Words by Jill Macdonald. Photos by Julian Kenchenten.
Mountain roads that play hard to get and snowfalls that will break your heart — getting to the West Kootenays does not happen by accident. You have to pursue the allure. An isolated section of BC’s Powder Highway, the region has a history of gold rush development, boom and bust natural resource-based economies, and settlers who have chosen to hide away, for various reasons. It’s challenging to live here. But people who choose this area commit to doing whatever it takes to make life viable.
In both places, skiers are dedicated. They chase snowfall and untracked terrain, not fazed by steep trees or vertical. Immune to slope style or the latest, greatest equipment, these folks know who they are and there is a certain quiet to their presence, and underlying mischief. You want to get to know them.
BLUE COLLAR POWDER: RED MOUNTAIN, ROSSLAND
Rossland BC is tucked up above the sparsely treed and modified landscape of Trail, a scene largely dominated by the Teck smelter. Slightly alarming, there is a Burtynsky’esque beauty to the combination of industry, riverbank and residence. Trail is home to the very accomplished Trail Smoke Eaters hockey club, two-time World Champions (1939 & 1961); the Colander restaurant; a top flight recreation complex and it is also the medical centre of the west Kootenay region. In other words, Community, capitalized for emphasis.
A steep climb above Trail, Rossland clings to the mountainside. Its contoured streets unfold like a paper chain of neighbourhoods, all connected. Houses are small and roofs are steep. Careers are not made here; lifestyle choices are. The place is rife with part-time doctors, people opting out of corporate settings and entrepreneurs who are determined to make their own work. It’s the spirit of do-what-you-have-to-do in order to have the life you want.
Larry Doell, photographer, moved to Rossland almost 30 years ago. On the verge of becoming one of the old guard, he speaks with reverence for the town, past residents and the wave of newcomers who are injecting fresh ideas. “This place is what life should be and rarely is; a poor man’s paradise.” Everything is possible and everything is here, if you are able to recognize that.
A transplanted native of nearby Castlegar, BC, Scott Carlson left for the city in his twenties, determined to be a filmmaker. Three years later, he was still working in restaurants to support himself. Carlson pulled up stakes, moved back and followed his dream. Juicy Studios, his production company, is now a thriving studio that provides him with meaningful work. “I’ve been lucky. But you also meet people who don’t care where you live. They recognize your talent and what you need to nurture it.”
His life is a deliberate balance of time at home with family, time in the mountains, work, and collaboration with other creatives, to keep things fresh. “You learn to shape your ambition into what it needs to be. Choose to work on projects that are inspiring, things that keep you awake because you’re excited, not because you’re under pressure.” Whenever the offers come in and there is temptation to leave, he measures them against his Rossland lifestyle. “When I finish a project I’m proud, and then I take off to go riding or skiing. I spend a lot of time not working.” No wonder the guy has a constant grin.
At the resort, we find students from Washington on a three-day weekend, an older generation from the around the globe who come to spend their winters here, families, the freeride team in training and most of the town, out for at least part of their day. Red Mountain is experimenting with a crowdfunded marketing campaign that will allow people to own part of the hill. It’s not orthodox, but then not much about this place follows the rules. It’s all about keeping things real, local and true. United they stand.
ECLECTIC: WHITEWATER, NELSON BC
Nelson, the town, is like the popular kid from high school; it seems to have it all. Heritage buildings, upscale downtown restaurants, beautiful people, interesting shops and night life. But there is a messy underside as well. Street culture is here, an underground economy that is present if not visible, and the poverty that exists in any rural interior community. Harder hit than many other places, Nelson has been a target for drifters because of its generosity. What that generosity and acceptance also cultivates is a rare embrace of personal expression. Burlesque theatre is huge, operas are written and performed, artisans abound and there is no dress code. If you want to wear shorts all winter and ride your bike, no one will raise an eyebrow or shout at you to put on a helmet. Be and let be.
Local skier Trace Cooke is a good example of what the town can produce; he drops cliffs, does flips and rides switch for the pure joy of it. On the hill, off the hill, in the backcountry and all season long, he’s on his skis having fun and being professional. He doesn’t love the pressure of competitions, the scary conditions or the sponsorship game. He has a broken down truck, a sled, support from Whitewater and the Village Ski Hut and he works fire crews in the summer. Pretty much what you see is what you get. Full-on, in a subdued sort of way.
Not unlike the ‘Silver Sliders,’ a crew of local legends so named for their silver Volant skis back in the day. The skis are long gone but now their hair colour has that same metallic gleam. They have their own table at the lodge where they gather every day, albeit in dwindling numbers. Two showed up with injuries: torn Achilles and a broken hand; one is nicknamed Cannonball; and they bicker like a family that spends too much time together. But they have been here since the beginning, skiing the slackcountry with fierce dedication, shooting out through the trees way down the road and piling into the back of a pickup for another lap up to the top. They can all drive a manual transmission, in ski boots.
Privately owned, Whitewater ski resort rests in a small mountain basin. The lodge has had facelifts but it’s clearly a well-aged building that no one feels the need to change. Notices about not using too much toilet paper are posted in each cubicle; water and re-usable glasses are provided; the cafeteria uses real dinnerware and cutlery. Be sensitive to the mountain location is the message. It’s uncomfortable to imagine a ski village of any sort here. Andrew Kyle, one of the current owners, is quite happy that the hill can fly under the radar, not under pressure to add amenities. “At this point, we’re not reliant on anything beyond the winter season. We find that Nelson as a community is sought after as is, so there is no need for us to provide an alternative.”
No cell service at the hill. Most visitors will notice this first, and on a powder day, they will notice that the first people on the lifts are all from town. Out-of-office operates a different level here; it means, I’ll get back to you before noon. According to Kyle, this is a conscious decision. “It comes up every spring at our annual investor’s meeting; do we want to put in the infrastructure and every year we decide that no, we do not. We want people to sit and talk to each other in the lodge, not be distracted by their devices. It’s part of the experience of being here.”
Food is a big part of the Whitewater experience. Some folks we spoke to had driven up to just have lunch. The café features locally sourced and produced products, and follows the Whitewater Cooks cookbooks, developed by ex-owner Shelly Adams.
Both Red Mountain and Whitewater are powder havens, founded and kept afloat by dedicated ski lifestylers. They will flirt with your wanderlust and tug at the strings that bind your independence. And what’s wrong with imagination and a harmless crush? There is a collective breath: inhale over the winter and exhale in summer, when the anticipation of snow is gone and everyone just relax
Scott Carlson: “Either you get it or you don’t. If you don’t, then it’s not the place for you, but if you do, then you’ll probably never leave.”
More about Red Mountain
More about Whitewater
Learn more about road tripping and exploring in British Columbia.