Item: Island Lake Lodge 2016
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Words: Sakeus Bankson
The Island Lake Lodge parking lot is a few kilometers up a pot-holed, gravel road, sloppy under the mess of runoff. It’s beautiful out, sunny and warm with hits of spring in the late-March air. I’m cradling a coffee from one of the bakeries in nearby Fernie, BC, and craning my neck to see the slopes of the ski hill. They’re thoroughly white—a sign that, despite the sunshine, there are still winter turns to be had in the mountains. Which is good. That’s why I’m here.
A few minutes later I pull into the lot, a slushy miasma of mud and dirt bordered by waist-high snowbanks. A group mills around a pile of duffel bags, skis and snowboards, passing around a beer or two. For most of us, the drive here wasn’t a short one—it totals around 11 hours from the TSKJ offices in Bellingham, WA, and not much shorter for the rest of the crowd. And so, after the snow cat pulls up and we load the gear, everyone is okay with the clattery, half-hour ride. At least someone else is driving.
This is The Ski Journal Week 2016, a yearly trip into Island Lake Lodge, a cat skiing operation perched in the depths of the Rocky Mountain’s Lizard Range. Our roster includes an all-star team from all over: Tanner McCarty from Ride Snowboards; Greg Covello from Salomon Snowboards; Warren Currie from Edmonton, AB’s Easy Rider snowboard shop; Cassie Abel from WhiteCloud Communications; Corey Simpson from Patagonia; Ian Anderson from Backbone Media; Tristan Droppert from Black Crows Skis; Chris Danforth from Stevens Pass; and “Big Winner” Rob Layton from Steamboat Springs, CO, who was the lucky subscriber drawn to join us for the trip. The TSKJ contingent included Colin Wiseman, Matt Wibby and myself. After unloading our gear at Red Eagle Lodge, we head into the main cabin for dinner and drinks.
Here we also meet Forest Latimer and Candice Froneman, our guides for the trip. Forest is a seasoned patroller at the nearby Fernie Alpine Resort, and Candice has been guiding at Island Lake for 16 years. The duo are honest but hopeful; it hasn’t snowed in a while, but they think they can find us the goods. The Lizard Range, they say, has a lot of options.
Island Lake is an outfit with a pedigree. Based out of four beautiful log lodges, Island lake is unlike most cat or heli operations in that it sits on mostly private land—over 7,000 acres. In 1995, when there was a chance to buy the land from Shell Canada, a group of investors—including Scot Schmidt, Craig Kelly and photographer Mark Gallup, as well as other local legends—pooled their funds and were able to purchase what is now Island Lake’s plethora of stony peaks, alpine bowls and beautiful glades.
It’s a spread that holds much more terrain than seems possible. The lower, standard runs we had skied our first year at Island Lake hold plenty of previous tracks, but our cat keeps climbing. One of the benefits of the dry yet stable conditions, Candice and Forest tell us, was they’d been able to get clients on rarely skied terrain—terrain that our guides hadn’t skied in years, if at all.
After a few warm up laps in the wind-buffed alpine, Candice leads us up a punchy hike to one of those runs, called Center Punch. Neither Candice nor Forest have skied it before, and the 1,500 feet of steep, clean goodness is well worth the walk. We continue to hang in the alpine bowls and subalpine trees, finding plenty of lines to talk about over dinner and drinks later. During our pre-bed hot tub session we speculate over what tomorrow would bring.
Day two is more searching, more bits of hiking, and more success. Candice’s experience and Forest’s ambition lead us true again and again, assisted by the backcountry groomers that allow us to bypass the firmer lower zones (yep, perfect corduroy in the backcountry). It all culminates in a shaded tree run called Left Hook on the backside of Mt. Baldy. Neither of the guides have skied in years, and like almost all the trees on Mt. Bald–, thanks “Big” Steve’s thinning work–it is perfectly gladed. Even more stoked, we catch the classic Beer Run back to the lodge for…well, beers. It’s been a great day.
In celebration, we decide to continue the festivities into the night at the Bear Lodge, playing multiple card games and two rounds of “Fingers” (both of which Greg loses). That leads to a couple rounds on a 12 person shotski (the amount of skiers in a snow cat), a game of flip cup and a costume party. Island Lake knows how put together a good time.
As usually happens when you wake up with a hangover, the next day is perfect, despite starting in a whiteout that’s completely disorienting to folks in our state of mind. The sun comes out, quickly turning exposed slopes to perfect corn while stuff in the shade remains soft and stompable. Then Candice and Forest ask if we we’re for a hike up Big White, a face both had been trying to ski for years.
A half-hour later, sweaty and a little sunburnt, we are taking in a 360 view of the Canadian Rockies, with the peaks scratching the clear skies in the distance. The terrain here is akin to Alaska, with spines and chutes that beg to be skied. But our line is Big White, and after dropping into a long, steep face of wind-buffed pow, it turns out to be the best of the trip.
With all the sun baking Mt. Baldy, Candice has a suspicion there might be corn snow to farm, and we head to a run called Sore Foot. Before we drop in, we are blessed by a promising omen—a bald eagle, perched on the snag at the top of the run. The eagle brings good news. Despite the foreboding name, Sore Foot is all corn, untracked, smooth and playful. And with our success there, we decide to finish off the day on another classic—Hot Tub Chutes, 3,000 feet of perfect spring butter that spits us out on the cat road below the lodge. It is Forest’s first time down the run and Candice’s first in years, so when the cat arrives with beers both he and Candice are as giggly as we are.
The next day, the warm weather and lack of snow finally catches up with us. But no one is bothered when we call the day a little early to let the new arrivals enjoy the pow that has just started falling. We are more than satisfied.
The snow would keep falling, and Mike would send us photos a day later of the 20 cm and growing snowfall the storm had dumped. But we are fine with what we had—sometimes it’s the unexpected types of adventures that are the most epic. We leave the muddy parking lot with enthused goodbyes, calling it another amazing TSKJ Week. Island Lake, it seems, always surprises.
A special thanks to Mike McPhee, Forest Latimer, Candice Froneman, cat driver Fergus Crick, and all the staff and guides at Island Lake Lodge for creating a truly incredible experience. Also, for all who attended, and to Rob “Big Winner” Layton, thank you for showing us why we do what we do.