BEAVER MEADOW, N.S. - Jason Mason found his calling as a professional snowboarder on the slopes of Keppoch Mountain, during its heyday as a skiing and snowboarding destination in Antigonish County.
“I started skiing when I was five and started snowboarding when I was 11. Every year, we went to the Keppoch on the weekend,” Mason said, over a cup of hot chocolate in the lodge at the foot of Keppoch Mountain.
“After I left high school, I kept living on ski resorts for the next 10 years – my life was shaped by my time at the Keppoch.”
Mason described a disappointing chapter in the history of the Keppoch, noting it closed in 1997, “and nobody had that opportunity anymore. Generations of kids came and went, and had no idea what the Keppoch was, or what it could have been like.”
To Mason, seeing anyone deprived of an outdoor sports resource like the Keppoch is unconscionable.
"My life was shaped by my time at the Keppoch." - Jason Mason
That’s why he is a firebrand in the movement to restore the site to what it was like in the 80s – and then make it better and establish Antigonish as a destination for skiers and snowboarders.
Mason stressed that people who want to snowboard, ski or do other outdoor winter sports, “shouldn’t have to leave Nova Scotia to do these things.”
“There is a professional snowboarder form Antigonish; John Michalak. That’s the kind of talent the Keppoch in Antigonish County has the potential for,” Mason said. “We want to be able to nurture it, so it’s available to the kids.”
In order to do that, both Mason and Andrew Bradshaw, vice president of the Positive Action for Keppoch [PAK] Society, have been raising funds with a number of other interested groups, and garnering community support for a plan make the Keppoch a year-round destination.
Mason recalled a moment he taught Bradshaw how to land a snowboarding trick [the 50-50] on the first try. Mason referred to the excitement Bradshaw felt upon landing the trick, saying, “we’re trying to package that. That is what we want to sell to people – that feeling.”
The process of making the Keppoch a winter sports destination isn’t all just happy feelings and big dreams, nor is it a process confined to the winter alone.
Mason noted he has spent many a Saturday and Sunday working tirelessly to cut out the snowboarding and sledding hill that is coming together – all voluntarily and of his own initiative.
“When someone has an idea, I say ‘show me the work.’ I had an idea, so I went and did the work to reclaim the mountain,” Mason said.
Mason went out on his own and cleared the brush and overgrowth from the site of the park. Before he began, what was once the ski hill of the 80s and early 90s had long since been reclaimed by nature and was thick with the growth of shrubs, bushes and trees that grow in abundance in the highlands of west Antigonish County.
“I did the lift line, all the way to where the park starts by hand with a spacing saw,” Mason said. “Eventually [board of directors president] John [Chiasson] came out with the bush hog, when the grade was less steep, and they were able to move it, and it was all cleared.”
The slope is still a work in progress but is completely navigable by snowboard, as demonstrated by Mason.
“When I moved home, I hiked the Keppoch 42 times in one year,” Mason explained. “When spring hit, I was like, ‘I want to make it more interesting,’ and that’s when I came up with the design. I went to Andrew and John with the design for platforms.”
Mason ended up sourcing wood from the mountain to create the platforms (drops) at the top of the slope, and that constituted a very early step toward what is in place today – a ‘no-budget’ phase for the project.
"I went and did the work to reclaim the mountain." - Mason
“We started with the [log] platforms and no budget, but if you build it, people will come. We created value and laid the foundation for us to go forward with the next step,” Mason said.
The next step entailed more platforms. They now are installed on the slope of the Keppoch, enhancing what can be done on a snowboard going down the slope – something Mason was happy to demonstrate on a weekend afternoon, carving through the rain-hardened snow and gliding across the platforms.
Crafted in Truro, they are professional quality, and built to accommodate the steep learning curve [pun thoroughly intended] of snowboarding, so that people of all skill levels can enjoy what the Keppoch has to offer in the winter.
“We started last year. Jason and I built the drops, and we had the project coming up where we were looking to develop the hill for a Canada mountain biking event,” Bradshaw said.
Then, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency [ACOA] came to visit, “and saw potential for it to be much more than mountain biking,” Bradshaw said. “They saw potential for sports tourism, and four-season outdoor recreation.”
That, Bradshaw noted, was naturally perfect for a place like the Keppoch with its naturally steep terrain, the many trails already in place and the presence of the skills park at the base of the hill.
ACOA provided 30 per cent of the funding, and an anonymous donor provided the remaining 60 per cent for a budget of $10,000.
“With that $10,000, we made a presentation to the board on what we were going to do, and they agreed to another $5,000,” Bradshaw said.
The plan, Mason and Bradshaw explained, is to have a slope that is divided into three main segments.
The first third, closest to the top of the mountain is the three drops, the most dramatic slope on the mountain, for snowboarders and skiers in the winter, and exceptionally brave cyclists in the warmer months.
The middle third is the terrain park for snowboarders and skiers. It consists of several features, built by Camden Welding in Truro, such as platforms and sections of corrugated PVC pipe built to accommodate snowboarding tricks at every level of expertise.
The bottom third of the slope is an area reserved for tobogganing and sledding.
The newest winter features of the Keppoch are all in the same area in the park – along the route of the old ski lift from back before 1997.
That was by design.
“We picked that area because it had the potential for the best audience participation,” Mason said, at the foot of the hill, as several fat bikers made their way onto an adjacent trail to avail themselves of another feature the Keppoch features.
“It has spectator value, and it keeps everyone in one spot, able to watch the action, so to speak.”
"This place belongs to the community and we want the community involved." - Mason
To Mason, something of crucial symbolic and practical importance – a crowning jewel of the Keppoch, so to speak – is bringing the ski lift back to the mountain.
“We’re bringing back the lift,” Mason said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
“The board will do a second round of public consultation on bringing back a lift,” Bradshaw said, a little less gung-ho than Mason specifically about the lift.
Mason noted that the lift constitutes the next phase in his plan for the Keppoch.
“We can bring the lift back,” Mason emphasized. “We want people to be interested, to get in their car, show up and buy passes. This place belongs to the community and we want the community involved. That’s how we’re going to get the support and the demand to bring it back.”
The Keppoch's website