The ski slopes in photo #1 stand above Ingonish Harbour (hidden here by the diagonal slope rising above snow-covered Freshwater Lake and Ingonish Beach in the middle ground), here seen across South Bay Ingonish in the foreground from just before Middle Head Trail parking lot. The slopes were in great shape on Friday and, as other photos on this page show, there were several enthusiasts on the hills enjoying them, topped off by Thursday’s snow fall. The slopes, spread out over 120 ha (300 acres) along a headland of Smokey Mountain offer sixteen alpine runs, the longest 2.4 km (1.5 mi), with a maximum vertical drop of 305 m (1000 ft) and a top elevation of 320 m (1050 ft). They are the highest ski slopes on Cape Breton Island and in the province.
Now mostly owned by the province, the resort has not had a full season since 2002 and was completely closed between 2006 and 2009. Given the continuing financial difficulties the resort has experienced since 2002, the facilities have been rapidly deteriorating: the base lodge (seen in photo #2), while still usable, if leaky, is in need of considerable repairs; the quad chair lift (seen ascending the slope in the centre of photo #1) has not been run in several years and requires substantial work to make operational again;¹ and the snow-making system (necessary during the lucrative Christmas/New Year holiday period and in those years, like 2010, when the snowfall, normally on the order of 380 cm (150 in) a year, is less bountiful) has been similarly neglected and likely will have to be replaced.
That limited parts of the slopes were open in 2011 was thanks both to Mother Nature, who has temporarily rendered the need for snow-making machinery a non-issue, and to the Ski Cape Smokey Society, an enthusiastic corps of local volunteers chaired by Larry Dauphinee, a non-profit care-taker group that the province has commissioned to find a private sector buyer for the facilities. The society members who have volunteered hundreds of their hours staff the facility because they want to see the area’s young folks profit from a safe place to ski and to assist in the effort to find a buyer so as to keep the resort open into the future. The funds raised by the inexpensive entry fees mostly go to cover the high cost of insurance. A former member of the U.S. ski team, Paul Mahre, made a bid for the facilities that was withdrawn in 2008, but he continues working on a new one; he has the confidence of the society’s board and one can only hope that he or someone like him will be successful in restoring and expanding this lovely facility. What a shame were it to be permanently closed and its assets sold off!
¹ An e-mail from Larry Dauphinee dated 2011 December 30, says that the quad chair lift “has been operated for maintenance purposes each year and had an initial inspection this summer. All went well with visual inspection but that's not to say we could have major problems when we X-ray all components. Full inspection is costly especially if you run into issues and we do not have the finances to gamble at this time. The quad may operate in the future, time will tell.” For 2012, the plan is to continue as in 2011, with the poma lift only.↩
Working within the constraints of what they have, the society’s volunteers have gotten the poma lift,² the ski tow seen in photo #3, operational and the slopes opened in 2010 January, allowing skiers to get halfway up the slopes and use three of the downhill runs. The day we were there, it was clear that grooming equipment had been used on others of the runs. The skiers and snowboarder seen in photos #4, #5, and #6 were obviously having a great time and were, I trust, properly grateful for all of the voluteers’ efforts in making these fine slopes available to them.³
If you look closely at the centre of photo #1, you will see a small building which is (or was) a lodge close to the summit on the uppermost trail. A friend sent me photos posted on Facebook⁴ that were taken by two different people who skied up there the day after we were there; they show superb views of Ingonish Harbour, South Bay Ingonish, Middle Head, North Bay Ingonish, and Ingonish Island down below. In the past as I drove past Ski Cape Smokey, I have frequently wondered whether it would be possible to hike up there, but assumed that I could not as it was private land; now that I know that this is effectively crown land, I will give it a try the next time clear weather accompanies my presence in Ingonish.
 According to a Cape Breton Post article by Mark Anderson of 2012 December 4, the lodge got a new roof with some assistance from the province, which should solve the leaks problem. Plans are also afoot for the construction of a mountain biking trail system on the slopes of Ski Cape Smokey, to be operational by the summer of 2013. In order to allow the site to be used for tourists and mountain bikers in the summer and skiers in the winter, the hope is “to have the quad chairlift up and running by summer”. “Its components have been X-rayed, but the cable needs a final inspection before it can be operational again.” The poma lift will operate again for the 2013 snow season, as it has in recent years.
² This web page has a fine discussion of the terminology relating to ski lifts; if you are as unfamiliar with it as I am, scroll down to the entry for pomalift for a full definition.↩
³ The preceding text on this page draws heavily from the Wikipedia article on Ski Cape Smokey and on Chris Hayes’ Cape Breton Post article published 2010 January 21. I am also indebted to Mike Little’s e-mail response to a query I sent him.↩
⁴ If you are a Facebook user, you can find some of these photos on the Ski Cape Smokey 2011 Facebook “community page”; you will need to scroll down to the bottom, click on “Older Posts”, and scroll down to the entries for 2011 March 6; those posted by Fabian Robinson and Laura Mercer are the ones to which the text refers, but there are others of interest there as well. Indeed, the entire page is well worth reading.↩