The roads were, thankfully, pretty clear sailing all the way from our starting point in Kelowna, BC to Nelson, in the southern part of the province. I was headed for a few days of 'ski-cation', about to spend four days in the famed Selkirk and Monashee mountains of British Columbia, and I was pumped to see dry pavement, until the last hour of my trip. When the snow did hit, I not only expected it, but relished in the fact that the hills would be carpeted with fresh powder. Unfortunately, I was on the road before the sanders or plows were out. Still, the ride wasn't too bad, considering we were still having a very, long Canadian winter. I kept my eyes focused on the road ahead and only when I checked in, opened the door to my suite, did I finally breathe a sigh of relief and had a great, happy surprise at my room at the Prestige Lakeside Resort in Nelson.
A short 15-minute drive from downtown Nelson, Whitewater Ski Resort is situated in Ymir bowl, beneath the 2,400 m high Ymir Mountain, in the Selkirk Mountains. The Selkirks receive plentiful, dry snow, and the location in a high alpine bowl provides an annual snowfall average of approximately 12 meters. The day I drove up to the lodge, the sun was beating down on the road, melting snow and ice, and the air was clear and blue. Ski Canada has rated Whitewater to have the Best Deeps, Best Bowls and Best Glades. When I arrived, the hill was dotted with an array of skiers - a raft of kids lining up to get on one of the mountain's three lifts; 'oldsters' who appeared to embrace the 'hippy lifestyle' and others wearing the latest ski styles; families - all mingling together, with smiles on their faces obviously enjoying what lay before them and having a great time getting up and down the hill.
During my online research before making this trip, I was surprised to read a story in the Globe and Mail, which stated Whitewater remains a veritable secret to many skiers and snowboarders. When I asked a couple of 'locals' on the trail, they said it was probably because of its location - away from major airline centers, like Kelowna and Vancouver - and that they didn't mind it remaining a secret. As they swooshed away on skiis, they looked back and playfully said: "Don't tell anyone anything good that we've got going here!" When you've got something all to yourself, it's sometimes hard to share ... I get that. Still, I can't imagine the secret of Whitewater continuing for much longer when people discover its almost 1200 acres of skiable terrain and the absence of lift lines - with a great menu to nosh on when you get tired on the hill.
Nelson, in a lot of ways, reminds me of San Francisco - the way the streets climb from the shore of Kootenay Lake - to the vibrant restaurant scene. Downtown is a small, constrained couple of restaurant-filled blocks, with Baker Street the main draw. The architecture, similar to San Fran's consists of Victorian heritage buildings and cozy bars. Not wanting to venture out into the night (except to grab a picture), I decided to spend my night in the Prestige Lakeside Resort's restaurant (West Coast Grill) knowing that after downing a few calories, I could easily retire to my warm, puffy bed. I wasn't disappointed in the food selections, as this comfy restaurant fits right into the 'food heaven' that is Nelson.
I started off with the tuna tower, accompanied with crisp won tons and a small side salad. My traveling companion, Miss A, decided to begin her meal with a warm bowl of soup, the clam chowder. Both were stellar starts to the meal. The chowder was packed with seafood and the tuna tower felt refreshing. I continued my seafood theme with the steamer pot while Miss A ordered flat bread. To finish we couldn't resist the cheesecake, a raspberry concoction in a small mason jar.
On my second (and last day) in Nelson, I returned to Whitewater to scope out the cross-country trails, while waiting for the skies to clear, in order to get up in a helicopter which was slated to give me a short tour through the surrounding hills and over downtown Nelson.
The morning drive out to Whitewater was painless, with sun baking the road. I didn't need to go far to see a couple of snowshoers who happened to be close to the head of the trail, just off a parking lot about 5 minutes from Whitewater Resort. They told me the trails were shared with both skiers and snowshoers and dogs were allowed on certain sections of the groomed trails.
After a few peaceful moments on the back trails, listening to the birds awakening to the spring temperatures I headed down the highway looking forward to meeting Steve Benwell. A man who spent his childhood running through the forests near Nelson, Steve is a local who started High Terrain Helicopters with a single machine, growing it over the past 20 years into a company with a compliment of five helicopters. His company specializes in doing "the most difficult jobs," including aerial cinematography (working on outstanding sports productions such as "The Art of Flight"); fire fighting; heli-logging; medivac; long-lining and mountain training in the helicopters.
An amiable, soft-spoken, ever-smiling man, Steve is proud of his home-town roots and is a great supporter of local business and local charities. Only meeting the man for moments, I was struck by his commitment to his staff and the easy attitude he displayed.
Even before you arrive on the mountain, the crowd-funding pitch for RED Mountain Resort is evident as you check out the resort online, with its statement proclaiming you can "fight the man and own the mountain." It's a sentiment that speaks to the mindset of the locals in the town of Rossland where there's a desire to keep the ski hill locally owned and out of the clutches of a corporate takeover.
This is a small town with a big heart. Moments after arriving in town, I went for a walk downtown ... an event that lasted all of about 10 minutes ... it's a small town after all, and everyone I passed by either nodded their head in a greeting or said "evenin'."
