A small wooden cabin sits tucked in a forest of spruce, tamarack and balsam fir. Along the side of the building is a stack of wood ready to be chopped into kindling. A bird feeder sits next to a small front porch that looks over a lake I’m not sure has a name.
The door to the cabin is unlocked and upon entering, I realize this warm-up shelter is more than just a place to take a quick break. It's a tiny cabin escape in the forest.
There is no modern plumbing, electricity and heat. But there is an outhouse a few feet away outside, a small solar panel that connects to a light by a 15-minute timer and a cast-iron stove that can quickly turn this cabin into a sauna.
Someone has taken great care to provide the basic amenities so I don’t need to ski in with a heavy backpack. There are pots, dishes, candles, foamies to sleep on in the loft and even a few books and games.
I’m hanging out in Duck Mountain Provincial Park on the eastern edge of the province. It’s located within the Manitoba Escarpment and is the southern limit of the Boreal forest where it transitions to aspen parkland. Geographically, it’s further south than Saskatoon yet it feels like I’m in the north.
The rolling hills in the region make it perfect not only for cross-country skiing but also for downhill skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling.
Arriving at the shelter just after sunset, I make quick work of starting a fire. The temperature is below -30 degrees Celsius. Although I was quite warm while I was moving, the sweat I worked up on the hills is quickly cooling my body temperature.
I struggle with my lighters in the cold and quickly switch to matches. Thankfully, the wood inside the cabin is dry and a few small pieces of bark ignite quicker than the crumpled newspaper.
Night has settled in around the cabin, but the splash of a full moon lights the interior while I unpack my gear, change out of my damp clothes and settle in for a quiet evening alone.
These warm-up shelters are provided by the Kamsack Ski Club in partnership with the provincial park. Purchasing a ski club membership or leaving a donation are recommended to help support the volunteer hours to maintain both the trails and cabins. They are designed for skiers but also welcome snowshoers and fat bikers (as well as dogs) as long as the groomed tracks aren’t damaged.
The next morning, dawn arrives with a brilliant display of fuchsia-coloured clouds. I grab my jacket and run out to capture a few photos. The temperature has warmed a little but my fingers still freeze almost instantly to the metal of my camera. Running back into the cabin, I warm my hands and set about making breakfast over the heat of the stove.
Reluctant to leave, I chop wood to replace what I’ve used and close up the cabin to ski out just after noon. I haven’t seen anyone else on the trails since I left the day before. But as I turn a corner just passed the junction to another shelter, I see someone round the corner ahead of me.
It happens to be the president of the ski club who had seen my posts on social media the night before. He’s also seen my posts online the two other times I’ve skied into the cabins. We stop to chat but the frosty air encourages us to keep moving.
Within an hour, I’m back at the parking lot and warming up my vehicle. The shelter I stayed at is conveniently a quick 5-kilometre ski out as I have big plans this weekend and limited time.
I swap my ski boots for snowboard boots and head to Duck Mountain Ski Hill which is a fifteen-minute drive away. I finish changing the rest of my gear in their parking lot and snap on my helmet and goggles. Looking over a snow berm in front of where I parked, I spot their new tubing hill on the other side of the bunny hill. I’ve timed it perfectly as tubing just opened today. It’s going to be the first thing I try out.
Walking into the chalet feels familiar as several people call out a greeting to me. This isn’t my first visit to Duck Mountain and the locals know how much I love the area. (I also let General Manager Craig Brock know I was coming so they were aware I’d be stopping in). Craig tells me it’s been their best season yet with the mild conditions over Christmas bringing out hundreds of people from both Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
He points me towards the tubes and I head out to try out this new activity. Taking the conveyor up the bunny hill, I am pointed in the direction of the ramp at the start of the tube track. I can’t quite see the bottom as a curve in the hill obstructs my full view - I know this is going to be good.
One of the ski hill operators gives me a good shove and I go sliding down the hill, whooping in excitement as my adrenaline pumps. I hit the curve, bounce over a few bumps and pick up speed. My tube spins around and I’m sliding down backwards, laughing while snow sprays up around me. As I slow at the bottom, I hop out of the tube and run like a kid back to the conveyor belt for more.
Several runs later, I’m ready to hit the slopes. With my snowboard in hand, I look at the t-bar with a bit of trepidation. Mastering the art of being pulled up the hill on my board has proven tricky in the past. But the lift operator says he’ll run alongside me to make sure I get on it right. I put the seat between my legs and grab the thick metal bar as it swings past me, hanging on as it pulls me along. Thankfully, it’s not quite as hard as I remembered and I successfully make it to the top while mentally high-fiving myself.
From the summit, the tree-covered hills of the region all curve and roll into one another. I think how spectacular it must look at the height of autumn colouring. This area is clearly a must-visit in any season.
Looking at the trail map, there are twenty-two runs ranging from beginner to expert. The longest is Rathwell’s Dream which is 1600 metres back to the bottom. What makes this hill unique is that they don’t have to make snow. It’s all natural and has some pretty epic powder - as in up-to-your-knees or deeper powder. It’s so deep in fact, that sometimes I get stuck in it and have to swim-crawl out to the groomed sections.
I choose Morning Glory for my first run. It’s a black diamond and I’m stoked to catch speed as I carve my way down the hill. In minutes I’m back at the t-bar with a big grin on my face. The lift operator smiles back knowingly as he reaches to grab the bar for me to head back on up the hill.
For More Information:
To find more information on the Duck Mountain cross-country ski trails, visit the Kamsack Ski Club website.
Keep up to date on Duck Mountain Ski Hill conditions at Ski the Duck.
For general information on Duck Mountain Provincial Park, visit Tourism Saskatchewan’s website.