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Standing on the edge of High Lake, a remote body of water on the Manitoba–Ontario border, it clicks that I’ve fallen into some kind of hinterland fairy tale. True, Manitoba in January might not be everyone’s idea of a fairy tale, but I’ve just visited three charming dwellings – one made of logs, another of straw, a third insulated with paper – built by three daughters, the heirs to all I see. My guide through these enchanted woods is their father, the “king of the ancient forest” (at least according to a song I heard from some wandering Winnipeg minstrels earlier that day), with hair as white as the snow that blankets the forest. We even have a noble steed – a vintage Bravo snowmobile. On this workhorse of a machine, we follow the trail that Craig Christie and his wife (and queen), Barb Hamilton, first skied to explore the land. Racing against a low winter sun, we visit places where local legends were born and folklore still resides, where roots took hold and some branches are just budding. It’s the topography of a happily-ever-after very much in progress.

Christie daughters Caleigh, Emily and Brooke

Border collie Islay hitches a ride with Christie daughters Caleigh, Emily and Brooke.

Ninety minutes east of Winnipeg, where the flatlands of the Prairies give way to the jack pines and balsam poplars of the boreal forest, sits Falcon Ridge Ski Slopes and the adjoining Falcon Trails Resort. Falcon Lake stretches out beneath a ridge that looms large in character, if not exactly in altitude. At the base of this gentle giant, we find our castle – a small red ski chalet, with a sign out front, perfectly askew, that reads “Starbright Dance Hall.” From the outside, the chalet looks like a galaxy unto itself, filled with floating orbs and a constellation of stars. “Those were Barb’s idea,” says middle daughter Caleigh, as we hop off the Bravo and follow her and her long, swinging braid inside. She points up to the twig-and-grapevine light installation on the chalet ceiling. “Like a lot of stuff around here.”

Falcon Ridge; Barb Hamilton

Left to right: Sleigh all day at Falcon Ridge; Barb Hamilton, matriarch of the Hamilton-Christie clan.

Before Barb and Craig built their kingdom, they were regulars at Falcon Ridge, known then as Falcon Lake ski slopes. Barb’s mother used to work the kitchen at the ski hill, slinging hot dogs on a wood stove. But by the early 1990s, downhill skiing no longer the draw it once was in the region, the government-owned 3,000-acre expanse was on the verge of closing. So in 1996, Barb and Craig took it over, turning the tumbledown ski hill into a resort and four-season getaway. Since then, they’ve built 17 fully equipped lodgings – it helps that they’re both carpenters – that attract guests looking to explore the Canadian Shield, whether by foot, canoe or ski.

Dance hall; skier

Left to right: An adorable chalet disguised as an equally adorable dance hall; even the greatest skiers put their snow pants on one leg at a time.

Emily, the eldest daughter, Brooke, the youngest, and Caleigh grew up in these woods, on skis, surrounded by dogs, but also working the canteen, cleaning cabins and checking hot-tub temperatures. Each daughter left (for Winnipeg, or Switzerland, or for a stint as a ski instructor in Fernie), but – millennial plot twist – each one made her way back. They invested in this legacy, hand-building off-the-grid eco-cabins in the woods surrounding High Lake, two and a half kilometres from the main resort and available to rent spring through fall. Today, Emily oversees marketing, Caleigh takes care of administration and Brooke manages the hill, though everyone does a little bit of everything, just like when they were growing up. But Falcon Ridge makes room for newer additions, like head mechanic Ryan Gemmel, Caleigh’s husband, and Brooke’s partner, Ben Pries – banjo player, farmer and all-around autodidact – with whom she built her live-edge timber-frame cabin. The couple met through a shared fiddle teacher, fiddle being part of the curriculum in this particular chunk of the province.

Falcon Lake hockey; Brooke Christie

Left to right: A hockey game breaks out on Falcon Lake; Brooke Christie shows off the resort’s inaugural igloo.

The family runs Falcon Ridge with a fondness for its limitations; Barb observes that “the hill’s not gonna grow.” (A sign outside boasts “2,580 inches of pure alpine.”) So instead, they grow their offering: trail-running races, biathlon events, Nordic ski parties and weekly après-ski gigs. But I’m here for the granddaddy of them all, Snowdance, a festival of music and Manitoba’s slap-you-in-the-face 30-below winters, held yearly since 2012. As with all weather-invocation rituals, Snowdance was borne of a lack of precipitation – a snowless Christmas. A one-off, one-day festival featuring Falcon Ridge’s multi-talented staff has flourished into a three-day affair that sells out in minutes (there are only about 100 tickets, released in early January) and lures cool kids from across the province into the woods. This year’s programming includes 15 folk- and indie-tinged musical acts, night tubing, a shinny tournament, dog- and horse-skijoring and frozen-turkey curling – if you haven’t seen a lumberjack-looking fella hurl a frozen butterball across the ice, you haven’t really experienced a Canadian winter.

