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Travel: The East Koots, land of dirt baggers

There are plenty of A-grade outdoor activities in the Kimberley area, and most of them don’t cost much



I hadn't heard the term "dirt-baggers" before I visited the East Kootenays, but a little web surfing tells me it means "adventurers into pretty much anything," as well as "thrill-seekers and life-livers." (It might also refer to panniers used in motorbike sports.)

By necessity, I learned, dirt-baggers are frugal and, by choice, hugely social. Which means that you're likely to run into a few of them at the "Sullie" (the Sullivan Pub) in downtown Kimberley (where the beers will include Fernie Brewing's Fresh Trax brown ale and possibly a Belgian white ale called Ol' Willy Wit).

These dirt-baggers might be into wilderness ice climbing, backcountry skiing, mountain biking, fly-fishing or river rafting. But according to Doug Schneider, golf pro at the Trickle Creek course in Kimberley: "When they do their thing - they do it to the A-grade."

Not sure what all this suggests, except that B.C.'s "East Koots," as they're fondly known, and Kimberley in particular, are chock-a-block with people who are passionate about the outdoors, like hanging out, and live on the cheap.

Kimberley was founded after prospectors, in 1892, found significant deposits of a lead zinc ore in the surrounding hills, leading to what became the world's largest lead-zinc mine. For years this Sullivan Mine, eventually owned by Teck Cominco, was the big employer. But eyeing the mine's eventual closure (which came in 2001), Kimberley successfully morphed into a year-round outdoor sport and tourist community.

Lying on the eastern side of the Purcell Mountains, the modest-size Kimberley Alpine Resort (owned by Resorts of the Canadian Rockies) gets lots of sunshine and sufficient snow to support skiing and snowboarding until Easter weekend.

With 729 skiable hectares, lifts include the 2,270-metre North Star, Easter triple chair and Tamarack double chair, both 1,100 metres long. And while much of the mountain is suitable for intermediate skiers, most backside runs - like Comet, Twist, Maverick and Vortex - are best left to the experts.

"You can get in that backcountry and not see anybody," said local skier Shannon Harrison.

Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing takes place in the Kimberley Nature Park, adjacent to the resort. And there's night skiing for cross-country and downhillers. In fact, Kimberley claims to offer the longest illuminated alpine run in Western Canada. For children, there's a slow-moving, ski-gripping track called the Owlette Magic Carpet and beginners' T-bar. Fondue snowshoe tours are popular.

But there's more to Kimberley than its ski hills. In the 1970s (with the mine closure looming), Kimberley "repositioned" itself by adopting a Bavarian theme and inviting German or Swiss entrepreneurs to set up businesses. The result is a three-block-long pedestrian area called the Platzl with something of an alpine European ambiance. Restaurants like the Mozart House Inn, Gasthaus am Platzl and Chef Bernard's serve traditional dishes such as Wiener schnitzel and apple strudel. On the other hand, the plates at the Green Phoenix Tapas Lounge run to a buffalo burger with red onion marmalade and Chambazola (a soft-ripened cheese similar to Camembert).

Across the street from the Platzl, at the Kimberley Adventure Centre, I met up with Adrenaline Dog Tours operator Craig Ainsworth. We headed west to St. Mary's Valley, where Ainsworth hitched seven dogs to a sleigh, and we were off (though not soon enough for the excited canines).

Afterwards we drove to St. Mary's Lake, where the only sign of human life was a few chairs out on the ice, suggesting absent ice-fishers. "In my opinion this is one of the nicest places on the globe - lots of wildlife, lots of room," Ainsworth said of the valley.

Kimberley sits just north of Cranbrook (and its spiffy new Canadian Rockies International Airport) on Highway 93/94. And it's only an hour's drive north, through the hamlets of Ta-Ta Creek (little more than a general store) and Skookumchuk (slightly larger), to Fairmont Hot Springs, with a long-established complex of naturally-fed mineral water pools (adult admission $10).

On the other hand, the Kootenays are filled with wilderness hot springs. The best-known natural complex in this Eastern region is Lussier, reached by turning off Highway 93/95 south of Canal Flats and following the unpaved Whiteswan Lake Forestry Road for about an hour.

Comprising four pools on the Lussier River, the hottest reaching 43 Celsius, this outdoor paradise has become a major mecca. Schneider reported that bathers like to go out at night with Tiki lights - and while that's quite OK, others think that the Lussier Hot Springs, with a parks-operated change room and toilets, has become too popular.

Less well known is Buhl Creek Hot Springs, located off 93/95, north of Canal Flats at Farstad Way, where bathers generally take to the shallow pools au naturel .

On the other hand, Ainsworth talked of the Dewar Creek Hot Springs, a roughly nine-kilometre walk along a potentially muddy trail (Ainsworth said it took four hours) from Marysville, just south of Kimberley. It's advised to carry topographic maps for this Purcell Wilderness Conservancy Area. And once you arrive in this rustic beyond, the mineral pools here will be hot - even too hot, some bloggers report.

Sounds to me like dirt-bagger country.