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A brief history of skiing in the Don Valley

Posted by Chris Bateman / February 23, 2013

toronto skiToronto's Don Valley might be a continent and a climate away from Whistler Blackcomb and the ski resorts of the Rocky Mountains but that hasn't stopped hardy locals strapping bits of wood to their feet and shoving off down the hillside in the name of a good time. In fact, the Don and its broad valley have supported numerous winter sports like curling, skating, and tobogganing for well over a hundred years.

In the 1920s, the Toronto Ski Club held their annual meet in the valley, building a network of trails and some seriously gnarly jumps for thrill seekers and professional athletes from across the world to tackle. Later, a purpose built ski resort arrived near Lawrence Avenue complete with an electric lift. Evidence of it is still there, but the skiers a long gone.

toronto skiAccording to the opening pages of the Toronto Ski Club's official retrospective, the first Toronto skier was a man of "Alpine and Scandinavian blood" who carved trails through High Park with 10-foot skis and a bamboo pole some time in the late 1800s.

The book confidently reports that he wore a Swiss yodeling hat, a German backpack, and English wool socks on his pioneering runs, calling "Yah-voh!" through the quiet park. Despite the sartorial detail, there's no name attributed to the bizarre (and possibly fictional) man in question.

Early skiers usually traveled solo or in very small groups around High Park and North York on long planks of hickory, each generating momentum with a single pole, like a river punt. The story recalls how the device doubled as a weapon against "wolves or marauding Indians."

"At that time, however, Indian hunting was illegal during the winter months," it coolly goes on to note.

toronto skiingBy the 1920s, the Toronto Ski Club, possibly already in its second incarnation, had organized to the point where it was holding regular meets in High Park and Rosedale Ravine. Reading from the society pages of the Toronto Star printed at the time, the events appeared to be an all round civilized affair where ladies and gentlemen could be seen, and hopefully discussed, afterwards.

The fact Toronto was often "badly handicapped by lack of snow" didn't seem to be much of a problem. The Globe and Toronto Star carried pictures almost every year of delighted looking men and women enjoying the brief pleasures of a Toronto snowfall.

The club was popular from its inception and its leading lights soon teamed up with the Star to run an annual Valentines Day winter festival of skiing and sledding. Though the events were undoubtedly a well-attended, the paper's claim that "most of the city" were in the High Park in late February 1926 seems like a bit of a stretch. The Valentine Winter Carnival also featured skijoring, a cross-country event where skiers are pulled by horses or dogs, and a bobsleigh run.

Always in search of fresh piste, the TSC had agreements with several golf course owners who would allow the club's members to use the fairways for the few weeks a year they were blanketed in snow. Patchy coverage during Toronto's occasionally mild and inconsistent winters meant the adrenaline junkies would have to up the ante beyond the landscaped lawns and gentle valleys.

toronto don valleyIn 1934, the club announced it was building a giant 30-metre ski jump on the lip of the Don Valley at Thorncliffe. Olympic skiers from across the country would power down the ramp, lubricated by 100-tons of ice shavings shipped over from Maple Leaf Gardens, and launch more than 40 metres out into the valley. An area near the bottom of the slope would be cleared for the roughly 10,000 spectators the club expected.

The winner of the event that year was 17-year-old Teddie Zinkin, a local Toronto boy who managed to clear a distance of 34 metres from the bottom of the ramp. By the next year the organizers were predicting jumps 15 metres longer than that.toronto skiEnthusiastic amateurs and other organized groups like the short-lived East York Ski Club were also using the lower Don's slopes for winter sports. As naturalist Charles Sauriol recalls in his book Tales of the Don, "people went up and down the slope without much attempt at skill."

"It's amusing to recall I once went to the park on a Sunday in the mid-thirties, put on my skis and was ready to go down the slope when a park patrolman told me that I couldn't ski on a Sunday. It wasn't allowed."

