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Overcoming Adversity

Bragg Creek, Alta. was hit hard by flooding four years ago, but the growing popularity of the area's cross-country skiing and all-season trails is helping the community come back
Bragg creek surrounded by snow and trees

Nestled in the Rocky Mountain foothills just southeast of Calgary, Alta., Bragg Creek is known for its extensive network of picturesque cross-country skiing and all-season trails that draw thousands of visitors each year. In 2013, the hamlet of 600 people suffered a devastating blow when the swollen Elbow River burst its banks and destroyed many homes and businesses

The community is slowly recovering, spurred in large part to the rising popularity of the area’s outdoor offerings and the efforts of the Greater Bragg Creek Trails Association (GBCTA). “Bragg Creek has struggled over the past few years because of the huge flood that damaged much of the town site,” said Jeff Hughes, a long-time Bragg Creek resident and lead groomer for the GBCTA.

Hughes says the flooding destroyed local malls and displaced some homeowners. “It was basically a hundred-year flood,” he said, adding that rebuilding has taken a few years.

Hughes says trail developments in the West Bragg Creek area in recent years have led to a significant rise in visits by skiers, mountain bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. The numbers are continuing to trend upwards, which is good news for Bragg Creek.

“We’ve seen a 60 per cent increase in the traffic every year over last four years, and we’re expecting to see close to 200,000 visitors this year,” said Hughes. “We’re hoping that the increase in the popularity of our trail system will help reinvigorate our town. I think it’s really the future.”

“We’ve seen a 60 per cent increase in the traffic every year over last four years, and we’re expecting to see close to 200,000 visitors this year.”

Jeff Hughes, GBCTA

The GBCTA, an all-volunteer organization founded in 2004 to design, build and maintain trails and pathways for the benefit of Bragg Creek residents and visitors, oversees 65 kilometres of Nordic ski trails and another 65 kilometres of all-season trails.

The all-season trails are used for activities like fat-tire biking, snowshoeing and dogsledding in the winter. Warm weather activities include mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding.

According to Hughes, the Alberta government recognizes the recreational value of the West Bragg Creek trail network and is investing CAN$2.4 million in improvements to user parking. The money is going towards paving the parking lot and adding washrooms, says Hughes, as well as building garages for grooming vehicles and other maintenance equipment used by the GBCTA. Construction started in the spring and is expected to end in October.

Kei truck

The GBCTA’s snow grooming fleet is comprised of two snowmobiles – a 2016 Arctic Cat Bearcat and 2010 Yamaha VK Pro – and a couple more vehicles that are much more unusual.

They are mini-trucks from Japan known as Kei trucks, which are being imported into Canada in increasing numbers (even though Transport Canada only allows into the country Japanese mini-trucks that are at least 15 years old) and are used for a variety of purposes.

Hughes says the GBCTA’s person in charge of all-season trail maintenance, Dave Cebuliak, asked him what he thought about buying a used Kei truck when the association was in the market for some new equipment three years ago.

 “We did a lot of research into the potential of one of these little utility trucks from Japan to tow grooming equipment,” said Hughes. “It looked very, very promising … so we took a chance and bought one of these Kei trucks from a dealer in northern Alberta.”

According to Hughes, it was a gamble that paid off big time.

“We were just blown away by the performance,” he said. “It climbs with abandon. It has fantastic traction, and an unbelievable turning radius relative to a snowmobile. It’s just like driving a pick-up truck in terms of comfort, just slower and a little more cab noise.

“Over the last two seasons it’s been so successful that we decided to buy another one,” said Hughes. He adds the second Kei truck is currently being modified for on-snow use and will be ready to be put to work on the West Bragg Creek trail system this winter.

Both mini-trucks are 1999 models that had about 25,000 miles on them prior to purchase. Hughes maintains the cost of buying a used Kei truck and turning it into a tracked on-snow vehicle is comparable to purchasing a new, specialized grooming snowmobile.

The trucks used by the GBCTA cost approximately CAN$12,000 apiece and each one has had about CAN$10,000 in modifications done. That includes $5,000 for Camso tracks with adaptor hubs and $600 for a two-inch lift kit.

