• Stuart Benson

The hill at the heart of the village

Updated: Feb 18

Ski Vorlage turns 75

Ski Vorlage isn’t just at the heart of the village of Wakefield, for many, it is the heart of the village.


Its humble beginnings as a cleared hill behind the Shouldice Farm, which once stood where Vorlage’s parking lot is now, is where Wilf Harris installed the first rope tow on the side of the mountain in 1947, allowing local skiers easier access to the small cabin that stood at the top of the hill near the site of the future Wakefield Hospital.


Happy birthday, Ski Vorlage! For 75 years locals like Sue Smith (#4) and Ellise (Bub) McVeigh (#18), circa 1951, have been barreling down the hill that has become the heart of Wakefield. Take a nostalgic trip with us back to 1947 when our little alpine gem was just a small, snow-cleared hill. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Smith
Happy birthday, Ski Vorlage! For 75 years locals like Sue Smith (#4) and Ellise (Bub) McVeigh (#18), circa 1951, have been barreling down the hill that has become the heart of Wakefield. Take a nostalgic trip with us back to 1947 when our little alpine gem was just a small, snow-cleared hill. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Smith

At the time, recreational downhill skiing was a fairly new pastime for the Gatineau Hills, with the establishment of the first lodge at Camp Fortune in 1920. Busses and trains would bring “ski tours” through the hills and trails until the 1940s when the first mechanical rope-tows began to appear.


With this new cutting-edge technology, which promised to get you to the top of the hill with no walking but only slightly quicker, Vorlage and Wakefield were put on the map as a downhill skiing destination. This was a major economic boon for local hotels such as the Wakefield Inn, the Chateau Diotte which became the Blacksheep Inn, and the newly opened Manor House, now known as Le Manoir seniors residence.


“You had to wear these special heavy mitts just to hold on while the rope was moving,” explained Dave Saunders, owner and operator of Vorlage since becoming part-owner with his uncle Steve Saunders in 1981 at the age of 25. Vorlage is celebrating the hill’s 75th anniversary this ski season.


Dave Saunders has been the owner and operator of Vorlage since partnering with his uncle Steve Saunders in 1981 at the age of 25. Twenty one years later, Vorlage is celebrating the hill’s 75th anniversary this ski season. Stuart Benson photo
Dave Saunders has been the owner and operator of Vorlage since partnering with his uncle Steve Saunders in 1981 at the age of 25. Twenty one years later, Vorlage is celebrating the hill’s 75th anniversary this ski season. Stuart Benson photo

Back in its early days, Vorlage Hill operated without a set schedule, when the weather was good and when then-owner Harris felt like it. At the time, it was just a small base lodge next to the rope-tow, until it was purchased by Steve Saunders in 1961. The hill has since become a staple for families and skiers in the area and is often packed with kids from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day, as students make the short, ten-minute trek from school to the hill. Wakefield School offers an after-school ski program for daycare students and family discounts.


“This is my 40th year of ownership, and over that period, and even longer than that, Vorlage has always been there for the community,” Dave Saunders told the Low Down. Saunders’ wife Rhonda Ward also works at the Hill as a ski instructor, and their daughter Rachel grew up skiing there as well, and now helps her dad with marketing.


“What keeps me going is I still get a kick out of seeing a child coming out with their parents, heading out to their vehicle in the parking lot and just watching how excited they are talking about their experience,” Saunders said. “They're bubbly.”


Vorlage has been host to numerous community and charity events from the Christmas Craft Fair, the Spring Carnival, New Year's Eve, Canada Day and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Vorlage is also the birthplace of Théâtre Wakefield and one of the country’s most successful country music festivals, The Gatineau Clog hosted by country music legend of the Ottawa Valley Wayne Rostad.


Vorlage has been more than just a ski hill for residents. The chalet provided dry shelter for those fleeing their waterlogged homes after the Gatineau River flooded in 1974. Villagers have certainly returned the favour, coming to the hill’s rescue during the 1998 ice storm, recessions, and a devastating fire that destroyed the original lodge in May 1988. Villagers raised $6,000 to be split between the hill and Wakefield favourite, country band The Back Road Band, whose instruments were destroyed in the blaze.


“The community was very supportive throughout that time because it was a blow not only to the company for the fact that a large asset was destroyed but also emotionally to everyone that was involved,” Dave Saunders explained. “The community really rallied together for us.”


A place for families, a place to learn


A major part of what Saunders believes is the reason Vorlage holds a special place in the community is the fact that not only is it a family-owned business, it has employed and taught skiing to three generations of Wakefield families.


One of those families is Tom Mason and Carly Woods.


Woods, whose father Don joined the ski patrol in 1985 and whose mother Karen Bayes worked at the chalet bar, spent almost every day growing up in Wakefield skiing at Vorlage.


“I spent a lot of time in the ski-patrol shack growing up,” Woods said, recalling how she would get off the bus each day and suit up for patrol before meeting her friends on the hill. “I was a real ‘Vorlage Rat.’”


Vorlage is also where Woods met her now-husband Mason, who was an avid ski racer in his youth and one of the pioneers of snowboarding in the area. Tom used to climb up the hill Sunday nights, pre-1985 after it closed to rip down the hill on his then-outlawed snowboard.


Once the two started a family of their own – after hosting their Buck and Doe inside the chalet – they put all three of their children, Griffin, Johnny, and Emerson, on skis as toddlers, and later moved on to snowboarding. Griffin, now 17, is earning top-10 finishes in snowboard cross at Europa and NorAm Cup competitions across the globe - and it all started at Vorlage.


“It’s the ultimate family resort,” Woods said. “You can teach them and let your kids go at six and seven years old. They can go for a few rides on their own and you feel totally confident because you can see them come to the bottom [from the lodge.]”


And the ski programs at Vorlage have borne plenty of fruit. The hill has produced a number of Olympians with a number of hometown heroes learning the sport at Vorlage before heading off to a National team or the Olympics, like Betsy Clifford, Curry Chapman, and, most recently, Griffin.

Aerial view of the Shouldice family farm and early Vorlage ski area in 1961. Photo courtesy of Gatineau Valley Historical Society
Aerial view of the Shouldice family farm and early Vorlage ski area in 1961. Photo courtesy of Gatineau Valley Historical Society


“Probably the most famous of a bunch would have been the Crazy Canuck Ken Read,” Dave Saunders added, referring to the Canadian Olympic alpine-skier who won five World Cups throughout his career. “He won his first race at Vorlage in the ‘60s.”


Vorlage has come a long way from a single hill and tow-rope behind a farm in the 1940s to 18 runs–13 lit for night skiing–-three chairlifts and a chalet - and a major community hub for Wakefield and young athletes.


And while the COVID-19 pandemic may be a difficult one, Saunders knows he can count on the village to get through it all together.


Due to COVID-19 health restrictions, Saunders has yet to plan any kind of celebration to mark the anniversary but will be posting more historical anecdotes and photos on Vorlage’s official Facebook page.


The hill, though, isn’t going anywhere.


“Vorlage has been here for 75 years and we’ve always been there for the community,” Saunders said. “It will still be here after 100 years.”