Wooden Planks and Broomsticks: How Skiing Came to Banff

With three downhill ski areas and thousands of kilometres of backcountry ski terrain, it’s difficult to imagine life without skiing in Banff National Park. Gather round and hear the story of the first young skiers and the first pair of skis to ever shred these hills. – Highline

The First Pair

At the turn of the twentieth century, the first pair of skis in Banff was given to local entrepreneur named George Paris, operator of the old Paris Tea Room and Restaurant. A Norwegian visitor had gotten to know George while sitting in the barbers chair at Dr. R.G. Brett’s Grandview Hotel. Learning that George enjoyed snowshoeing and skating, the Norwegian thought he would also like nordic skiing, and generously offered him a pair of skis.

George gave the skis a fair try, but found them inferior to snowshoeing. He put them away, deciding to stick with skates, snowshoes and curling bonspiels. But it didn’t take long before his eldest son and some of the other teenage boys in town would bring the sport of skiing back out of the closet.

Two Boys, One Big Idea

Skiing arrived in Banff to stay in January of 1917 after ski jumpers from Revelstoke were invited to show their skills at the first Banff Winter Carnival. While the Swiss Guides at Lake Louise were skiing at the time, it was the visitors from Revelstoke who got the boys of Banff interested in the sport.

Who were these two boys? Their family names still grace the sides of buildings on Banff Avenue and commemorative plaques throughout the park: White and Paris. Specifically Cyril Paris, son of George, and Peter Whyte, son of Dave White Sr and brother of Cliff (this is not a typo, Peter liked to spell his name with a “”y””).

Circular wooden cheese boxes provided the tips for Cyril and Peter’s skis. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.

Cyril and Peter were 13 and 12 years-old, respectively, when the first winter carnival took place and had watched in awe as the men from Revelstoke launched themselves off jumps with nothing more than planks of wood strapped to their feet.  Inspired by the spectacle but with no skis to be found in the town, Peter and Cyril raided the storage room of Dave White and Sons.  This is not the act of vandalism it might seem, since Dave White was Peter’s father and the pilfered good were long slats from a boxes used to ship toboggans from Montreal and circular wooden cheese boxes.

The long slats from the toboggan boxes became the base of the skis and the rounded sides of cheese boxes were cut into the tips. Scraps of leather became straps for their feet; poles were fashioned from brooms “borrowed” their mothers.  The ‘skis’ were not exactly state-of-the-art but they quenched the thirst of the two boys and spurred Dave White to order proper skis from Europe for the next Christmas season.  (This story may sound fantastic but there is a sketch of these skis in the Peter and Catharine Whyte Fonds at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies Archives — M36/1913 for anyone interested.)

Skiing Takes Off

Cyril, Peter, their brothers (Cliff and Jack White, and Herb and Ted Paris), and friends embraced skiing and under the guidance of Gus Johnston — a Revelstoke ski jumper who had found Banff to his liking and stayed after the 1917 Winter Carnival — learned the art of ski jumping and touring. They were soon cutting downhill trails on the slopes surrounding the Banff townsite.

Banff offers some of the best backcountry skiing in the world, such as the Wapta Traverse. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

The skiing boys of Banff established the Banff Ski Club which by the winter of 1921/22 boasted 29 members for whom skiing was the preferred winter activity.  By 1929 the Banff Ski Club had cut runs into the forests on the slopes of Mount Norquay and were bringing in friends from Calgary on the weekends. In 1930, Cliff White and Cyril Paris had started work on Skoki Lodge and in its inaugural season, Peter and his wife Catharine hosted the first guests to the Lodge. A few years later, Cliff opened the lodge at Temple.

Today Skoki is known around the world as the quintessential backcountry ski experience and Temple has grown from one small lodge to hosting World Cup alpine events at Lake Louise Ski Area. Skiing and snowboarding bring thousands of people to Banff and the Bow Valley every winter thanks in no small part to a few local boys who just loved to ski.

-For more about the early days of skiing in Banff and the boys who led the charge, check out Lauren’’s article “The Banff Photographic Exchange: Albums, Youth, Skiing, and Memory Making in the 1920s in The West and Beyond (Athabasca University Press, 2010).

Lauren Wheeler

Lauren Wheeler is an environmental/public historian working on a PhD at the University of Alberta. Her masters was about winter recreation and photography in 1920’s Banff and her current dissertation work is on environmentalism in Western Canadian universities. Lauren grew-up in Canmore, and escapes back to the Rockies as often as possible to work on side projects about the environmental history of the Bow Valley.

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