Taking the Long Route with Bearpaw Heli-Skiing

Words: Sakeus Bankson. Photos: Colin Wiseman.

All it takes to buy a house and multiple acres in Sinclair Mills, BC is $20,000 CDN. That, and an impressive lapel pin collection.

There’s not much in the tiny town, located 55 miles east of Prince George. What was once a thriving logging community in the 1950s is now home to one farmer, two hunting outfitters and a few families. During the hour-long, nighttime trip from the Prince George airport, our driver points out the remnants of the industry, the final being a rusty “beehive” slash burner butted against the Fraser River. The 30-foot-tall structure marks the turnoff to our destination: Bearpaw Heli-Skiing.

As for the population of Sinclair Mills? “That depends on how many guests we have,” says Kevin Shipley shortly after our crew—including Pep Fujas and photographer and TSKJ Content Director Colin Wiseman—pull into Bearpaw’s small lodge complex. The buildings are weathered, log-and-wattle cabins, reminiscent of ancient trapper cabins or trader outposts, which it turns out they are. One is actually a restored 75-year-old chicken coop. “The population is usually around 20, but when we’re booked it’s around 35.”


ABOVE Bearpaw’s main lodge is built from a reclaimed barn dating back to the late 1800s. It’s located near the Fraser River, the waterway that once served as the primary mode of transport for pioneers heading west to settle British Columbia, and signs of early settlers still abound along its banks. Nowadays, the Fraser and adjacent Highway 1 don’t see a lot of traffic, except in the form of lumber heading south toward coastal Vancouver.

Kevin should know. He and his wife Amber are the founders and owners of Bearpaw and lifelong residents of the area. Amber’s son, Jeremy, just joined them, having recently made the $20k and pin-collection transaction for his own black-painted home.

Now in its third year of official operation, Bearpaw is already drawing billionaires and professional athletes alike to its varied tenure, which encompasses four mountain ranges and can boast everything from bluebird glacier skiing to tree lines accessible during even the heaviest snow storms.

More than ski lines or chicken coops, however, what sets Bearpaw apart are the owners themselves, and the stories that led to its founding. They begin with Kevin’s years logging the same mountains in the 1980s, Amber’s years running northern British Columbia’s first outdoor shop, and when the couple built a backcountry ski cabin in 1985, exploring more than 200 of their current runs by foot. They continue with their log cabin business, and the restoration of a dilapidated Hudson’s Bay Company building. They became official when Kevin started heli guiding more than 13 years ago, and when the operation obtained its 30-year tenure in 2009. And now those stories live on in Jeremy, who recently began working alongside his mom.

Ultimately, Bearpaw isn’t just a business. It’s the culmination of 30 years in these mountains and a dedication to creating something beautiful, even if it takes decades.

As Kevin puts it, “We may not be fast, but at least we’re slow.”



ABOVE images Pep Fujas contemplates and the helicopter gyrates in front of a massive icefall in the McGregor Range.

The helicopter pulls away from the logging road that serves as a pickup zone for the first morning, lifting over the clear-cut to thread between the clouds and snow-covered trees below. It’s overcast, and while we’ve already driven 30 minutes northeast we have yet to see the peaks to which we’re headed. But Kevin has a plan, and there’s a lot of ground to work with.

Bearpaw’s tenure stretches deep into the east, encompassing four ranges: the McGregors, Dezaiko, Missinchinka and Rocky mountains. Even with extensive gravel roads and scars from old clear-cuts, it’s a wild place. As we dip over the first ridge, Jeremy points to an alpine bowl, where they sometimes see caribou. Other inhabitants include moose, grizzly bear and packs of wolves, who occasionally provide impromptu entertainment for guests at the lodge.

“Some nights we’ll be watching a movie and hear 30 or 40 of them start howling, and we always stop and go outside,” Kevin says. “It kind of makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”

The howls are familiar to Kevin and Amber. They’ve spent their entire lives in and out of the area. Both grew up in Prince George, where they met in high school, and both skied at nearby Purden Lake Ski Resort. Starting in the early 1980s, Amber owned and operated an outdoor gear store, one of the first in the northern part of the province and a bastion for the art of telemarking in the area.

Kevin’s path was less snow-oriented, but would help set the foundations for Bearpaw all the same. Immediately after high school, he apprenticed under a local log builder, a job that provided skills he’d use his entire life. He also started logging, which first brought him to Sinclair Mills and pushed him deeper into the nearby mountains.

“I spent three or four seasons back in the ranges to the north, camped out for summer and winter to fall trees,” Kevin says. “It was a good gig-—awesome kayaking in the summer, and in the winter I’d cut mornings and boogie out on this dinky little snowmobile in the afternoons to explore and ski runs.”