“Last week, we thought it might be nice to have an igloo,” Ryan says, “so we’re figuring out how to build one.” A motto for the Falcon Ridge way. A small crew of staff and volunteers in plaid and wool are helping out, shaping blocks, packing snow and drinking beer. An archway is completed and high-fives ensue.

Falcon Ridge’s rental shop; quick snack

Left to right: Pole position at Falcon Ridge’s rental shop; a quick snack before hitting the ice in a tremendous snowsuit.

By the next day, the igloo has a roof, two doors, twinkly lights, a twig-art chandelier and a bartender: Lyndon Froese, slinging Igloo Maplers, a spin on a hot toddy. The 33-year-old computer programmer came to the resort five years ago from Winnipeg; over the weekend, I’d see him ref a hockey tournament, preside over a karaoke night and host a workshop on switching to the base-12 system of counting. He also wrote What People Do for Fun in the Woods, a series of short stories I found in my cabin and read cover-to-cover by the fire my first night. It’s an excellent primer on all things Falcon, like the Falcon Lake Incident (Canada’s most famous UFO sighting) and a mission involving a wedding cake, a Ski-Doo and a hot-tub conversion to Judaism. It also introduces you to the people of Falcon Ridge: Moustache Gord, Everyday Bob and Safety Gerry. I consider the man in the cherry-red headband behind the bar, who just made an impassioned plea for society to abandon the decimal counting system from the narrow confines of a rental shop. This place has a way of collecting characters.

Skiers; Craig Christie

Left to right: Pausing to contemplate 2,580 inches of pure alpine; Craig Christie at the edge of High Lake.

“A bunch of drunk hippies barrelling down industrial piping in the middle of the night – that’s a sight you can’t unsee.” It’s early on Sunday and Daniel Jordan is addressing the hippies in question as his band, folk trio Red Moon Road, takes to the stage in the chalet. About last night: There was an electrifying dance party at the Falcon Lake Hotel’s wood-panelled bar, led by a howling Sheena Rattai, Red Moon Road’s frontwoman, that ended in the hotel pool. This morning, the mood in the chalet is, let’s say, loose. A hangover in ski boots is a slow affair indeed.

“Sorry, Barb – I left it all on that stage last night,” Sheena says. But then she starts singing, and her voice is as big and warm as the curly mane of sunshine on her head. She’s the daughter of a preacher who was the daughter of a preacher, so she knows what to do with a Sunday-morning crowd. Seated on overstuffed sofas and wooden chairs, the tuque-topped group of twentysomething Manitobans is focused squarely on the performance in front of them – not looking at their phones, or through them, which is even more incongruous than an alpine ski hill in Manitoba. I feel like a misfit even trying to snap a photo, so I don’t. I just listen.

Snowdance music festival; toque

Left to right: Cold beer and hot tunes at the Snowdance music festival; toque sweet: showing some provincial pride.

Through the window behind the band, I can see skiers tracing happy ribbons down the hill. I decide to join them, despite a 20-year hiatus from the slopes – Falcon Ridge seems like the safest of spaces to revisit the sport. As I wait by the rental shop, a man in a high-vis vest, jeans, winter Tilley hat and glorious walrus moustache ambles up: Hello, Moustache Gord! In the 1970s, he cleared ice for overflow parking; now, he guides me through the basics and gives me some pointers on the T-bar. As we’re pulled up the incline, he points out a ridge where his son got married, and the run he made his ski students take while carrying trays of water to help steady their upper bodies.

From the top of the hill, I can see Ryan getting ready to take the Bravo out, as Lyndon emerges from the woods on cross-country skis. I can see the Imrie family, who run a nearby ranch, gearing up their horses to pull skiers later today. Some Winnipeg hipsters warily negotiate the T-bar as local teens take to the snowboard park. On a mild January afternoon, this little hill, removed and remote, buzzes with activity and good cheer. “It’s unbelievable what Barb and Craig have done here,” says Gord, surveying the scene. “And what the girls are doing now.” But Falcon Ridge is more than a family affair: This is a community. It takes a village to raise a ski hill in the flatlands of Manitoba.


Travel Essentials

Montage Kapalua Bay

Falcon Trails Resort has 17 cabins, 11 of which are available to rent year-round; the High Lake eco-cabins are available spring through fall. Each comes with a fully equipped kitchen, lake views and a copy of What People Do for Fun in the Woods. Isaac’s Kitchen (the bar and restaurant in the chalet, open during the ski season) serves up burgers, burritos and brisket eggs Benedict. The 2019 edition of the Snowdance Festival of Music & Winter will be held January 18–20.

falconridgeski.com
falcontrailsresort.com

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CANADA     MANITOBA     SKIING