May 19, 2016

Celebrating 40 years of pedalling, paddling and pursuing new heights

Outdoor Centre grows from basement operation into largest centre of its kind in North America

2016 marks 50 years of the University of Calgary being part of this vibrant, energetic city and we have a great deal to celebrate. Led by the Eyes High vision, we’ve become the top-ranked young university in Canada and North America. One of our significant milestones was the founding of the Outdoor Centre in 1976. As the centre celebrates 40 years of service we look at its track record, from its early beginnings in the basement of MacEwan Hall to its current state as the largest centre of its kind in North America. 

When Alf Skrastins, a founding member of the Outdoor Centre, started offering mountain bike trips at the University of Calgary in the 1970s, you couldn’t actually buy a mountain bike in the city. Instead, he led groups on 10-speeds into the foothills. 

“Occasionally he’d break an axle,” says Skrastins’ friend and former colleague Calum MacDonald, now the Kinesiology Complex manager. “But it would all work out in the end.”

And how. Forty years later, the Outdoor Centre helps more than 10,000 Albertans learn more about safe, outdoor activities.

A location dedicated to getting people active and outside

The Outdoor Centre’s roots go back to the early days of the University of Calgary. Skrastins was on the student council in the early 1970s, a time when intervarsity athletics and the recreation program were both under the umbrella of a group then called the University Athletic Board.

Skrastins, BSc'81, and others pushed to separate the two and, as a result, push more funding toward recreational sports. 

“That’s when the idea of instructional not-for-credit courses started — swimming classes, and the addition of the outdoor courses: cross-country skiing, hiking, backpacking,” Skrastins says.

Next, he put together a proposal for a dedicated location — the Outdoor Centre — that would focus on getting people active and outside. Around that same time, Skrastins and a couple of fellow volunteers began a program guide. Dubbed “The Bullshooter,” it included all of the not-for-credit outdoors courses and campus recreation programs being offered at the University of Calgary. 

“The name was not what I would have chosen,” Skrastins says with a chuckle. “But the idea was to have a comprehensive program guide that listed everything we did, so people could peruse the list and say, ‘Well, that looks interesting. I should try it.’” And they did.

Operating out of a broom closet

Housed in the basement of MacEwan Hall, the initial Outdoor Centre was small but interest was strong and soon the group began to organize trips.

While they could borrow some equipment from the Faculty of Physical Education, they began buying gear — a handful of tents and backpacks — to use on these trips. One thing led to another and, around 1976, Skrastins realized the gear was sitting there unused for much of the year. If they rented it out when they didn’t need it, they could make money to buy more and, along the way, encourage more people to get outdoors.

“We kept everything in a little broom closet,” he says. “I was the only employee, a part-time student employee looking after this equipment.”

The rental program continued to expand every year, and Skrastins’ role expanded, too. By 1978, he was working full-time at the Outdoor Centre, where he stayed until 2008. “It took me 10 years to do my degree,” Skrastins says with a laugh. “When I finally graduated, the university president at the time joked that I should have been given tenure.”

Founding member of the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre Alf Skrastins, top, with other outdoor enthusiasts in a snow shelter.

Founding member of the Outdoor Centre Alf Skrastins, top, with other outdoor enthusiasts in the snow

Outdoor Centre

‘Just a group of friends working together’

The Outdoor Centre continued to grow, adding new programs and courses. In 1982, MacDonald, BPE’84, joined to handle the canoeing program and soon after, he took over the whitewater rafting and sea kayaking programs.

“In the early days, it was a really small group — really just a group of friends working together,” MacDonald says. 

Travelling together, too. They’d often pack up someone’s car and take off on a road trip to the Baja in Mexico or the West Coast, exploring new destinations for future guiding.

“We didn’t save a lot of money because we’d spend everything we had on our next trips,” MacDonald says.

