Best for Last at Island Lake Lodge

No matter where you are on the planet, it’s a wonderful thing to wake up to the delicate sound of snowflakes falling. Some places are better than others. 

Shaking sleep from my eyes at Island Lake Lodge near Fernie, BC, the hum of the snowcat greets us as rosy clouds peeled back their curtains to reveal the jagged peaks of the Lizard Range. It’s not exactly dumping, but a few flakes of fresh frost the hills to keep hints of spring at bay. 

A late March trip—the lodge’s last overnight trip of the season, in fact—can be a mixed bag in terms of conditions. I’ve had some of the deepest days of the season in late March, and also some of the best spring corn skiing. Just last week, freezing line in BC had risen to over 10,000 feet, glazing some of the best ski terrain in the Lower 48 with a stout melt-freeze crust. A foot of snow had refreshed the range, though the high winds that accompanied those precious centimeters left some uncertainty on the table. 

A dreamy basecamp for the week.

A trip to Island Lake Lodge is an annual tradition for The Ski Journal team, and this year’s pilgrimage up north was my first as the new Editor of the magazine. There’s a rich history of ski media woven into the backstory of Island Lake Lodge thanks to the likes of Greg Stump, Scot Schmidt, and Mark Gallup, and it doesn’t take long to understand why. With 7,000 acres of terrain in the valley (5,000 of those are private land), an endless supply of rolling tree skiing and vast alpine bowls means that there’s likely a fresh pocket of snow no matter what Mother Nature hurls our way. 

Haley Wright, our lead guide for the trip, points out some of the classics looming large above the lodge as we load up into the cat on our first morning. 

A 20-minute cat ride from the lodge has us perched in an alpine col amongst the Three Bears, the iconic limestone spires that tower over Island Lake’s vast ski terrain. “Welcome to our highest drop point,” our tail guide, Dave Atkinson, says as we unload for our very first lap. 

Kicking off our trip with the first of many drops in the alpine.

“It may be a little wind-affected, but we’ll try to find some good turns in here for you,” Haley says casually before floating down the untracked bowl below. Silky windbuff greets us immediately, fast and supportable, as we take turns arcing our way down behind her. 

When there’s skiing this good to be had, why ease in slowly? 

Playful pitches of steep tree skiing and wide open glades follow as we dip back towards treeline, endless rolling terrain that easily swallows up our large group of 12. It’s the perfect kind of treed terrain to find your own lane, sniff out some fresh tracks hiding in the trees, and then link back up with the larger group at the bottom. After a few runs it’s pretty clear just how far one foot of snow can go around here. Especially when you have 7,000 acres of terrain practically to yourself. 

Chris Mckenna from Volkl Marker Dalbello indulging in a spring powder sampler platter.

At the end of the day, when our quads are starting to feel like last night’s lemon curd dessert, we’re introduced to the greatest thing I didn’t know I was missing out on: the backcountry groomer (the BCG, as we so fondly began to call it). 

Island Lake is a powder skiing haven. But that’s not to say that every square inch of the Island Lake tenure holds perfectly creamy powder seven days a week. A freshly cut panel of corduroy here and there is a much appreciated way to end a long pitch of skiing that narrows down into a steep gully. Resort skiing since the age of two, I thought I’d skied corduroy. But soft, gentle grooves born just 10 minutes before laying our skis into them is another story entirely. We came for the powder, but we are certainly staying for the BCG. 

Our last morning is gray. Intermittent graupel pours from the sky, bouncing off the sun-hardened crusts from yesterday’s bluebird day. Dave sets the stage for a mellow day to finish off the trip. We’ll stick to shaded aspects, try to find some soft snow, maybe even ski a few groomers if we have to. 

Steven Stoker from Rygr Media sniffing out untracked snow in the trees.

As we depart from the lodge, the snowcat steers off in an entirely different direction, over a ridge to the north we haven’t yet explored. After two runs we realize they’ve been saving the best for last. Long, steep tree lanes of creamy untouched snow await, preserved throughout the last storm cycle.  “First skier can drop,” Haley calls up to Dave on the radio, a little red dot at the end of a 1,500-foot pitch. “The snow is really good.”

There’s a distinct shift in our group’s powder politeness; anyone who’s been bashful about dropping first starts edging our skis to the front of the pack. It’s a good time to call in a favor. 

Mike Floyd, our contest winner and ski patroller at Vail, showing us how it’s done.

Luckily, there’s enough to go around. Our quiet morning turns into a sleeper grand finale as we pick up the pace and race down to the sound of the snowcat humming at the bottom. 

Best for last. No one ever complained about overdelivering. 

Working hard or hardly working? A good day “in the office.”

A huge thanks to our guides, Haley Wright and Dave Atkinson, our cat driver, Marie-Helen Jodoin, the whole Island Lake Lodge team and our advertising partners for making this a trip to remember. Great skiing is one thing, but it’s the people who make time in the mountains so memorable. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to welcome spring and celebrate such a great season.

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