The Good Ol’ Tow

At the Innisfail Ski Hill in Alberta, the conveniences of modern resort-style skiing are nowhere to be found. But joy is plentiful and nostalgia runs deep.

Text—Nadine Sander-Green
Photos—Kari Medig

Tim Jackson started skiing at his community’s local hill when he was seven years old. This winter will be his 60th season. The small slope at the edge of his hometown of Innisfail, Alberta, is where he met his wife, taught his children and grandchildren to ski, and, despite a hip replacement, still carves down blue-level runs. He spends much of his winter teaching the town’s youngest skiers how to make it down the hill and back up again on the rope tow.

A sign on a street in Innisfail, AB directing skiers to the ski hill. Established in 1956, the small hill boasts under 70 feet of vertical dropping down to a pond.
The muddy parking lot at the Innisfail Ski Hill, in the small prairie town of Innisfail, AB.

“The rope tow is the biggest obstacle at first. Instead of resting going up the hill, you work with your upper body by holding on to the rope. It gives you a workout both ways.”

Jackson’s family was one of the original handful of families who started the volunteer-run hill in the 1950s. Since his father was busy with work, it was his mother — the avid skier of the family — who acted as the driving force. Once they’d settled on the spot, a north-facing slope overlooking a small lake that freezes in winter, it was a community effort to transform the raw land into a ski hill. A local contractor with a bulldozer cleared the wooded hill into ski runs. Another local donated a propane-powered tractor engine to run the rope tow.

The top station at the Innisfail Ski Hill.
At the Innisfail Ski Hill, it’s common for parents to drop off their older kids in the afternoon and pick them up again when the sun is setting. With three runs and a rental shop, the improbable hill has an enthusiastic core group of young skiers.

“Suddenly there were ropes running down to the bottom of the hill, and away we went,” Jackson said. Six decades later, the ski hill is both changed and unchanged from its original infrastructure.


The propane engine has been swapped out for an electric one. Instead of the original straw lodge, skiers can now warm up in front of a gas fireplace in a new chalet. And although the tow runs on the original pulleys, the technology of rope has changed over the years, from hemp to polypropylene to, new for this winter’s ski season, an eight-strand braided nylon rope.

The old-school mechanism of a rope tow can certainly be frustrating for beginners. While the three- and four-year-olds struggle to clutch on to the rope, slightly older kids have the opposite problem: they hold the rope too tightly, and when it gets steep near the summit, they don’t have any strength left.

“That’s one of the tricks I teach them. Hold the rope as gently as you can near the bottom, and squeeze it harder as you get to the top.”

Another rope tow trick? Leather gloves or work gloves, for grip. And two or three pairs of them, so they can be swapped out when they get wet.

Young skiers take a break before getting on the rope tow at the Innisfail Ski Hill.
Skiers sometimes bring two or three pairs of leather gloves for the rope tow, so they can be swapped out when they get wet.

Down on two planks

You certainly don’t need work gloves to make it through the day at a modern ski resort. Compared to these, Innisfail feels like a relic of the past.

With their towering mountains and hundreds of runs, resorts like Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia are truly epic, but they’re not accessible to many people. A single lift ticket can cost as much as a family’s weekly grocery bill, and the slick resort experience of crowded gondolas and overpriced appetizers can override the simple joy of flying down a mountain on two skinny planks.

Innisfail’s $10 lift tickets and DIY ethos provide a meaningful alternative.

Jackson believes that because the hill is completely dependent on natural snow — any “snow-making” consists of volunteers shovelling snow from the lake onto a toboggan to patch up dry spots on the runs — people who ski at Innisfail are more attuned to nature.


And they are often rewarded: deer walk across the lake, and moose have been found resting in the trees beside the runs.

Parents drop their older kids off at one in the afternoon and don’t pick them up until the sun is setting, knowing there will be volunteers looking out for them and a communal phone if they get into any trouble.

The Innisfail Ski Hill is maintained and operated by community members.
Young skiers wear work gloves to protect their hands from rope tow burns.

Jackson laughs and calls the hill a “babysitting service,” but his voice is buoyant. It’s easy to tell he’s proud of the strength of the community and what they’ve created.

Perhaps the most central tenet of skiing at Innisfail, whether it’s your first season or your 60th: pure, childlike joy reigns supreme. Jackson remembers the playful days fondly.

“What we’d do is ski as fast as we could down the hill, scoot out on the ice on the lake, and see how far we’d get. That was the game.”

On an icy day, if you stayed in a tuck position from the top of the hill, you could make it all the way across the lake.

Nadine Sander-Green grew up in Kimberley, B.C. and has spent the past 15 years living throughout the country, from Victoria to Toronto to Whitehorse. She completed her MFA from the University of Guelph. Her stories can be found in Outside, the Globe and Mail, Grain, Prairie Fire, carte blanche, Hazlitt and elsewhere. Nadine’s debut novel is forthcoming from House of Anansi in 2023. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.

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