Northern Wilds Magazine
The Mount Baldy summit opens to breathtaking southerly views. Sleeping Giant looms out of crystal blue Lake Superior, and the city of Thunder Bay is visible in the distance. | CHRIS PASCONE
Along the Shore

Mount Baldy: Revitalizing skiing north of Thunder Bay

Ontario is not known as an alpine skiing hotbed. The highest point in the sprawling Canadian province is only 693 meters (2,274 feet) above sea level. Yet back in 2016, three brothers from Thunder Bay—Jason, Daniel, and Kristof Kardas—threw rationality out the window and took on the massive challenge of transforming the decrepit Mount Baldy ski hill north of Thunder Bay into a modern and attractive family ski area. Today, they’ve accomplished all of their goals, and then some. Here’s how Mount Baldy has become a leading 21st century ski area in the province.

Gutsy Call

Jason Kardas, head of operations at Mount Baldy, recounts the brothers’ initial steps in acquiring the ski hill from Craig Speiss in 2016: “He had someone wanting to buy the mountain to make it a gravel pit. He was really worried, because he wanted to keep the skiing legacy going, and not have it torn down” explains Jason. “He asked if we wanted to buy it. We laughed and said, ‘Our wives will kill us.’”

But the Kardas brothers thought about it and decided to make it happen. “Skiing’s in our blood, right?” Jason reasons.

Indeed, the Kardas brothers already had a rich skiing background. They grew up doing ski jumping—not a sport for the faint of heart. The brothers learned to hurl themselves off the sides of mountains from their Olympian ski jumping father, Slav Kardas. The brothers eventually advanced to the pinnacle of their sport—jumping for the Canadian national team.

The Kardas clan also opened the Ski and Board Exchange store in Thunder Bay 20 years ago (still a fixture today on Syndicate Ave.), where they have direct access to the local ski community. Maybe owning and operating a ski hill to boot wasn’t so irrational after all.

Hard Work Pays Off

The Kardas brothers have been working non-stop to modernize Mount Baldy in all possible ways. They’ve increased snow-making capacity. They’ve installed a magic carpet. They’ve rebuilt the chalet with new fireplaces and a modern kitchen. Their crown jewel is the new quad chairlift that has revolutionized how people experience the hill. Previously, there had been a slow T-bar getting folks single file up the mountain.

The Kardas brothers installed the magic carpet themselves, making Mount Baldy a beginner-friendly ski hill. | CHRIS PASCONE

Corey Belt, a self-described Mount Baldy enthusiast who previously worked at Lutsen Mountains Ski Resort for 10 years, praises the high-speed, high-capacity chairlift: “They installed a new chairlift last year and opened up several new runs, which gives you more laps per day and more terrain to explore.”

But it’s never been easy. Daniel Kardas reminisces about the time they had a chairlift tower delivered up the mountain… by helicopter. “Never in my lifetime did I think I would be wrestling a 4,000-pound chairlift tower hung by helicopter over my head,” he recounts.

Jason credits his father’s carpentry skills for the brothers’ willingness to take on all projects themselves. “Dad was a carpenter. He taught us all how to build. We’ve done every renovation at the ski hill ourselves. We installed the magic carpet and the chairlift ourselves. My brother was drilling holes 8 feet deep for the anchors. Apparently back in the day there were four ski hills here. People came by busloads from the States and Winnipeg. Candy Mountain shut down, Mt. McKay shut down, and Big Thunder shut down. If we make these improvements, maybe people will come back.”

Belt also waxes nostalgic about the ski areas of yesteryear, and notes that Mount Baldy has a “great vibe of a small, family-run ski resort, of which few are left.” He sees a parallel between Mount Baldy’s present and Lutsen Mountains back in the day: “When I worked at Lutsen Mountains, I always heard stories about the early period of the ski area, when they only had one lift on Eagle Mountain, and all the locals came, and it had a fun, party atmosphere. Mount Baldy feels a bit like that.”

Freestyle Skiing Fills a Niche

You’re never going to find long runs with endless deep powder in the Midwest. But skiers have a way of adapting to the conditions. Take the freestyle ski movement, which is going strong at ski hills around the region, from Spirit Mountain in Duluth to Mount Baldy.

Young skiers have embraced the “terrain park” as a way of expressing their creativity. Terrain park crews morph downhill ski slopes into “features,” including rails, boxes, and jumps that allow skiers and snowboarders to turn a tame hill into a canvas for expression on skis. Think double backflips.

Mount Baldy is home to the Thunder Bay Freestyle Ski Club. Nicole Kardas, wife of Daniel, is a committee member of the vibrant club, and the Kardas’ own two sons, Kael and Keiran (14 and 12 years old), are dedicated freestylers.

Nicole explains how the club has taken off thanks to the enhanced Mount Baldy terrain park: “Last year was a really fun one for the club. It’s amazing to watch the athletes progress and support each other.” Nicole adds that the club skiers train on air bags before they go do serious tricks on skis.

Mount Baldy is home to the Thunder Bay Freestyle Ski Club. | SUBMITTED

This focus on development has led to recent accomplishments on a provincial, and even nation-wide, scale: “The competitive team, led by head coach Cody Myshok, travelled to the Freestyle Ontario Timber Tours in southern Ontario last year, where our skiers earned national rankings thanks to their high scores. Thunder Bay athletes Lucas Flye, Ben McDermott, Josef Burkhardt and Kael Kardas earned spots at Junior Nationals in Calgary, Alberta,” explains Nicole. The Freestyle Ski Club’s competitive team must travel with a certified coach, and coach Myshok must sign off on their tricks before they can do them in competition.

Beginner and intermediate freestylers are welcome to join the Freestyle Ski Club at Mount Baldy, and there is a girls’ freestyle camp in March, too.

Clearly, Mount Baldy’s investments in increasing the size, difficulty, and variety of terrain features in the park have paid off.

“Unreal” Views

Thunder Bay can boast of both Mount Baldy and Loch Lomond ski areas, giving skiers and boarders options. For Corey Belt: “Mount Baldy is smaller, and has fewer runs than Loch Lomond, but its runs are similar to Loch Lomond’s in length and level of challenge. It’s also more laidback and has cheaper lift tickets.”

And then there’s the view. Everyone who rides the chairlift to the summit of Mount Baldy will have that jaw-dropping sensation when they look on to the massive Sleeping Giant (Sibley Peninsula) looming out of Lake Superior. The mountaintop view covers a vast expanse of crystal blue water, with the city of Thunder Bay also visible due south. The Canadian flag flies proudly from the small cabin at the summit, and the sun sets in brilliant colors to the west. Jason calls the views “unreal.”

The “unreal” metaphor is apt for a place where impossible work gets done by hand by the owners themselves. “We call ourselves a ‘diamond in the rough,’ because the ski hill was in rough shape,” says Jason.

Thanks to the Kardas family’s effort, skiers and snowboarders get to relax, train, and dream at this gem north of Thunder Bay.

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