Volunteering at CNSC 

Public Domain News Release
Courtesy Caledonia Nordic Ski Club
All photos by Kelly Bergman
March 11, 2022
 

A little voice floated up from somewhere at chest level and warmly wiggled into the ear. “Thank you for volunteering.”  

The voice belonged to eight-year-old James Botten wearing the uniform of the Caledonia Nordic Ski Club (CNSC). He wanted to express his appreciation to someone wearing the armband of an official. His mother Nicole and grandmother Kelly overheard and stared at him with agog mouths and impressed eyes.  

“What? The announcer told us we should say thanks to at least three volunteers a day,” Botten shrugged, taking the challenge seriously. He wasn’t the only one. The thankfulness was outspoken all weekend, urged on several times each race day by  

Stuart Hartley, the field broadcaster for the Teck BC Championships. He challenged all assembled at the Prince George ski facility to put some winds of gratitude into the sails of all the unpaid “staff” who moved like a benevolent army to make the provincial races a first class experience for all who came to compete and spectate.  

They will do it again the very next week for the 2022 Canadian National Biathlon Championships. They have done it already for the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in 2019, they did it for the 2015 Canada Winter Games, and they’ve been doing so for decades of races and special events. The faces change a little each time, but there are a lot of repeat helpers and always a sense of this being a ski family.  

“My first experience volunteering here was in ’84 when I was on a trail cutting crew,” said Hugh Nelmes, enjoying a moment of rest in the volunteer warm-up tent at the Prince George Nordic skiing campus he now knows like the back of his hand. In fact, before there were any ski tracks in this patch of forest on the south shore of the Nechako River, he and some other wild youths would drive the informal bush trails in a ’63 VW Beetle to find escape routes from the police if they came to break up their parties in the gravel pits. Joyriding through the bush was common on those unused game trails and skid strips, and many a jalopy sputtered their last, out there.  

Things look a lot different now. The ski facility opened in 1985 with five kms of trail. Today, the gravel pit is now a family amphitheatre where several trails meet, and the former site of the biathlon range. Those old trails have now been widened and formalized, named and groomed. The CNSC network requires a map that looks like the Paris metro system. There are snowshoeing trails, an agility park, connections to the famed Prince George city-wide trail routes, and the 30-lane biathlon range is internationally certified.  

But a few old, abandoned car bodies can still be found out there in the underbrush. 

Val Weed remembers when the first trail was put in, on Otway Road, not far west of Prince George’s city centre. She, like most local outdoor enthusiasts, did her Nordic skiing in those years at Tabor Mountain, about half an hour’s drive east of downtown. The Sons Of Norway organization had a system of scenic backcountry trails there, but they were not especially designed for racing.  

“There was this big loop closer to town. It was on the property of Okanagan Helicopters on Otway Road. It had a good uphill section, a good downhill section, and a long flat stretch in between,” said Weed.  

Nelmes pointed out that his uncle, Don Broeder, was the manager of the helicopter company and was now in his 90s and still proud of providing that initial loop.  

“Then Okanagan Helicopters told us they were selling their operation, so we couldn’t be there anymore. Even before that, we couldn’t ski there in the daytime if the helicopters were flying. We had to do it all at night, and the trail had lights, but sometimes they would go out when you were out there. It all just made us talk more and more about how we needed our own place.”  

Not far from the helicopter base was a big patch of Crown land without any development planned. A group of interested folks approached the City of Prince George to support them in the dream of a racing and recreation centre. The government officials all agreed and the klatch of volunteers went to work. It was back-breaking labour, to cut the trees and hoe the ground to establish trails, but it inched into existence.    

A small log cabin was built to act as a headquarters. “We even managed to get ourselves together to host a Canada Cup event,” said Weed.  

“No one could have imagined back then what this place would become,” said Nelmes. “If we could’ve, we would have thought to put in more parking lots.”  

“I think in the beginning we had about 200 members. Now we have more than 2,800,” said Weed. “And that’ll go up. They are getting into every level of cross-country skiing and biathlon, and that’s great, the whole country thinks this is a great place to host winter events, we’re not a secret anymore, but the really exciting stuff is all the summer activities they are getting into, to make this place useful and vibrant all year round – all the mountain biking and trail running. We keep expanding the trail system, too, so even with all those members out here using the trails, you can still go off into the forest on great trails and only ever see someone every once in awhile.” 

Val’s late husband, Jim, was the Caledonia Nordic Ski Club’s head groomer for many years.  

“We take for granted, now, all the snow-making machinery and all the grooming machines. Back then we had a snowmobile that Jim figured out could pull an old frame of bed springs to smooth out the snow.”  

“I remember when we’d say ‘woah, that’s $20, do we really need to buy that?’,” said Nelmes. “Now the investments in machines and buildings are in the millions. There’s paid staff. Governments are investing in us because they know how great we have it, and they see a big future here.”  

The best part, he said, was illustrated in a fun memory he has of picking up an out of town ski official at the airport. The official settled into his seat and said he wanted to take a nap on the drive to the ski trails, but there was no time, the trails are only about 20 minutes from the airport, and even less from downtown. It is a wilderness oasis with world-class trails and amenities all tucked into a pocket of nature right inside Prince George city limits.  

Kevin Pettersen is now one of the board members for the Caledonia organization. He stepped up in modern times because he grew up in the midst of the original organizers. His family was connected to that Sons Of Norway group that first broke trail on Tabor Mountain and helped with the development of the Caledonia Nordic Ski Club’s formative years.   

He remembers from childhood that there were sometimes 700 people in the 1970s and ‘80s on their annual Birchleg Ski Tour, where the public was invited to strap on the cross-country skis and go for a scenic day on the trail through a circuit of cabins.  

“I asked my dad how they could get so many people out there skiing, that’s a big public response, and he said ‘well, we served hot wine at each cabin’ and that was great back then, but obviously we can’t do that now,” he laughed.    

“I always felt like I was standing on the shoulders of giants, when I came to the board,” he said. “I just wanted to honour that by doing my best to build on their efforts and accomplishments. It’s a canvas here, but not a blank canvas. It’s something you can add to, but so much has already been built. That has to be respected and guides those of us today who want to make this the best facility and organization it can be, the way they did.”  

Prince George has developed a reputation for its volunteerism. During the 2015 Canada Winter Games, the municipality temporarily changed its motto from “BC’s Northern Capital” to “The Volunteer City” and a legion of local residents donned commemorative green jackets and matching toques to put the truth to it. At these provincial races, many of those jackets and toques could be seen among the legion of unpaid helpers who would gather up course markers one day and re-set them for the next, coordinate food services, carry equipment, direct racing teams where they need to be, keep track of timing and bib numbers, and many other important jobs.  

More than 100 people were on the official volunteers’ list for the Teck BC Championships and the Canadian Biathlon Championships. Each one is appreciated deeply, just ask young James Botten. 

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