By Dan Kostrzewski
The white panda was rapping and my vision was clouding. At first the visual seemed blurry and jarring. But when taken in context with Aussie locals raging late on a Saturday night, CBC Hockey Night on the barroom big screens, and a yoga-fit, Lululemon-clad waitress serving us round three of double Crown-and-Cokes--and flirting with us for tips--I felt centered in the BC interior, just one international crossing north of home.
To our Baker-based crew, this cross-border scene tasted like a place we'd been before, but America it was not--and that had always been the point. The BC interior first pulled us north because it stood firm as a deep-powder kingdom that was still coarse and rough around the edges, both unfiltered and unspoiled. In resource towns dwarfed by the towering Selkirks, Columbias, and Monashees, hippie tree planters, expat weed farmers, and hardened ACMG guides coexisted miraculously with slednecks and loggers, save for the occasional hockey fight at last call.
I am not Canadian, so I don't have a vote. But gentrification is the modern plague of the American ski industry, with "authentic" ski towns and "affordable" ski areas disappearing deep into nostalgic POWDER articles.
But a decade ago, supported by a government-backed desire for economic improvement, a movement took hold to develop and monetize these places. Every skier needs to make rent, but the results were an unquestionably mixed bag--with the cleanups bringing new lifts, small businesses, and immigrant Aussies charging new ski bars, but also sweeping away relics of the recent past like 30K railroad houses and gritty peeler joints--euphemistically known as the Canadian Ballet.
I am not Canadian, so I don't have a vote. But gentrification is the modern plague of the American ski industry, with "authentic" ski towns and "affordable" ski areas disappearing deep into nostalgic POWDER articles. So, even though the interior is still far from a Park City lost cause, it's worth rooting for our skiing neighbors to the north to seek that Holy Grail between cultural preservation and economic change.
And, peeler bars or not, the skiing is still a thing of beauty in the interior--with the second-home, direct-flight influx never quite materializing--which is why we keep crossing the border, braving friendly customs inquisitions, and finding strange omens in the interior like a white rapping panda in an Aussie Rules ski bar.
Still at the bar, we were easing into our trip at Snowshoe Sam's, a paycheck pub in Big White's little base village. The establishment was doing its best to back up an editorial claim as Canada's #1 Ski Bar, as Aussie exports on two-year work visas celebrated their late-night freedom from teaching groms and bumping chairs by blowing off steam in their native language.
Each small BC resort has its own distinct character and, outside of Sam's, Big White is all about familial friendliness--local Canadians, cross-border American traffic, and oddly, vacationing Aussie family units, all mixing together for six-day, seven-night stretches. But ski schools, wine tastings, and craft nights aside, there was a meteorological reason we were here.
Big White and its little sister, Silver Star--owned by feuding Australian siblings and marked by that type of rivalry--sit just far enough north that even in a season of biblical Washington snow drought, the monsoon Pineapple Express rains of 2015 had fallen--just barely--as snow. With more winter rain in our coastal ranges, the interior was fast becoming the ripcord to find winter, and a thriving ski bar, when the winter went south.
Luckily, when the Aussie meat pies came out at last call, our condo was an easy exit across the access road. Less fortunately, our start time for Sunday was an early one--first chair for a groomer rip with Big White ambassador, ski TV star, and one of the top ski instructors in Canada, Josh Foster--who was keen to show off his home hill. The ensuing groomer blur left me stealing a moment in the trees and swearing off Crown, concealed in a cluster of snow-caked trees as moms, dads, and their little rippers cheerily roared past.
It was my first brush with Big White and its welcoming family feel, but my annual pilgrimage to the BC interior. For a decade I'd been tracking storm and rumor north--on assignment and/or on holiday--to the aspiring and ambitious "resorts" throughout Supernatural British Colombia. This trip, my wingmen of Mount Baker refuges, Rene Crawshaw and Sean O'Gorman, had followed my lead north to save our season in a year when every ski area back home was already shut for the season.
