Photos by Henry Georgi
Fernie (BC), Canada –Combine exceptional powder, exceptional terrain, exceptional food and exceptional service, and you have Island Lake Lodge.
Island Lake Lodge is perhaps the most famous snowcat skiing operation in Canada. A couple of outfits in the Selkirk Mountains are older, but Island Lake, founded by Scot Schmidt and the late Craig Kelly among others in 1987, has attracted much favorable attention from the ski magazines and filmmakers. Island Lake is located in southeastern British Columbia’s Lizard Range, with its parking lot between the town of Fernie and Fernie Alpine Resort. The ski terrain is deep within the Lizard Range, a 45-minute cat ride from the parking area. Snowfall is slightly deeper than at the lift-serviced ski area, probably 400 to 450 inches per season.
For the 1996-97 season I bought new Volant Chubb powder skis, and planned to explore B.C.’s famed “Powder Triangle” – Red Mountain, Fernie Alpine Resort, and Whitewater Ski Area – for the first time. For this first trip I signed on with Brad Karafil’s Ski Plus Tours, a one-week unstructured van odyssey with a mix of lift service, snowcat and heliskiing, depending upon local weather, availability and Brad’s contacts. Due to a family emergency within that week’s van group the tour was cancelled two weeks ahead, after I had already reserved vacation time and a flight to Spokane. Brad and his wife have since settled down and founded White Grizzly snowcat skiing in the Selkirks.
My first short-notice call in February 1997 was to Island Lake Lodge, and I was fortunate to slide into a slot for the first three days of my trip. At the time, Island Lake offered dormitory-style lodging on the second floor of their Main Lodge and private doubles in the recently built Red Eagle Lodge. Skiers would come and go each day, including a few day skiers, and they only had enough clients for two of their three cats on the second of my three days.
My sole snowcat experience up until that point had been a single day at Wyoming’s Grand Targhee, and I was blown away by the scale and efficiency at Island Lake. There are four mostly north-facing alpine bowls of up to 1,000 vertical feet each, with 1,500 vertical feet of outstanding tree skiing below that. The cat was always waiting for us at the bottom of each run, and was well stocked with drinks, snacks and sandwiches so for renourishment as we pleased during the ascents. We rarely saw the other two cats or their skiers, except for the day they towed a barbeque onto the mountain by snowmobile for a fresh grilled lunch.
My first ski day was on a Sunday, and the last snowfall had been a two-foot dump on the preceding Wednesday. The tree skiing was nonetheless light and dry right down to the lowest pickups at around 4,000 feet of elevation. They were assessing alpine stability under the two feet of new, and on the first day only our last run was from a high alpine drop point. We nonetheless skied 17,000 vertical that first day.
Monday was probably my finest day of snowcat skiing, very comparable to the heliskiing that I have enjoyed in the Selkirks. Several runs started from the alpine and continued for more than 2,500 vertical feet, all in excellent snow. Everyone in the cat had been skiing the day before, so the guide also sought out some steeper pitches for us. Our late afternoon runs were on the forested Mt. Baldy, across the valley from the
alpine peaks and about 1,000 feet lower down. On our last run we skied a south-facing glade, by then a bit sunbaked, directly to the Lodge for a total of 18,000 vertical feet for the day.
On Tuesday, the weather constrained our skiing. It had been windy overnight, with no visibility in the alpine thanks to morning fog and light snowfall. We had our first run in some open terrain that had wind exposure. A San Francisco couple and I cruised this windbuff with no problem (Sierra training!), but most of the group complained, so the guides moved us to Mt. Baldy for the rest of the day. We therefore stayed in the most
sheltered glades, primarily located on Mt. Baldy. The snow quality was outstanding, but most runs were of 800-1,000 vertical feet each, for a daily total of 11,000.
I continued my week’s vacation at the Powder Triangle lift-serviced areas, and wrapped up the week with more powder skiing than I had ever before enjoyed on a one-week trip.
AN ANNUAL QUEST FOR POWDER
I returned to western Canada for each of the next three seasons, experimenting with new lift-serviced areas and partaking in four days of snowcat touring and four days of heliskiing. While the snow was consistently top-quality, I felt that the snowcat skiing from other operators often fell short of Island Lake’s in terms of terrain quality or efficiency. 10,000-12,000 vertical of powder seemed to be the norm with these other operators, even on good weather days.
