Sometimes you get what you get, and upon passing through Mt. Fernie Provincial Park we weren't sure what we had. With a few parked cars and no sign of an Island Lake Lodge infrastructure, the remote snow-lot didn't build a lot of one's confidence. As we staged our gear for the 5pm pickup, two state-of-the-art 12 passenger ILL Snowcats emerged out of the forest; presenting the first sign that our intended adventure was really going to happen.
Jumping into the cab with our cat driver, Russ, I hear the local's perspective as we make our 10k approach to the Lodge. Unlike most cat skiing operations, Island Lake is close to the town of Fernie and logistically compelling as it sits in the next valley over from the Fernie Alpine Resort. For those workers and guides that are tenacious enough to secure a position, it means a near normal life for a typically vagabond career. After adventuring all day in the backcountry, workers head down to Fernie for townie living, and then return at 7am the next morning to begin their shift. With staff tenure typically cresting 6 years, experience and quality go hand in hand – defining job and lifestyle security.
Originally owned by the Shell Oil Company and used for Executive Retreats, when the Schmidt/Kelly consortium re-sold the lands to a recent dot.com winner for a tidy 4 fold gain, the crown jewel of what is now the Island Lake Resort Group (which also includes Cowboy Powder Catskiing and Mica Heliskiing) anchored its backcountry legacy. As the only Catskiing operation to own its operating lands (7000 acres of gladded bowl terrain enhanced by a stellar alpine zone), twenty years after laying down its first tracks, Island Lake is the largest Catskiing operation in British Columbia. Growing to four lodges with hot tubs, a full spa, and extensive wine reserve, the Island Lake experience is high end Catskiing at its finest. Hosting 3-4 day tours of up to 36 guests at a time, three Snowcats are constantly on the move, which until recently required reservations two years in advance to get a seat. However, within the past 6 years with the goal of doubling skier visits the BC government unencumbered the permit process for operators, thus increasing competitive alternatives and freeing up standby slots at Island Lake for the spontaneous inclined (if you're group minded still plan on reserving a year in advance). With over 95% of the world’s Catskiing and Heliskiing in the BC Province, which includes over fifty backcountry operations, Island Lake continues to be the Grand-Daddy of them all, and the most luxurious and decadent.
Breaking out of the forest to an array of twinkling lights, Russ bellies our Cat face-to-face with the Tamarack Lodge entrance for unloading.
Mountain life settles in quickly and by 7:30pm we're up at the Tamarack dining room for a five-course affair of crystal and linen. With chefs encouraged to explore their creative flare, we are awed by the unique French inspired - Rocky Mountain Cuisine placed before us; its reputation inspiring a cookbook volume of favorite recipes. As conversation flows we discover that Rob, a Production Manager from the Sunshine Coast, and Danny, an Asst. Producer from the UK, are there to finish up a 'Man vs. Wild' show with Bear Grylls, who is scheduled to arrive in five days with his family. It turns out that in filming an ice axe self-arrest scene during a snow survival episode back in December that a sledding cameraman crashed into Bear causing massive body contusions (Bear) and a smashed up face (Cameraman). Needless to say filming was suspended during recovery, while Rob and Danny returned in February to chain saw openings in the Lake for an under-the-ice swim and stage a shelter building scene. Having already done a couple days of location prepping and scouting, they were all smiles and by no means begrudging the world class lodging and cuisine.
Dove-tailing into open seats with returning guests from California and a group from the UK, we got the 'Tour' experience in a compressed one day version. After a 7:30 am buffet breakfast we all met with head guide - Nicki and lead guide - Wayne for a review of effective beacon use and rescue, which delayed by an additional hour loading up the Cats. With some last minute shuffling for optimum group dynamics, we were off in a flourish over a matrix of high mountain roads cut into the mountain side snowpack. Surprisingly swift, Russ drove our Cat east - at times up 30 degree angles to drop us with guides Niki and Tyler in an endless assortment of bowls, glades, and alpine steeps; which embraced Geisha Bowl, Cabin Bowl, Hunters Bowl, and The Three Bears. In order to enhance our backcountry experience, Wayne's group headed to regions west to explore Lizard Pass, Wolverine, Faceshots Bowl, Mt Baldy and the Backside. Known by a few as having some of the best ski conditions in the world, we were soon discovering for ourselves Island Lake's scenic beauty as well as its inclination for deep dry powder.