In 1981 they built their first backcountry cabin, which Kevin points out as we fly over. It’s mostly hidden in the trees, a pine having fallen on the roof. They built their next in 1985, dubbed “the Farm,” which they now operate for the province, collecting fees and maintaining the building and access trails.

As the pace and technology of timber harvesting in the area increased, Kevin soon found himself heli-logging. This made for a natural transition to cutting out landing pads for a nearby heli-ski operation, and eventually sparked an interest in heli-skiing. In 1997 he earned a job guiding at nearby Crescent Spur Heli-Skiing, and by 2004 he’d earned his ACMG Ski Guide certification.


ABOVE Just like the rest of the province, north-central British Columbia has its share of pillows, and at Bearpaw they still discover new zones on a near-daily basis. Pep Fujas launches into one stack of many.

His lessons took him to many of the BC hotspots, including Revelstoke. But rather than pulling the Shipleys to better-known areas, it only cemented the couple’s love for home.

“The instructor [in Revelstoke] told me, ‘This is the best tree skiing you’re ever going to get,’” Kevin says. “It was god-awful. The trees were so tight that I was mildly horrified. I kept thinking, ‘I don’t think so,’ and when I got back, Amber and I agreed we better do something.”

The Shipleys had long toyed with idea of starting some sort of skiing operation in the mountains east of Prince George. After all, they were responsible for the only backcountry cabin there, and knew the skiing in the area better than almost anyone. But Amber’s wisdom from running the outdoor shop brought up a fiscal reality.

“We had already built the Farm, and were totally into backcountry skiing,” Amber says. “But after a few years, the lights came on and we realized we couldn’t really make a lot of money, at least not enough to support us.”

So in 2003, Amber and Kevin applied for their tenure, and two years later bought 150 acres along the St. Lawrence River in Sinclair Mills. While they’d already spent decades in those mountains, they ramped up their exploratory missions with a new objective in mind: Starting a heli ski operation.

“The winter after we applied, we were living in Prince George but had two snowmobiles up here,” Kevin says. “I think we skied over 60 days that year, going someplace new every day. You’d skin up one run, and then look across the valley and see something else. And we did that all winter.”


ABOVE “The Burn” is a favorite warmup zone, and can be accessed very easily when weather moves in. It’s full of mid-angle turns and playful poppers. Sakeus Bankson lays one out on the second run of the trip.

As we move over the soggy trees and deeper into the mountains, the weather turns from warm snow to full-on blizzard. Many operations would be forced to shut down in such conditions, but Bearpaw’s lower-elevation tree skiing allows them to fly in all but the most brutal storms. The nimble AStar helicopter helps.

We soon buzz past “Dick Doctor,” a pillow-laden tree run pioneered the year before and named for one of the guests, a urologist from Calgary. Kevin directs the pilot to the top of a nearby knob, barely visible but upon which we land with no problems. It’s an old burn and a great option for low-visibility days, a consistent pitch enhanced by the aesthetic of our bright jackets zipping through the blackened trees.

Our main objective is “Short Ribs,” one of Kevin and Jeremy’s favorite runs and perfect for this type of weather, as well as folks looking for spicier terrain. We take a bump across the valley, dropping in for a few exploratory runs before moving onto bigger pillow stacks, finding the deep snow perfect for aggressive sending. After a full day, there are still untracked lines in nearly every direction, some of which have never been skied. Even with all their exploring, Bearpaw’s tenure is still full of surprises.

“Some of the stuff we’re skiing I helped log 10 years ago,” Kevin says. “That’s how we pioneer a lot of runs, tour in the zones where I was logging. And each year when we go out skinning, we find something new.”

The sky begins to darken, and we’re forced to call it a day, but not before flying past a 100-foot wall of frozen blue waterfalls that keeps us chattering for the rest of the return flight. Soon we pass over the Farm, and the St. Lawrence comes into sight. A crowd of dogs mills around the landing zone, fleeing to the cabins as we touch down.

From above, the cluster of buildings looks almost like a turn-of-the-century fort, and as we talk about the history of the operation that night we learn that’s not far from the truth. The buildings have a long story as well, and have played their own role in bringing the couple’s unique vision to life.

Unknown to Kevin and Amber at the time, the next step toward Bearpaw came in 2000, in the form of a very old barn. While working on a cabin near Prince George, Kevin was approached by some doctors from Vancouver who were looking to build a home in the area. They had heard about an old building they wanted to restore, and it was located just down the road from where Kevin grew up.