Sometimes those trips led to more than good memories. “We had two or three couples over the years decide they’d get married on one of our trips,” MacDonald says. “Sometimes they’d done a trip the previous year, and then they’d go back the following year and get married.” 

Expansion includes Calgary's first climbing wall 

In 1986, the Outdoor Centre moved to its current location in the Kinesiology Complex, as part of the Faculty of Kinesiology expansion and the building of the Olympic Oval for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

A bike shop operated in a shed out back, and the wind sports program — including hang gliding — expanded, too.

John Janssen, BPE’89, the Outdoor Centre’s wind sport and telemark ski program co-ordinator and instructor, remembers those early days in the new space as being incredibly exciting, as more people became exposed to outdoor sport through their efforts.

“The Outdoor Centre has been one of the biggest promoters in Calgary of healthy living and getting outside,” says Janssen. “It really goes along with what I feel is important in life, and there are lots of great people to work with, too.”

A 40-foot indoor climbing wall was also added, the first public climbing wall in Calgary and only the second of its kind in Canada. It was designed by Murray Toft (then a professor in the former Outdoor Pursuits program) as a resource to teach Calgarians rock climbing and glacier travel skills.

“This was the beginning of a whole new physical activity which had never before existed at U of C,” says wilderness expert Albi Sole, BA'98, MSc'08. 

Sole joined the team 19 years ago as the co-ordinator for Public Avalanche Awareness Programs, another important addition to the Outdoor Centre’s offerings. Along the way, he has become one of the Outdoor Centre’s most vocal advocates. “The Outdoor Centre is a world-class centre,” says Sole. “There is literally nothing else like it in North America.”

As for Skrastins, he continued his involvement with the Outdoor Centre until his retirement in 2008. These days, he spends much of his time working on trail care projects in Kananaskis, including the West Bragg Creek all season trails plan, as well as a plan for the Chester-Sawmill Trails system.

Alf Skrastins on a ski trip.

Alf Skrastins on a ski trip.

Outdoor Centre

Ensuring every Canadian child has access to outdoor activity

In 2008 the Outdoor Centre's new director Kurt Kinnear realized the need for more low-risk outdoor education and support nationally. He approached Sole with the problem and that led to the Outdoor Council of Canada and, with the support of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Outdoor Centre team, Sole was able to dedicate substantial work time to do so.

Now in every province and territory in Canada, The Outdoor Council of Canada has a goal to ensure every child has the same access to outdoor activity and education as they currently have to indoor sport and education. “It’s an ambitious project, and it never would have gotten off the ground without the Outdoor Centre’s support,” says Sole, the Outdoor Council’s executive director.

Kurt Kinnear, who is currently completing a master of arts in leadership, came to the Outdoor Centre 10 years ago. It was a natural fit for the lifelong outdoorsman who explored the backcountry of Southwestern Alberta by horseback at a very young age. His mother was an outdoor camp director and he spent his summers in later years as a youth camp leader. 

Leading the way to healthy, active living

In 2008, after growing the summer camps programs participation, he became the centre’s director charged with streamlining and growing the Outdoor Centre as a whole. In 2010, Kinnear created Active Living, which includes all the fitness facilities, programs and summer camps. Now, in his new role as senior director of the Faculty of Kinesiology, he continues to oversee the strong team carrying out activities in the Outdoor Centre. This position enables him to continue to support the faculty’s mission of leading the way to healthy, active living.

This year, in addition to substantially increasing enrolment in programs, the Outdoor Centre collaborated with the University of Calgary and the City of Calgary to add a small operation at Bowness Park offering skate and boat rentals as well as group programming for schools and families. 

 “Our idea was to give more schools affordable access and training for outdoor activities," Kinnear says.

“I’m very proud of Outdoor Centre’s accomplishments. Although it has expanded physically throughout the years, its core — promoting healthy living in the outdoors — will remain the same,” says Kinnear. “We will continue to serve our community, those who want to learn and experience the outdoors, with the same passion for the next 40 years and beyond.