could have doubled the trail network into a marvelous mixture of trails (such as Pinawa) optimized for skate, race, groomed, and rustic skiing. After all, variety is the spice of life and skiing. In any case, Grand Beach is still a very nice place to ski, and new trails can always be added.
I have tried to wear my biases on my shoulder so that if anyone reads anything I write, they know what credence to give it. But I also don’t want to judge any type of skiing as right or better than another. I think it is wonderful how occasionally a new style or variant is discovered. I remember when skate skiing was a radical new idea in Manitoba.
If there is one thing I learned from my years of skiing, it is that the equipment and the condition of the trails, no matter how attached to them you are, don’t really matter. I’ve seen enough old ideals become abandoned to know enough to take each new one that comes along with a grain of salt. It will never be perfect. What really matters is that you just get out and enjoy it. The rest is gravy. As long as you can find an old shipping crate to rip two planks off of and duct tape to your toes, as long as it snows, you can have a great time skiing!