I also learned that Island Lake owns its ski terrain rather than leasing it from the government. This allows them to design cat roads with skiing flexibility in mind, rather than just making do with tortuous old logging roads. Also, as great as the natural glades of the Lizard Range are, Island Lake can log selectively to open up the best possible skiable lines.
Western Canada had suffered its worst drought in over 50 years during the 2000-2001 ski season, with Fernie receiving a paltry 45% of normal snowfall. I did not ski anywhere in Canada that year, and heard varying word-of-mouth rumors that Island Lake had given refunds or rain checks on upwards of half of their scheduled tours that season.
Island Lake’s fame had nonetheless spread wider since my 1997 visit, and by now the bulk of the season was sold out in 3- or 4-day blocks, mostly on the first booking date in mid-September that was 15-18 months ahead of the actual tour dates. I knew that the 2001 season was an aberration, and hoped that it might be easier to get a booking
for 2003. I’m sure that it also helped that the scheduled booking date for 2003 trips was on September 17, 2001. Island Lake did sell out most of 2002-03, but it did so over a month or so rather than primarily on the first day, as had been the case previously.
I was delighted to have a reservation for February 3-5, 2003, but the early season did not bode well. November 2002 was nearly as dry as it had been two years earlier, and when the storms finally arrived in December and January they were accompanied by quite a bit of rain along with the snow in Fernie. I made a couple of calls to Island Lake in mid-January and was reassured that no tours had been cancelled and that they were skiing powder each day. The web reports from Fernie Alpine Resort did show good coverage and conditions on the upper mountain, with problems experienced only at low elevations.
Then came Sunday, January 26, when to my horror Fernie locals reported suffering a torrential rainstorm to over 7,000 feet. Puddles were visible online at the World Cup aerial event that Fernie hosted that day. I knew that Island Lake could not have escaped this one, and their Jan. 27-30 tour group suffered the consequences. They snowmobiled and skied the groomed ice and hardpack at Fernie Alpine Resort for three days, and finally were rewarded with one powder day on Island Lake’s terrain after it snowed 8 inches on Wednesday.
The following morning, my son Adam and I flew into Whitefish with morale improved by the new snow from the day before. Additional light snowfall continued as we drove to The Big Mountain in Montana. Alas, we awoke the next morning to green trees and drizzle. Snow was falling on the upper mountain, but we knew of Fernie’s lower elevation and therefore stayed at Big Mountain for an extra day. It was not until Saturday that we finally drove the two hours to Fernie.
We skied Fernie Alpine Resort only on Sunday, in conditions far inferior to those of our previous two days at Big Mountain. Fernie had received rain on about three-quarters of its terrain, up to about 5,500 feet, and as a result the White Pass chair and the upper half of Currie Bowl were the only areas worth a venture off-piste. We were quite apprehensive about how much of Island Lake’s terrain would have decent snow, and how long it would last over the next three days.
2003: A SUCCESSFUL “STRESS TEST”
After a first short warmup run Monday the cat went straight to Island Lake’s highest drop point at 7,000 feet, nearly 700 feet higher than the top of the Fernie’s White Pass lift. We were gratified to have more terrain above Friday’s rain line. News of the Durrand Glacier and Rogers Pass avalanche tragedies was less than two weeks old, and the sole blessing of the January 26 downpour in the Lizard Range was that it solidified the snowpack and removed of the potential danger created by the weak, unstable layer of snow still present throughout the rest of Western Canada.
Despite a bit of occasional windpack, we skied mostly untracked powder in the alpine from Wednesday’s and Friday’s storms. Around 5,500 feet the snow would become heavier, and a few hundred feet lower the rain crust would become noticeable, but the cat always picked us up by 5,100. The tree skiing I remembered from 1997 continues on down to 4,000 feet, but we only skied to that elevation on a cat road at the end of
the day. A snowboarder in the group, his 10th day on a board and his first in powder, was overmatched by the experience, and our guides wasted no time in radioing for a snowboarding guide to provide him with personal instruction away from the group. He was fortunately quite fit, and thus was able to persevere and learn one-on-one from the guide without holding up the rest of the group.