Sauriol recalls the Thorncliffe jumps in the same book, noting there were actually two towers; one for practice and one for the actual event. On an interesting sidenote, the Star reported a woman lost her diamond wedding ring while gathering snow at Maple Leaf Gardens for the jump. It was never found and presumably made its way to the Don with the rest of the shavings.

toronto skiStymied by inconsistent snowfall, the Toronto Ski Club gradually shifted north to the Forks of the Credit, then Huntsville, before eventually settling at their present location near Collingwood. Back at the Don, skiing continued informally on clearer sections of valley wall.

Hoping to capitalize on Torontonian's appetite for easily accessible winter activities, the Don Valley Ski Centre opened on a relatively gentle hillside at Milne Hollow near Lawrence and the Don Valley Parkway. The resort was privately owned and featured three lifts - two rope and one Poma - and a $70,000 artificial snow-making machine. It would need it too - inconsistent weather hampered the business for decades. Lift passes were affordable, at between $3 and $5, roughly $10-$17 in today's money.

The wide series of several 200-metre runs ran from the top of the slope at Railside Drive to the flat bottom of the valley roughly 40 metres below. Visitors could hop over a series of modest ramps on the way down or, as Glen McTavish did one year, take off in a hang-glider.

McTavish was attempting to break the Canadian record for the most airtime created from a running start. Unfortunately, he had to settle for a time considerably under the five and a half hour record when the weather once again refused to play ball. A 1974 photo on the front page of the Toronto Star shows the luckless adrenaline-seeker floating just a few feet above the skiers below.

The Don Valley Ski Centre business continued to be "financially marginal" year-to-year and there's no mention of it in the papers past 1976. One report suggests it may have closed for a short time before reopening and then vanishing for good.

The remains of the hill are still visible among the low, scrubby trees and brush south of Lawrence Ave.. The path up the hillside to the only remaining lift pylon is crossed by the tracks of deer and other animals. If it wasn't for the rusting structure still easily visible from the East Don Trail, one might not guess anything was ever there.

A concrete abutment and scattered wooden remains of a shelter poke out from beneath crusty snow. The constant static from the Don Valley Parkway is the only sound.don valley ski centreOn my way out of the valley, a woman walking her dog told me that her friend used to ski down the opposite side of the valley for many years. Have you ever tried skiing down the slopes of the Don Valley? Do you have any memories of the Don Valley Ski Centre? Tell us below.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Image: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Star, Chris Bateman/blogTO.

Discussion

38 Comments

W. K. Lis / February 23, 2013 at 08:00 am
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Luckily, one could just step across the city of Toronto borders (old city) to get around the no fun on Sunday rules.
Jibli / February 23, 2013 at 09:49 am
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One reason that i wished the sheppard subway line had been continued west past yonge was that i wanted to take the subway to the north york ski centre (Earl Bales?) with my snowboard in hand at Bathurst. Ho-hum. Maybe someday.
josh replying to a comment from Jibli / February 23, 2013 at 09:51 am
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Jibli: would that make it the only ski resort you could take a subway to in the world?
Jack replying to a comment from Jibli / February 23, 2013 at 11:43 am
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You could always catch the 84 bus :)
Chris Bateman replying to a comment from Jack / February 23, 2013 at 12:03 pm
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Here's a Toronto Star story on TTC service to Metro ski hills.