Friendly but inquisitive, the customs agent peppered us with questions--no we don't have any drugs, guns or DUIs; yes we all have jobs; no we aren't packing any fruit; yes, we have a place to stay.
It was a bit of a reunion, since the three of us kicked off this annual rite 10 years back by corralling a slightly offensive, tough-to-comprehend Baker photographer named Grant Gunderson, over-packing his double Thule boxes and pointing ourselves north to Whitewater, Kicking Horse, and a pre-RMR Rogers Pass.
The border, as we'd learn, was always a bit of a hassle. Friendly but inquisitive, the customs agent peppered us with questions--no we don't have any drugs, guns or DUIs; yes we all have jobs; no we aren't packing any fruit; yes, we have a place to stay; no, sir, we aren't going to Nelson; yes, we did bring enough beer. Sure, doesn't everyone like hockey--but finally let us in.
Read more: How Not to Try to Get Across the Border
Canadian highways lack the funding or engineering of their southern neighbors, so the dark drive was a gripping two-lane reality check. But after hours of CBC Radio Two, we landed safe in the pre-Valhalla, Promised Land of Nelson, BC. We booted up with the hippies and farmers in Whitewater's gravel lot before dawn, fueling up on Oso Negro coffee and kind, local, organic lodge food then picking between a left-side or a right-side double chair that both unloaded straight to skin tracks.
The details of a decade have blurred together, but we began that first interior trip with Ymir Peak lines then devolved to an incoherent mess at the Hume Hotel, as Gunderson's Eastern Washington dialect became infamously unintelligible. We closed the loop on that circle route a few days later with a Rogers Pass tour from the Information Centre and a night at the haunted, now-shuttered Glacier Park Lodge (no cooking in the rooms allowed). But the Canadian cultural moment of the trip was Fresh Meat Monday in Golden.
Kicking Horse was a little extreme back then. Forty-two black and double-black runs dropping direct from the gondola (with a single green return track), as well as a population of loggers, fire fighters, and tree planters charging a sketchy, depth-hoared Canadian Rockies-style snowpack. Golden was a roadside timber town transitioning to what it might become if the ski resort expansion scheme took hold before the unforeseen Great Recession or the next Alberta Oil Crash.
The big night in town was Fresh Meat Monday, when the new lone stripper on the small town circuit arrived. The entire town--including the ladies of the Kicking Horse Ski Patrol, on this occasion--came out for the cause. It was also a big night for them, with the release of their fundraising calendar launching to widespread appreciation in a town with a significant testosterone imbalance and one where a lady shedding her Arc'teryx shell was still soft ski porn.
Ten years is an eternity in both ski days and resort development.
My memory of that night is also hazy, but we toasted our T2 sidecountry lines and attempted to match whiskey tolerance with the ladies--who were raised a whole lot tougher in the Great White North. Gunderson's open bar tab took a heavy hit. As last call approached, a POWDER sticker behind the bar sparked a conversation with a ladylike patroller who shot down my masthead boast. She told her own tales of a legendary POWDER editor who had found this place, and apparently her, first. By midnight, only a few locals were still dropping their loonies, toonies, and fivers for the frustrated stripper as what seemed like the whole ski town celebrated their provincial existence with a night at the Canadian Ballet.
After last call, Crawshaw talked us down from a closing time scrap with a few keen loggers, in a classic Hockey Night ending. Culturally, the whole experience was just foreign enough to be Canadian. We may have been the same crew back then, but, in a familiar ski-tourist ode, what was there before has inevitably been lost.
Ten years is an eternity in both ski days and resort development. Fresh Meat Monday--like the Glacier Park Lodge, Whitewater's creaky two-chair feel and the cheap railroad houses in Revelstoke--is long gone, the bar swapped for a classier establishment pouring fancy microbrews in its place. It's not the thing itself but the grainy symbol of a stiff drink--now mixed with hope, change and nostalgia as once unfiltered towns acquire a more sophisticated taste.