Before it returned to Whistler, snow came to the rest of B.C., and, like rats from a sinking ship, many of us fled to those locales. For weeks, alluring Facebook face-shots scrolled from dozens of famous B.C. ranges. Finally, just after New Years, I was able to gather my share — along with a reminder of the larger powder galaxy I used to frequent as a young(er) ski writer before moving to Whistler and figuring I'd reached Nirvana.
Though I hadn't been to cat-skiing icon Island Lake Lodge in Fernie in 15 years, I found its exquisite old-growth forests still in place, its steep glades of improbably symmetrical trees and alabaster bowls much to my liking, and the spectacular Lizard Range as dramatic as ever. There were memories around every turn, and friends who'd been working there since last I dropped in (a bonus of this op is that it's close enough to Fernie that people can live in town and work there — hence a few husband-wife guiding teams drop their kids at school in town then sled up to the best job ever). It was a great place to experience three bluebird days with 50 cm of the kind of blower pow B.C. is world famous for. Going back to a place I once reported on when it was a brand new entity, albeit one that would \ blow up huge as an influencer and driver in the industry, was also pretty fun. A trip to Back in the Day can sometimes be pretty sweet.
In the early 1990s, the newly minted Steep & Deep ethos drove the ski industry: the idea was get out there, explore, go big. Alaska had room for us all, but its promise of first descents and bottomless pow was too far and too expensive for all but the pros of the ski and snowboard film fraternity. Far more accessible, B.C. became the Steep & Deep stunt double, and given a magazine-and-movie fascination with southeast B.C.'s so-called Powder Triangle of Fernie, Whitewater and Red Mountain, it was inevitable that interest would find its way to the Cedar Valley and Island Lake. It wasn't that cat-skiing was anything new, but Island Lake was an early entry in what became a very populous field.
The visionaries behind Island Lake had also created something that would change the mechanized backcountry industry, and the difference was the operation's relationship to the industry. With snowboarding exploding to join the always-ravenous ski media, a glut of movies and magazines begged for new stories in spectacular places. Embracing this, Island Lake made an investment in the future that no similar operation thought to do: they simply invited everyone.
As one of those pilgrims, I'll take some blame for blowing up Island Lake. After my feature "Still Life with Lizard" appeared in the November 1993 issue of Powder, the place went from a five-year struggle to a three-year waiting list. (This says less about my powers of persuasion than a marketplace alerted to its perfect object of affection: the very definition of steep and deep). On my first trip, grinding along in a cat during heavy snowfall, ancient cedars of coastal proportions rose beside us like living totems, testament to a microclimate where East-West and North-South valleys met to funnel precipitation in from all directions. Both snowfall and forest proved magic, but after my first view of the splendid hand-hewn, peeled-log lodge I was sold — and I wasn't the only one.
The two biggest stars of the time, skier Scot Schmidt and snowboarder Craig Kelly, both invested. Whether chicken or egg, Island Lake was one of the first places skiers and boarders filmed together, a thread Greg Stump pulled in his film Siberia. The relevance of this synergy can't be overstated: turnstile meetings of skiers like Schmidt, Trevor Petersen, Eric Pehota, and Seth Morrison with snowboard heavyweights like Kelly, Jason Ford and Terje Haakonsen, along with photo icons like Henry Georgi, Mark Gallup and Scott Markewitz transformed Island Lake into the kind of industry nexus usually reserved for resorts like Whistler. Movies filmed here like Stump's P-Tex, Lies and Duct Tape, and MSP's Fetish contain some of the deepest, most transformative powder footage produced at the time. And Island Lake remains cutting-edge: much mind-blowing footage from the Sherpa's ground-breaking All.I.Can was shot here, a run named for their efforts.
Back in the day, my first run was often down Suntanner, a plunging ridge of thinned trees; my second on Swiss Run, a gem that alternated between dwarf evergreens and open expanses peppered by snags and snow-ghosts. There was Enchanted Forest, and on the other side of the valley, below Cabin, Geisha and Face Shots — the most outrageous alpine bowls known to cat-skiers at the time — shots through old-growth giants. Roller-coastering over downed trunks, hitting pillow stumps and hero cliffs in the deepest snow I'd ever skied was a serious baptism for me, at the time a Toronto-based writer. But it also allowed for almost child-like fun in the snow, which, in the end, is probably behind the lasting mystique I experienced last week.