http://imgur.com/EpvY6QR
Abe-Lincoln 30 / February 23, 2013 at 01:03 pm
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Jibili: Take the bus. A subway west of yonge is a waste of money due to the valley/ski hills.
Josh: Go to Vancouver Canada Line and Earl Baits is not a resort just a slope.
Douglas Yardley / February 23, 2013 at 02:18 pm
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I remember skiing at the Don Valley Ski Centre during the 1960's. There were two trailers on the site where skiers could warm up and get hot drinks. The "Norwegian Ski Shop" had a store there in a small wooden building. A schoolmate of mine tried the most challenging hill on his first visit and got a spiral fracture of his thighbone.
Debbie / February 23, 2013 at 04:49 pm
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I learned to ski at the Don Valley Ski Centre. My friend and I took weekly lessons there, I believe in the 60's and early 70's. It was convenient. I don't remember too much else except huge bales of hay at the bottom of the hill, probably to prevent people from skiing into the Don River!
Kevin McLaughlin / February 23, 2013 at 09:49 pm
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I moved Toronto in late '75 and my mom took my sisters and I skiing here - including a season of 'racing lessons' - probably winter 1976/77.
john / February 23, 2013 at 10:15 pm
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lived in the area since the early 80s. hard to imagine a ski hill that large with all them trees in the way. nice to see actual super8 footage of the hill. great stuff blogto!
Don / February 23, 2013 at 11:23 pm
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It's worth noting that the modest Don Valley slopes launched the skiing career of Steve Podborski, the only Canadian ever to win a World Cup (1982) in alpine skiing. He's now Chef de Mission of the Canadian Olympic team being assembled for next year's games in Sochi.
Garth / February 23, 2013 at 11:32 pm
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It should be noted, It should be said that I smoked a doobie...
Me replying to a comment from Don / February 24, 2013 at 12:30 am
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Does he cook as well as he skis?
RAy / February 24, 2013 at 09:47 am
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I use to tobaggan down those hills as a kid. Just wish they had that tow-rope then. Climbing back up the hill was often a dangerous and precarious feat!

Footnote: I love these flashback articles.
Bob / February 24, 2013 at 11:14 am
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There was inconsistent snowfall in the past? I thought it was always really cold with tons of snow back in the old days before global warming set in? Oh, never mind....
John / February 24, 2013 at 11:31 am
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I used to night ski at the Centre in the 60's. I remember one night some one fell, his ski came off and ran down the hill ending up stuck in the door of a car parked at the bottom of the hill.
John / February 24, 2013 at 03:59 pm
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Great bit of history. Shame about the spelling. Ski, skis, skier, skiing. Only one of them has a double-i.
Nev replying to a comment from John / February 25, 2013 at 08:12 am
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And while we're on about spelling... "two rope and one poma"...Uh POMMEL.

Otherwise, well done! Thanks for this glimpse of old Toronto.
Pete / February 25, 2013 at 08:36 am
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@Nev

Actually it's "Poma". It's a brand:
http://leitner-poma.com/
Steve / March 9, 2013 at 03:45 am
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Not just Steve Podborski, but his brother Craig, as well as Paul Carson (who was on the Canadian ski team for the 1968 Olympics). For a small hill, it launched a lot of National/Provincial racers. The hill itself had a successful racing team - the Don Valley Racers.

The hills were called simply #'s 1 through 4. #2 and 3 had high speed rope tows (common to wear leather glove protectors for these) and were fast enough to launch you into the air at the top if you held on for a split second. These hills commonly had a course set up (bamboo poles back then). You could ski up and down without stopping by simply skiing up to the tow and grabbing the rope. Same with #4 - you could ski down and grab a free Poma (enraging the crusty lift attendant). So in a few hours you could actually get a decent amount of vertical feet of practice.

There were lights, so night skiing was available too, which was rare back then. Brings back a lot of good memories...
G / March 9, 2013 at 05:49 am
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Fond memories of going to don valley for night skiing- wearing old gloves so rope tow wouldn't mangle. Junior high school had ski afternoons at Don Valley. Remember some new skiers using the hay bales at bottom of hill to stop. We'd watch racers like Steve Podborski, Paul Carson set up course (2 poles!) on #2 hill and speed down. Our mom would drop my brothers and I off for a couple hours with money for the vending machines and hot chocolate, while she picked up some groceries at Don mills shopping centre. it was one of my first feelings of independence, freedom, bliss!
Ana / March 14, 2013 at 10:43 am
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Would anyone have any photos of the ski hill from the 70s? I've been looking for archival photos at various libraries, but nothing seems to come up.

Feel free to contact me ana_lw (@) hotmail.com
Skye / March 14, 2013 at 11:02 am
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I had no idea there was ever a ski hill on the Don Valley! I'm going to look for that tow pylon next time I'm in the area.

Interesting how quickly nature takes back the spaces we've abandoned. The trees on the hill are still relatively small, but considering it was completely clear-cut 36-37 years ago...
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Joan Livingstone / June 5, 2013 at 05:27 pm
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Taught skiing there in the late 60s for Hans Neischan. Remember many a cold evening with hot chocolate in the trailer. I think Jake Robbins had something to do with putting it together?