“We were just blown away by the performance. [The Kei truck] climbs with abandon. It has fantastic traction and an unbelievable turning radius relative to a snowmobile.”

Jeff Hughes, GBCTA

The Kei trucks are 113 inches long, 59 inches wide and 75 inches high, and weigh 1,500 pounds. Both are four-by-four turbo models featuring a 56-horsepower, 660-cubic centimetre gasoline engine and a 1,500-pound towing capacity – which Hughes says is more than enough to handle the Yellowstone Track System Ginzugroomers and YTS Roller Compactors his association uses to groom the West Bragg Creek ski trails.

The trucks also feature a box on the back that comes in very handy for snow grooming purposes. Hughes says that’s because it’s not unusual for trails in West Bragg Creek to lose snow at times during the winter due to warm Chinook winds.

“Typically we can have phenomenal conditions, fresh snow, beautifully groomed trails, and then over the course of two days of Chinook winds, we can basically have a lake,” he said. “It can trash our system very, very quickly. When that happens, we have areas around the trail system that we harvest snow from where the snow is protected from the elements. We’ll just load up the Kei truck with snow and then take to where it’s needed, unload it and re-groom.”

Super safe

Hughes says another attractive aspect of the Kei truck is safety. “They’re super safe for our operators,” he said. “There’s virtually no rollover potential, and we’ve never had one get stuck. The trucks are equipped with VHF radios so the operators are able to call for emergency help if anything did actually happen.”

There’s also the matter of operator comfort.

“It’s quite something to be able to out grooming when it’s -25C (-13F) and you’re in a t-shirt,” Hughes said, adding that it’s a big reason why he and his fellow groomers prefer using a Kei truck over a snowmobile when working the West Bragg Creek trails.

Hughes contends that grooming with a Kei truck can also make for better skiing. Because the vehicle has a wider footprint than a snowmobile, its tracks act to help compact snow on the periphery of cross-country trails, not just in the middle.

The result, according to Hughes, is a groomed trail similar to that produced by a machine like a PistenBully. “It makes for a way better skiing experience, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

The GBCTA uses three seven-foot YTS Ginzugroomers. Hughes notes the compaction drags typically have one pan on them, but his team has been experimenting with adding a second pan. “The Kei truck allows us to be able to put two pans on them so that we can actually, in one pass, have two classic tracks,” he said.

The association also has three YTS roller compactors, which are used to take the air out of the freshly fallen snow when accumulations exceed four to six inches. “It’s a first-order compaction prior to going over the trails with the Ginzugroomers,” said Hughes.

Cross-country award

Hughes, who lived in Winnipeg, Man. prior to moving to Alberta 18 years ago, is married and has three daughters aged 12 to 16. He was a dentist by trade for nearly 30 years but sold his practice five years ago.

Hughes established his own arborist business and spends the spring, summer and fall tending to trees in Bragg Creek and back in Manitoba, but his winters are dedicated to cross-country skiing and grooming trails.

“I love grooming. I get a real kick out of it,” said Hughes, who estimates he spends 40 hours a week grooming ski trails in the winter months. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I love seeing perfectly laid classic track and I love skiing on beautiful corduroy, so I think I have an eye for good grooming. I like to aspire to make it the best as it can possibly be,” he said.

To ensure the optimal experience for skiers, Hughes and his team of 10 or so groomers renovate the most popular cross-country trails in the West Bragg Creek system on a daily basis.

“Between October and March we put in about 850 volunteer hours to maintain the trails,” said Hughes. “There would be a little bit of maintenance to the machines and a little bit of trail work involved in that, but it’s mostly cross-country ski grooming operations.”

The work of Hughes and the dedicated groomers at West Bragg Creek hasn’t gone unnoticed. Hughes and the GBCTA team recently won an award from Cross Country Alberta for “Outstanding Ski Area Operations 2016-17.”

“We’ve all been working really hard to make this place better and this kind of recognition is pretty cool and really appreciated,” said Hughes. “We’re not doing this for awards though. We’re doing it because we love skiing and we really want to promote the area because it’s turning into like a world-class ski resort in our minds, and we want to see our little town, Bragg Creek, thrive.”