The ambience at Monday’s dinner was lively and upbeat, now that we all knew we were actually getting to ski powder despite what many of us had seen at Fernie. Island Lake’s clients are mostly American and Canadian, though I remember a couple of Australian snowboarders from 1997. They were taking a respite from the 100+ degree summer on their outback sheep ranch. We had dinners with skiers in other groups as well as our own, and Adam socialized in the hot tub with a group of 20-something snowboarders
who filled one of the other snowcats.
Monday night at dinner it began to snow, but it was turned out to be merely a tease of a couple of inches. On Tuesday we swapped terrain with one of the other cats from Monday, skiing the westernmost bowl Island Lake’s permit area, plus Mt. Baldy. The latter’s tree skiing was more variable than it had been in 1997 with its partially sunny exposure. The north side of Baldy was not accessible due to thin cover at low elevation
that prevented creation of a cat road around that side for pickups. The cold overnight temperature’s deterioration of Friday’s rain crust in undisturbed snow was an interesting phenomenon, and pickups at 4,800 feet on Tuesday were similar to those at 5,100 the day before.
On Wednesday a new strategy was employed to access best quality powder. One of the alpine bowls was not plowed as high as possible due to slightly submerged boulders that prevented construction of a cat road in the below-average coverage, so the cat took us as high as it could go and then we would hike 10-15 minutes to the most promising slopes. The guides noted the group’s enthusiasm for this new terrain and returned to it three more times. They also let Adam and a couple other skiers launch some big air off the partially submerged boulders in the open slopes. The first-day snowboarder and a couple of skiers had been replaced by three local Fernie women, one of whom had been a cat driver when I was there in 1997. With this faster group
we actually wound up with a bit more vertical by the end of the day despite the hikes.
We concluded the three days of skiing at Island Lake with 39,000 vertical feet, by estimation 30,000 of it in powder, compared with 46,000 and 44,000 feet respectively in 1997. The skiing was nonetheless a very pleasant surprise, considering what we had observed at Fernie Alpine Resort only a day before our arrival at Island Lake. The immense size of the permit area and the well-designed road system on private land had allowed us to ski mostly untracked snow and avoid the half of the permit area that possessed nasty conditions. The weather gods continued to be uncooperative after our departure, with another dry week-and-a-half before a 2-foot dump restored order over President’s weekend. I checked in again by phone, and Island Lake did eventually run out of untracked snow during that time. But recall that it required more than two dry weeks with only half of the terrain worth accessing.
2003 AND BEYOND – NEW AMENITIES AND NEW BOOKING PROCEDURES
Island Lake has gradually evolved into a more upscale experience. The newly built Cedar Lodge has allowed all 36 skiers to have private double rooms. The already tasty kitchen of 1997 has been stepped up to a gourmet dinner experience, complete with an extensive wine list. Two hot tubs sit outside the Main Lodge, and massages are available by reservation. The cost for 2002-03 was about USD $500 per day for a 3- or 4-day package including skiing, lodging and all meals, and there are minor variations in cost amongst the three lodges.
Registration for 2003-04 began in September 2002, but in August 2002 a new booking procedure allowed repeat customers to retain their 2002-2003 slots for the same dates as in 2003-04. Starting this season, 2003-04 skiers may retain their slots for 2004-05 by reserving within a couple of weeks of their 2003-04 visit. Any open slots for 2004-05 will then be available to new customers starting in April 2004. As of November 2003,
all tours between January 11 and March 25 of 2004 are booked.
Island Lake now operates a second snowcat area, Powder Cowboy, on the backside of the Lizard Range behind Fernie Alpine resort. It accommodates 12 skiers (they plan to expand to 24 this season) in somewhat more rustic accommodations at the Bull River Ranch. Powder Cowboy’s rates run at approximately USD $400 per day for a 3- or 4-day package, and and tours between January 29 and March 14 of 2004 are already sold out. The terrain permit area is not as large as Island Lake’s and the exposures are more variable, but prevailing storms approach the Lizard Range from the direction of Powder Cowboy, so Fernie locals assure me that the area does get plenty of snow.
ISLAND LAKE STATISTICS:
Permit Area: 7,000 acres (2,833 hectares)
Snowcats: 3 12-guest cats at Island
Lake Lodge, 1 12-guest cat at Powder Cowboy