Talking with Alf Skrastins

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 
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.

1 comment… add one
  • Wolfgang obermann Jul 8, 2011, 6:56 am

    Hallo Alf,
    my mum tries to reach your mum by phone,
    but the tel. information says : this Nr. is not valid.
    Please give me information.
    With kind regards to your family
    Wolfgang Obermann

    Tel. 04361-7080
    mobil: 0173- 2 40 10 40
    email : [email protected]

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