Some good skiers came out of that program...
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Paul / June 11, 2013 at 10:11 pm
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I used to ski at Don Valley in the 70's. It was actually part of our gym class at DMCI. We'd walk over there carrying our skis from the Donway East when we had gym the last class of the day each week in the winter. I remember walking home around 5PM carrying my skis, boots and poles to Paperbirch Drive in the dark and cold and then having to do my paper route (Toronto Star). Those evenings I thought I'd never get warm again (but the skiing made it all worthwhile)!
Paul / June 11, 2013 at 10:14 pm
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PS - thanks for the memories! And by the way, I believe Steve Podborski used to ski there too as he was a Don Mills kid (although 3 years older).
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hohner1867 / July 8, 2013 at 10:58 pm
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Yep, did my first skiing ever there, on a pair of skis bought at eatons at don mills centre...probavly 1970-73... good memories of warming up in the little trailer and burning the palms out of my mitts on the tow rope.
Trevor / August 20, 2013 at 12:51 pm
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Unfortunately, I grew up just a bit late to use the Don Mills Ski center. I remember seeing it operating as we drove by on the Don Valley Parkway in the early 70s. I don't know just when it closed but I do know for sure that it was closed by 1981. By that time I was cross country skiing in the golf course north of Lawrence and could see the old hill just across the DVP and Lawrence Av, wishing I had easy access to skiing.
PAUL G.(Born in Toronto) / December 30, 2013 at 04:01 am
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OK kids, this is how it was in the mid to late 70's. Lots of Rockers, blue jeans, top and bottom, no hats, long hair, booze on many skiers breath and foul language! Rock n Roll music playing on the loud speakers in the evenings to the host of 680 CFTR(turns me on).
Young upstart kids like myself hyped on hot chocolate and candies with lots of energy to spare. Had almost no money to spend yet went up and down the hill on faith that we'd have a great time no matter who showed up. Full well knowing we'd make it home for dinner or bed time. I myself had just a couple of lessons from my grand father at Blue Mountain and I went to the Don Valley during week nights for practice after being dropped off by my dad.
To be dressed well with the best equipment and a courageous heart surrounded by a bunch of yahooers WAS being THE odd kid out. Apparently some racer upstarts went there during the days?? Hmmm never met them yet I ended up racing many years later during my high school years.
Ahhhh sweet memories of Toronto when it was COOL!
Simon C. / January 8, 2014 at 10:37 am
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Don Valley Ski Centre is where I learned to ski. Most of the kids had Arlberg skis, but some of the lucky ones had Shakespeares, and on occasion I would see Olins. Those were the rich kids. I wore out many a glove on the rope tow. You would let it run through your hands until grabbing it and flying off. If you were smart, you had a leather patch of leather that you attached to the front of your mitt. On the Poma, the trick was to get the disc lodged behind your butt and try to back up as fast as possible so that the piston would compress completely and take you off like a rocket.

Styrofoam cups of blisteringly Hot Chocolate from the crowded trailer at the bottom.

On hill 4 there was a jump at one point -- a plywood death ramp in my memory about 5 feet tall, but probably closer to 3. I tried it once, chickening out at the lip so that I dropped off the edge and landed on my front tips.

Lineups were chaos. You got your tips in front of the other guy and pushed forward.

You marked your success by the number of rides you were able to take, regardless of style.
S and B / January 13, 2014 at 07:51 pm
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My brother, Butch, and I learned to ski here when we immigrated from England in the late '60s. We lived in a nearby apartment building and had never seen snow before. I remember the thick rope tow dragging us up the hill. I still point out the remaining upright lift pylon to my kids whenever we travel along the DVP. (They don't believe we actually skied there.) Great memories :)
D / January 31, 2014 at 09:50 am
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The skiers aren't all gone. When it dumps you can see me ski touring all over the don valley. You just need some skins and some snow for plenty of fun in onterrible.

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