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How to save one of B.C.'s last, great co-op ski hills

Ask the volunteers of Mount Cain and they'll say there's snow grader love.



Getting up the long logging road that leads to Mount Cain requires tire chains. I should know: I have spent hours digging myself out of the high snow banks that flank the road that takes skiers and snowboarders up every Saturday and down every Sunday.

The snow banks are Campbell Wilson's fault. Wilson, a Cain local, and a few dedicated volunteers run a giant, insectine machine along the 14-kilometres of road to keep it passable during even the powder-iest of powder days.

Wilson, though, is worried about his machine. If the grader breaks down, people can't get up the mountain, which could mean the loss of tens-of-thousands of dollars in ticket sales. It's not the sort of make-or-break issue volunteers usually have to think about. But Cain is one of two community-run ski hills in B.C. and the only hill in the province responsible for its own road. Which means that every time Wilson coaxes the grader to life, Mount Cain's somewhat eccentric but charming experiment in operating a co-operative ski run manages to live for another day.

It takes a mountain

Just as Mount Cain can't afford to replace its grader, B.C. can't afford to lose Mount Cain. The ski hill, an hour and a half northwest of Campbell River, is a rare vestige of what communities used to be — a village that really does raise the child. It's not uncommon to see one parent shepherding half-a-dozen children around the hill while the rest of the parents go for a backcountry run, or an unrelated adult scolding a pack of feral snowboarders.

The skiing is at once central to the community and almost incidental. Skiing brings the community together but the community is what makes the skiing possible. As a volunteer-run hill, Mount Cain would not exist without donated time. It's a gift economy run on goodwill, social standing, and, most importantly, necessity.

In 2009, when I first arrived at Mount Cain as a volunteer ski patroller, Helen Brown was running the groomer while her husband Casey was the first person to be called to fix a broken-down T-bar or a generator that wasn't generating. The two were constantly on call and had been for years. It wasn't exactly a thankless job — thanks are easy to come by at Cain — but it was time consuming for volunteer work. Helen's and Casey's had become the first names you would hear on the radio in the morning and the lights on Helen's groomer would burn late into the night.

In 2010, the Browns sold their cabin at Mount Cain, bought an RV, and went on a ski trip through the Rockies. The weight of the mountain had started to lean on them too much and they needed a break. For a mountain that depends on volunteers to open every morning, the loss of two such Atlases hit hard. But the mountain's remaining volunteers, and some new ones, pitched in and Cain pulled through.

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