90-year-old skier hits the Bittersweet trails near Portage la Prairie every day
Bittersweet Cross Country Ski Club maintained by two families, including 84-year-old Don McMaster
It's nestled along the Assiniboine River Valley about a half an hour drive southwest of Portage La Prairie, Man., where the flat prairies meet the rolling hills.
The Bittersweet ski trail is a collection of groomed classic cross country and skate skiing trails that feel a little out of this province.
The quality of trails and scenery is enough to make these trails special but what makes them extra sweet are the cast of characters that lead to the formation of the trails and to what is now the Bittersweet Cross Country Ski Club.
At 90 years young, Hartley Woodward still skis these trails almost everyday. Woodward, a retired farmer, has lived in the area for years and would often hunt where the trails sit today.
"I run cattle here for so long that I knew where to make the trails and how to make the best trails more or less," said Woodward.
Not a skier at first himself, it was Woodward's late wife Margaret who was into the sport, and Hartley made some trails for her.
"I made my own tracker and we're still using it, (I) started setting a track for her to ski on and then I started skiing, she gave me skis for Christmas. I started skiing and I really liked it," Woodward said.
In 1996, retired teachers from Winnipeg, Don and Ardythe McMaster were looking for a piece of country of their own and bought up a large section of the adjacent land.
"Well it was the country, initially I was a deer hunter and I was tired of asking for permission to hunt on people's land," said Don McMaster.
The neighbours met and realized their families had a shared passion for skiing so they convinced two other land owners to give them permission to join their trails together through their property.
Selling the neighbours on the idea of using their property turned out to be the easy part.
"(Hartley) ran the snowmobile, I rode on the back of the tracker and absorbed all the exhaust from the snowmobile. Every day we would go out to groom, there would be some kind of accident. We'd roll the snowmobile or we'd get stuck," McMaster said, adding that "adversity sort of breeds companionships I guess. We had a good time, we were much younger back in those days."
Over 1,000 acres of land between four families and Crown land sits 20 kilometres of classic cross country trails and 14 kilometres of skating trails. It has taken countless hours of labour and love and is still a lot of work to maintain. The ski club does it strictly on a volunteer basis with funds collected from memberships and donations from visitors.
There is an awful lot that goes on behind the scenes.- Don McMaster
This year, Woodward has officially taken a step back from doing the maintenance and upkeep and has ceremoniously past the poles onto the much younger McMaster who is himself 84.
McMaster acknowledges that keeping up the quality of trails, that up to 1,500 skiers use every year, have come to expect, isn't always an easy task.
"A lot of the work on the ski trails that the people don't see... the trees fall down, you have to cut the trees up, you've got to mow in the fall there is an awful lot that goes on behind the scenes," said McMaster.
McMaster doesn't ski anymore due to health issues, but he gets a lot of satisfaction seeing so many people come and take advantage of their hidden ski gem.
"The most pleasure I get now is seeing people come out and ski. If they are enjoying the trails it makes it really worthwhile having worked so hard to maintain them."
The McMasters love having visitors to their powdery prairie trails and have built a heated building called the Nordic Centre to allow visitors to change and relax in a comfortable setting as they come and go.
If you happen to go for a ski on a weekend or holiday you may even be treated to some of Ardythe's cookies sitting by the sign in sheet.