Backed up against the spine of the Lizard Mountains (mid-range in latitude between Banff and Glacier Park), Island Lake's satellite nature to the S. Rockies tends to kick-in what locals call the 'Fernie Effect'; where weather on a bee-line from Mt. Rainier has a habit of stalling and dropping its load. Three days prior we were wrapped in the white-out of such a storm-cycle as we attempted a backcountry traverse over Liverwurst Pass to the Thunder Meadows Hut - a trip that was not to be. Days after that storm, the snows although not story-telling epic still produced nice boot-top results and gave us an acute appreciation for what Island Lake could be; producing a bunch of ear to ear grins. Held down from the high reaches until the end of day by an opaque overcast, Niki and Tyler took turns from group lead to tail-end sweep as we sniffed out lines within the boundaries of their direction. Between pillowy ski laps, the constant exuberance of Russ with engaging comments such as, "how did you like that run", "isn't that great", "what do you think of the powder boards" as he loaded our skis onto the Cat, and the machines harmonic rumble as we gained altitude, brought reassurance for the quality of the turns yet to come. Unlike the high octane of Heli-skiing, the warmth and comfort of the Cat cab with its background iPod sound system gave us time to relax, dry out our goggles, and consume the abundant supply of sandwiches, snacks, and liquids stocked by the Lodge. In short order a sense of community developed where you sincerely felt a kinship, that everyone was in this adventure together. Then, after numerous descent variations throughout an action packed day, Russ drops us off at the highest Col of the Island Lake landscape. As a glory hole unveils the expansive vistas, we are mesmerized by a Lizard Mountains moment. Soon, Niki and Tyler encourage the pace knowing that if the group is fast there will be one more high alpine start down the opposite side. Swooping our signatures down the deepest powder of the day, everyone makes quick tracks to the waiting Cat in record time. As Russ nudges our Cat up the last gear shifting pitch, the skies fully open for all to see. Eventually we note Wayne's Cat group half a mile away soaking up the rarified air of a similar high point. It's idyllic squeezing the last run out of the alpenglow, but as grand as the view - the powder is even better. Inspired by the quality conditions, I wander to the edges in the search of prime untracked. Eventually Tyler calls me in and cautions the group. It's not that the guides don't know that the good stuff is there, it's that they want to insure a safe return. ACMG Guides (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) are some of the best in North America who go through more certification than anywhere else in the world for the job of keeping you out of an avalanche.
Upon reaching the run's logical conclusion within close proximity to the Lodge, both Cats are waiting with celebratory beers chilling in the snow. In collecting ourselves for the return to the Tamarack Spa in time for scheduled massages the hypothetical question is asked, "Why would anyone want to pay to go backcountry skiing?" The emotional response is near impossible to explain, it may be simply one of those things you have to experience to understand. Far beyond the frantic competition for turns within a ski area powder day, there is no need to hurry when Cat Skiing the backcountry. Over a vast, pristine white carpet there is no beginning or end, nor tracks to measure by, you simply float uninterrupted on a dream-like powder pillow. After every run you’re convinced that you are going to quit your job and move to the mountains. You've reached Valhalla and you can't fathom being more at-one with the skiing universe.
When asking passionate powder hounds like Eric and Marilyn, "How much is enough" the response always comes back, "It's never enough!"
“Deep – Mystical – Rich – Unique – Fun. As the Grand-Daddy of Cat Skiing Island Lake Lodge is essentially a mental and well body retreat for the skiers and snowboarders soul.
Island Lake Resort Group
Box 1229 602a 2nd Ave
Fernie, B.C. Canada
Toll Free North America - 1-888-4CATSKI (422.8754)
Telephone - 1.250.423.3700
Facsimile - 1.250.423.4055
Email - firstname.lastname@example.org