I had expected Rossland to be different than Nelson and I wasn't disappointed. The size of the town is miniature compared to its big sister, about an hour and a bit, down the highway. Skiing is also a lot closer, just a short 7 minute drive up the hill from my hotel, the Prestige Mountain Resort. As I wandered the downtown streets, some of the storefronts reminded me of the old Westerns I was so fond of watching growing up.
Once again, I was pleasantly surprised after checking in, slipping my room card in the slot in the door and opening it to find my respite from the outside cold. Totally different in design, but no less opulent, my third-floor residence for the next couple of days, welcomed me into a room I'd expect to find on my travels to Europe.
Before coming to Rossland, I did a little research into the town and the ski hill. On their web site, RED Mountain resort write: "The story of RED Mountain Resort, and how a mining territory was converted into one of the great undiscovered ski destinations in the world, is a story about teamwork and community support. In short, it’s about an avid group of skiers who drew from their own community’s resources and used good old-fashioned initiative and elbow grease to forge a new way of life." It goes on to state that in 1890, deposits of gold-copper ore were found on the south side of RED Mountain, which led to a major gold rush, populated with quite a few Scandinavians who brought with them their knowledge and love of skiing. I can't imagine what the new immigrants from across the ocean must have thought when they first came to Rossland, looked up and saw RED. The smiles on their faces must echo new visitors to town, when they first appear, look up and see RED - with it's 4,200 acres of pristine skiing.
I expected to be wowed the same way with the prospect of seeing such a large terrain of great skiing, however, Mother Nature had other plans for my short visit. When I awoke on my first morning, a winter fog blanketed the mountain, obscuring its curves. Still, undeterred, I drove up the road from my hotel, prepared to spend the day on the mountain, weather notwithstanding.
Waiting for me at Guest Services, was my snow host for the day, Mike Ramsey. Mike, retired from IBM, moved west from the flat lands of Ontario and I'm not sure if the permanent smile on his face is because he's left "T.O.," or being retired, or he can now ski every day he wants. I suspect it may be a little bit of all of those. As we jumped on the lift taking us up Granite Mountain, Mike gave me a little history of RED. He talked about the first lifts, constructed much the same as they did for moving ore out of the mountain, adapting a lift system to move skiers up the mountain. "The culture of the people who ski here is what I love," he told me. "You can be skiing with a former business executive, an unemployed 'ski bum', a professional boarder, an 'old fart' like me and it doesn't matter who you are, or what you do, or have done ... we all just bond together for the love of the mountain and the terrain." Mike went on to tell me that he's skied some of the best mountains in the world and figures that RED is one of the best he's ever skied on. "It's the terrain," he tells me. "You can't beat the terrain at RED."
While the photo below was the scene I imagined in my mind as I was packing my cameras up for a day on the hill, as I mentioned, the mountain was socked in with fog and ice - but I thought you should see what the mountain looks like in all its glory (when you can actually see further than 50 yards). Still, undeterred, I did enjoy my day on RED, due to a large part from the hospitality, and patience, shown by my snow host, Mike.
As I sat down with my snow host to a lunch in Rafters Lounge, Mike Ramsey continued to expand on the rich history of RED and it's fabled Rafters Lounge. Powder Magazine has ranked Rafters as the number one ski area bar in North America and it did host a great vibe, even though it was just noon. The place was packed with skiers, pulling up benches, popping helmets and ski goggles onto the rafters holding up the wood ceiling. Mike told me that the building was once a compressor building for the Black Bear Mine in the 1800s, and the structure was moved to the base of Red Mountain in the late '40s to become the lodge for the newly opened ski hill.
On its web site, RED says that "even through a massive expansion of the base lodge two years ago, RED intentionally preserved the feel of this historic bar, keeping original heritage timbers from the turn of the 19th century in place and leaving intact the rustic feel of the original structure.
The well-worn and warm wooden floors and picnic tables add to the understated clubhouse feel, much like RED Mountain itself."
The one thing you can't miss are the many pictures of the RED 'crew' of skiers who have populated the mountain over the years, including some very high end skiing alumni. I smiled at the shrine to the local Old Bastards Ski Club. It's great to see the old photographs and memories that are actually "real" and not the fake old photos seen in chain restaurants across the country. The authenticity sets the vibe and honours those who spent some good times on the mountain.
After lunch, I decided to check out the Rossland Beer Company, a boutique beer making operation situated right across the street from the Prestige Mountain Resort downtown.
I love supporting local businesses whenever I visit a city (or small town) and was pleasantly surprised to see the place packed when I entered. After side-stepping a few large dogs on my way to the small bar, I chatted with one of the owners, Petri Raito. I asked him how big they wanted to become ... "Like a Tree Brewing (a beer company based in Kelowna)?" "Not really," Petri told me. "We're quite happy with our size at the moment and you'll find our beer in a lot of local taps, which makes me feel great about our product." When you walk in the door of their small pub and brewery, "we simply want you to leave happier than when you came," Petri says.
Even though the weather wasn't as stellar as I would have liked it, I have to admit that my four day ski-cation was worth the trip. Along the way, I met good people, ate some great food, stayed in fantastic hotel rooms and spent some quality time on some awesome ski hills. You can't ask for anything more! As a parting shot, I thought I'd post one last photograph of one of my most peaceful moments ... on the waterfront at the Prestige Lakeside Resort back in Nelson ... when no one else was up and the sun was just off the horizon. Those are the moments of silent, self-reflection worth any trip away.