The first in a series of interviews with people connected to Kananaskis Country.
Gill: Alf, you are probably best known as the founder of the University of Calgary’s Outdoor Centre which someone once described as offering “the largest selection of guided activity and educational programs in Canada” — many of which took place in K Country. You retired a couple of years ago after 30 years at its helm. Looking back, what is the greatest satisfaction you received from running the programs?
Alf: My main motivation in founding and managing the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre was to inspire people to develop an interest in the outdoors and to eliminate any barriers that might be preventing them from getting out and developing a love for outdoor activity. My greatest satisfaction has come from seeing the pleasure and passion that so many people have experienced as a result of being able to get out into wild places. During the time I was with the Outdoor Centre, we had over 250,000 registrations in outdoor courses and half a million rentals of outdoor gear. It was a huge pleasure to get to know many of those people and to share time in the mountains with some of them.
Gill: Have you fully retired ?
Alf: I’m retired from full-time work. I’m still leading a few trips for the Outdoor Centre, but mostly my time is my own.
Gill: What else are you involved in ?
Alf: I continue to be involved in a variety of advisory boards, committees and planning processes, especially those dealing with trail related issues in Kananaskis Country.
Gill: Not many people know that in 1976 you started “The Foothills Wilderness Journal” which was a tabloid initially.
Alf: I started the Foothills Wilderness Journal to bring attention to many of the less known areas in our local foothills and mountains and to illustrate the recreational potential of areas outside of well known national parks. The publication evolved into a magazine format and in 1982 the Foothills Wilderness Journal merged with Explore Alberta to become Explore – Canada’s Outdoor Magazine. I was the editor of Explore for a couple of years, but eventually I decided to focus all my attention on the U of Calgary Outdoor Centre.
Gill: Of course, you had been running around K Country long before it became K Country in 1979 and some of these trips were written up in the journal. You likely made the first traverse of Northover Ridge in 1980. Can you describe that first trip? For instance did you scout it out beforehand to be sure it would go?
Alf: One summer in about 1973 or 74 I made a pact with myself to hike a new trail every weekend. Since I had already hiked most of the Banffs trails, my quest drew me to the relatively unknown Bow-Crow Forest south of the Trans-Canada Highway. I quickly discovered that it was an endlessly fascinating and varied area and it easily helped me fulfill my goal. At the end of that season, I extended this goal to 5 years of new hikes. I spent a lot of time poring over maps and driving along the roads looking at ridges and valleys and finding the answer to the question, “I wonder where that goes?”
Regarding Northover Ridge, the trip came about as an answer to that same question. I had backpacked to Three Isle Lake and Aster Lake on separate occassions and had spend considerable time wandering around and just figuring out how all the terrain connected. The ridge seemed hikeable from either end, so I just decided to check out if it connected one weekend. It’s a thrilling hike along the crest of the Great Divide, with views of stunning peaks in every direction. The biggest thrill, however, was getting to the north exit and seeing that it was indeed possible to continue right down to Three Isle Lake. It was as if a key piece to a complex puzzle had just fallen into place.
Gill: Do you have a favorite part of K Country and why?
Alf: I have many favorite places in Kananaskis Country, depending on the season. That is one of the amazing things about K-Country. In a month like April you can find superb backcountry skiing or sunny, dry hiking with early spring flowers in different parts of K-Country. It all depends on what you like to do. I love the Chester Lake area for early season skiing and it’s also a favorite for summer flowers. In mid-winter I enjoy Burstall Pass and the Hero Knob area in the Smith-Dorrien. In the spring my favorite ski destination is Mt. Sparrowhawk. I thoroughly enjoy cycling the Sheep Valley road before May 15th and the closed portion of Highway #40 before June 15th. My favorite May/June hikes are in the Sheep and Highwood Valleys. In mid-Summer my favorite backpack destinations are Aster Lake and the traverse along the east side of the Opal Range. In September I can’t wait to see the larch changing color in places like Little Highwood Pass, Rummel Lake and Tryst Lake.
Gill: I know you love backcountry skiing, but have you ever snowshoed?
Alf: The short answer is no. I tried it once, but found myself longing for skis as soon as there was the slightest downhill slope. Once you’ve skied, it seems like a waste of effort to walk down a bit of terrain that could be skied.
Gill: Who has been the greatest influence on your life?
Alf: My father Vilis (Bill). He took me on all kinds of outdoor adventures as a kid and taught me to ski before I was 2 years old. He was active in the founding of the Canadian Association of Nordic Ski Instructors and lobbied hard for cross country skiing to be permitted on public golf courses and parks. We even had groomed ski trails for about a decade in Calgary thanks to my dad’s efforts. He is probably best remembered for founding a series of seniors outdoor clubs in Calgary, including one named in his honour.
Gill: Do you travel much overseas?
Alf: No. I have still not seen nearly enough of our own mountains in Canada.
Gill: Do you have time for other interests?
Alf: I enjoy photography, but I can do that while I’m in the outdoors.
Gill: Finally, your favorite food and drink is?
Alf: I don’t really have a favorite food. I like variety and fresh food that is prepared in interesting ways. My favorite drink is a nice dark roast coffee.