Then and now: Nitehawk

Then and now: Nitehawk

Grande Prairie ski area stands on shoulders of volunteer giants

JEREMY DERKSEN

GRANDE PRAIRIE - When the very first lift on a ski hill was a tow rope driven by a vehicle engine you know there’s some history. It puts a resort in a certain vintage, like well-aged Scotch.

For Nitehawk Year-Round Adventure Park in Grand Prairie, the year was 1960, the engine was a Ford chassis and the location was a hill overlooking the Wapiti River. A bunch of locals banded together to establish the ski area and build the first chalet. It wasn’t profit, but passion that drove those first members of the Grande Prairie Ski Club.

It all started with one Ford Chassis motor

“The ski hill was built on volunteerism,” says Johnathan Clarkson. Clarkson has been at the hill 15 years, starting as a volunteer ski patroller and working his way up to assistant general manager for the last eight years.

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“When you start tearing apart walls, you can tell there was a lot of love put into the place with extra nails in boards and things like that,” he laughs, “but it’s certainly been important and we can never forget that.”

Brick by brick

Among the early builders was the Dalen family, who ran the area in the 1980s and moved the chalet from its original place at the bottom of the hill up to the top. The Dalens were longtime Grande Prairie residents, and were instrumental in helping grow the town as well. 

The family opened the Dalen Brickyard in 1920, providing building materials for the community. After relocating the chalet, the family contributed the brick that was used in the fireplace hearth in the main lodge, still standing today.

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The Dalen connection continues to the present: Gary Dalen is Nitehawk’s longest serving snowcat groomer-operator with over 25 years at the ski area, and his nephew Mike runs a ski shop in town and serves on the GPSC board.


Gary Dalen continues to work at Nitehawk

“Gary knows the hill like the back of his hand. He doesn’t need any fancy software in the cat to tell him how much snow he has underneath him, he’s been over it so many times,” says Clarkson. “He can read the hill from memory and feel.”

That familiar feel

That expert grooming knowledge is especially valuable when combined with the million-dollar snowmaking system that was installed just prior to the Arctic Winter Games in 2010. With that addition, as well as a major chalet renovation and halfpipe construction, Nitehawk hosted freestyle, alpine and snowboarding events for those games, carrying on a solid tradition of amateur and elite level development that continues to this day.

The Artic Winter Games were a huge success

While a handful of Olympic hopefuls and elite competitors have passed through Nitehawk, probably the best known is former Canadian national team aerialist Ryan Blais. The native of Grande Prairie was part of the famed Canadian Airforce, alongside Steve Omischl, Jeff Bean, Kyle Nissen and Warren Shouldice, who were considered among the best in the world.

During his career Blais achieved two World Cup victories in aerials and six other freestyle World Cup medal finishes. 

“We’re a small hill but we’ve got great training grounds for athletes and kids in the Peace area,” says Clarkson.

Grab a seat and hang on

That’s not the area’s only claim to fame. Nitehawk is also the only certified international natural luge track in Canada, and hosted the 2006 World Championship for natural luge with 17 countries attending, including Russia, Italy and Germany.

Nitehawk was in the spotlight of the luge community in 2006.

Operations manager John Gibson is himself a natural luge competitor at the world level, and Nitehawk now offers natural luge as part of the school group program for the 35 or so schools in the region. (If you’ve never tried it, it’s wild fun– “high performance tobogganing,” Clarkson clarifies.)

Home fires burning

With a legacy spanning more than 50 years, Nitehawk isn’t resting on its past — just like in the beginning, volunteers and staff members are building again, hard at work on upgrades and plans for future events. The addition of a summer bike park and RV campground has turned the area into a year-round operation.

Nitehawk continues to be a big part of the community.

But make a visit in winter, and you’ll find those same home fires burning in the hearth, as they have for decades.

“Countless volunteers and blood, sweat and tears have gone into building Nitehawk for the last 50 years, and the community stands behind it,” Clarkson says.  

For more information, head to the official Nitehawk website.

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Learn about the many charms of Murray Ridge

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