West Bragg Creek ski trails: No longer a hidden gem, but a mecca for winter sports

The parking lot for the West Bragg Creek trails is full by noon. Every day. Whatever happened to the hidden gem?

West Bragg Creek has seen an explosion in skiers and bikers over the past 3 years

It's 11 a.m. on a Wednesday and the parking lot is full.

"Four to five years ago this would be empty during the week."

Peter Tucker has been coming to these West Bragg Creek trails to ski and hike for 37 years, long before the place was discovered as a go-to place for winter sports.

He's now president of the Greater Bragg Creek Trails Association.

Peter Tucker, president of the Greater Bragg Creek Trails Association, says they have three times more visitors than they did four years ago. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

The lot is full of cross-country skiers waxing their skis, dogs eager to run, and people unloading the hefty bikes that have become the rage this year.

"Last year, one to two per cent of people here were fat tire biking, now it's 20 per cent."

At a time when downhill ski resorts are seeing their use remain flat or decline, the West Bragg Creek trails have seen an explosion in use over the past few years.

There are now over 155,000 visits made here annually, making this the most popular free destination for winter nordic sports in Alberta.

There are many reasons for the success: this place is an hour's drive from downtown Calgary, it's seen the best snow in years, there are 130 kilometres of trails (50 kilometres for skiing, the rest for biking and snowshoeing), dogs are welcome and perhaps the biggest draw — it's free.

Thank the volunteers

It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but today it's the dentist, geologist and doctor all out grooming the trails.

Fat tire biking is the fastest growing sport at West Bragg Trails. Bernard Comeau of Calgary climbs up Snowy Owl trail. (Jeff Peterson)

Jeff Hughes (he's the now former dentist) has logged 800 hours over the past 18 months keeping these trails in good shape.

"We love to ski so we're happy to do it. We think the area is so beautiful so we're lucky and privileged to be able to do it."

Alongside him is the geologist, Bill Hoyne.

"I work in the Gulf of Mexico so I commute back and forth. I'm out for three weeks then back for three. So I get these big chunks of time where I can come and play around here and ski and groom trails."

They usually don't start maintaining the trails until the sun starts to go down and parking lot has emptied out.

That way they don't have to worry about running down skiers. And the track they set in the snow has the night to harden.

"If it's a nice clear night you can see the stars. You've got the big headlights on the front and the back so you can see where you're going. And you're just wandering through the woods at night."

Hughes chimes in, "It's quite spectacular. We're really quite lucky to do this."

It's a labour of love — but don't be fooled, it's a labour.

Grooming the trails with the K-truck

It's a three-part process to groom these trails, all done on snow machine or using their newest purchase, a little truck on tracks, called a "K-truck."

Bill Hoyne, left, is a geologist who works three week rotations in the Gulf of Mexico. He spends his downtime with Jeff Hughes, right, (who sold his dentistry practice) maintaining the cross-country ski trails. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

They have to chop up the snow that's been packed down (called "aerating the snow") then flatten it to look like corduroy.

Finally, they carve two parallel lines in the snow for the tracks for skiing.

They move along quickly but there are 50 kilometres of ski trails; depending on how much it has snowed, this can take them anywhere from three to eight hours.

And remember, they do it all as volunteers.

David Cebuliak (he's the doctor) says it helps him relax: "I'm an emerg doc so I use this to de stress from work."

Like the other two, Cebuliak lives in West Bragg Creek and has been using these trails since long before they became so popular.

Helping hamlet of Bragg Creek

The hamlet of Bragg Creek was hit hard by the floods of 2013, and some key businesses have recently closed shop.

Bill Hoyne and David Cebuliak cover up a bare patch along a cross-country ski trail at the West Bragg Creek trails. A record number of people are using the trails this winter. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

Bill Hoyne hopes increased traffic to these trails can also help the hamlet.

"Bragg Creek hasn't really recovered from the floods of 2013. Bragg Creek definitely needs a boost. I think creating this trail system out here is going to be one of those things that encourage that."

And they figure that the more traffic the trails get, the less likely the area is to be logged more extensively.

"That's not our primary reason for doing this," said Cebuliak, "but if that's what happens, I won't complain."

Spray Lakes Sawmills has timber rights in much of the area surrounding these trails. Many of the ski trails are on old logging roads.

Too much love?

There are downsides to this explosion in use: ask anyone who lives along the access road to these trails.

Many of the West Bragg Creek trails fall within Kananaskis Country but Alberta Parks only maintains a small section of the trails. Peter Tucker with the trails associations says '(parks) are highly under-resourced and we're fortunate in that we have some wonderful volunteers who are willing to be out here for hours and hours on end.' (Judy Aldous/CBC)

"The increased amount of traffic for some people is problematic," agrees Peter Tucker from the trails association.

During the busiest days, traffic is parked on both sides of the access road for a kilometre.

And the parking lot seems to encourage that kind of random parking that happens when there aren't lines designating stalls, although the parking lot is set for redevelopment in 2017.

And now that these trails are being better maintained, the expectations are higher, says David Cebuliak.

"It is a challenge to meet the demand of the broader use that's being attracted. Because it seems like the bar is raised and raised and raised. And now we're getting people commenting about little imperfections that were never on the radar before."

But for today, they finish their grooming, look around and ask: "Time for a ski?"

Lynn Andres, far left, and her friends heading out for a day for skiing at West Bragg Creek trails. (Judy Aldous/CBC)


Judy Aldous

CBC Radio

Judy Aldous is an award-winning reporter and producer who has worked across the country for CBC Radio. She's been working with CBC Calgary since 2002 and is currently the host of alberta@noon.


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