“It was built by a really good craftsman in 1932,” Kevin says, over a chocolate dessert made by Bearpaw’s cook and resident chocolatier. “I actually met the guy, and knew his kid when I was young. He was a real artist, and it was beautiful, the best log building I’ve ever restored. I told the doctors we could do something with it, and that got us started.”

Kevin spent the next 10 years working on the cabin, and still makes occasional repairs. Considering it was almost the exact same dimensions and style as the building that eventually became Bearpaw’s main lodge, it unintentionally served as a laboratory for when they started work on the property in 2006.

They found that future lodge, a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost from 1874, on a First Nations reserve. As they began restoration on the old building, they also started a side pursuit—Bearpaw Mountain Homes. That company served as their primary source of financial backing, and Kevin and Amber still take on the odd job in the summer.

After completing the main lodge, they didn’t slow down. They converted a chicken coop from the 1920s, donated by a neighbor, into their office. Soon other area landowners began offering up old abandoned cabins. Often this meant searching property to find the building (“It’s incredible what you can do with Google Earth,” Kevin says), deconstructing it, then moving the whole thing to Bearpaw for renovation. Finding material to work with was surprisingly easy, and the complex grew as they converted a barn and a trapper’s cabin into guest lodgings.

“There was an old cook in Prince George who had an old barn without a roof,” Amber says. “He understood the value of restoration and told us to come get it. Another time my uncle was driving around nearby and saw a cabin on someone’s property. He knocked on the door and asked if they wanted to get rid of it. The lady said, ‘Hell yes!’ and we had another one. That’s how we get things.”

“Many of these people that frequent heli-ski operations already have a great big house or houses. They don’t have a little cabin in the mountains. This is a little cabin in the mountains. It’s the smallest heli-ski lodge in the world.” —Amber Shipley, Bearpaw Heli-Skiing


ABOVE Prince George kitsch in the Bearpaw lodge.



ABOVE Kevin Taylor and Amber Shipley, owners and operators of Bearpaw, are classic northern BC folks who have carved their little dream out of an unlikely slice of the province. Here, they pose in front of Kevin’s old Tucker snowcat, which he likes to drive around the back 40 of their property in search of moose and wolf tracks.

Day two provides more snow and rebates on the runs around Short Ribs. Each lap is relatively short—just 2,000 vertical feet or so—but provide endless tree lanes through old-growth pines, broken by the frequent popper and occasional spined-up pillow line, giving plenty of opportunities to scare yourself. Pep finds a particularly tenuous gap to pillow, and with our airtime fix satisfied, we head up the other side of the valley for 3,000 feet of wide-open, high-speed turns. It’s a perfect day-ender, and we make our way back to the lodge thoroughly content.

As we leave from the satellite logging-road loading zone our final morning, the snow has slowed, which is ideal. It offers better visibility and an opportunity to poke around in the area we previewed from the heli two days before. Kevin has skied some of the lines off the top of this ridge, but not the specific bowls we’re shooting for. It’s as much an adventure for him as it is for us.

We tick off line after line of pinner first descents before ending up at the icefall, where Pep sizes up a massive air. It’s well over 50 feet, and potentially requires a rappel into the entrance. He decides to hold off, which turns out to be a good decision after we inspect it from a different angle. Flat, icy landings are not the most conducive to large airs. Still, there are plenty of other places to ski, and we wrap up the trip with some mini-golf lines to the side of the waterfalls. It’s been a good day.

Back at the lodge, we enjoy one final beer with Kevin and Amber while we load up for the drive to Prince George. As we talk, I ask the duo about Bearpaw’s future. Their response is fitting: Play to your strengths. Bearpaw’s strengths lie in heritage rather than luxury.

“Many of these people that frequent heli-ski operations already have a great big house or houses,” Amber says. “They don’t have a little cabin in the mountains. These are little cabins in the mountains. It’s the smallest heli-ski lodge in the world.”

And they’re OK keeping it that way. They may not be fast, but at least they’re slow, as Kevin eloquently put it that first night. It’s an adage by which they continue to live—and by which they continue to succeed.

“We’re going to keep growing at the right speed for us,” Kevin says. “I’m glad it’s been evolving slowly because it gives us time to change our minds. We don’t want to be so big that we need room numbers. We’re trying to do it how we’d like to ski. Take the time and do it right, however long that takes.”

To learn more about Bearpaw Heli-Skiing, visit their website here.


ABOVE Pep Fujas (top) and Sakeus Bankson (bottom) tag team a pillow stack on the last run of the day. Sometimes it’s more efficient to double up if you want to track out a zone before the next storm moves in.

*CORRECTION: In the print version of this feature, it is mistakenly stated that Bearpaw Heli-Skiing lies along the St. Lawrence River. The operation sits next to the Fraser River.


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