Christmas in the Kootenays
Getting the cousins together for the holidays is easy when you plan four days at Selkirk Snowcat Skiing.
Being able to assess a situation, think on your feet and react immediately are universal and necessary qualities among professional ski guides. Take Kevin Marr, for instance, long-time lead guide and operations manager at Selkirk Snowcat Skiing. Kevin has seen it all; he’s a classic example of one who exhibits these important characteristics in a stressful situation.
With Christmas Day three sleeps away, our extended and excited family of 11 had only just arrived at Selkirk’s homey alpine lodge to learn that the sugar plum fairies had dumped more early season snow than anyone, even wizened old-timers like crusty Kevin, could remember. Enormous Hollywood flakes swirled in and out of the spotlights beyond the otherwise inky view from the dining room windows as Kevin pushed aside his well-licked dessert plate, rose from the table theatrically and announced that he would now be giving his first of many short safety speeches.
I felt it was my duty to add helpfully, “Yes, yes, but can you do it in song?”
Without the slightest pause or quiver, he immediately dead-panned into an original tune and within a few minutes, had sung entirely his well-rehearsed care instructions and proper technique to don and doff an avalanche transceiver. Everyone in the room, from young cat-ski virgins to patriarchs, even staff and owners, hooted at his Broadway take while the mood for the week was set.
My family and I hadn’t seen Kevin in five years but the banter picked up like our separation had been five weeks. He even remembered the endearing nicknames he’d bestowed on them during our last visit. While our daughters responded to “Squid,” “Environmental Disaster” and “Ferret Face” (unsuccessfully changed to Farrah Fawcett Face), cousin Andrew quickly took on the moniker “Garburator” during his first meal. But it wasn’t until Christmas Day that Benjamin, our oldest daughter’s petit ami français, was less enamoured by his new pet name. Not using hand sanitizer before the communal cookie jar at lunch, “Penis Hands” was bestowed on him by beautiful Lily, our talented cat-driver who moonlights as a mechanic, rancher, butcher, horse breeder/equestrian, dog trainer, ballet dancer and supermodel.
Lodge inhabitants for our cloistered Christmas also included long-time friends and owners Megan and Paul Osak and their two fun progeny, Shannon and tail guide Liam. At the other table were three smiley boys, Brandon, Clayton and Mooky Pooks, from Letterkenny, Ontario, led by their ski guides Australian Adam and lovely Morgan, photographer Tom Weager and their cat driver, a jolly Quebecois of a teddy bear named Joel, who now carries his snacks in a Ski Canada flowered girls’ backpack.
While cat- and heli-skiing is typically described by mountain guides as a “sausage fest,” in reference to the vastly more male than female ratio, a week of Christmas powder can be the complete opposite. More and more families want a change from the routine of shopping for presents not needed by visiting rellies. They haven’t found solace on a southern beach and instead are splurging on cat-skiing and therein creating a wondrous Christmas to remember.
“We’re seeing more families this week in particular than any other over the season,” says Paul. “Dads and boyfriends who usually fill up the cat aren’t here, they’re home with their families and girlfriends. But as their kids get older, the idea of a family trip suddenly makes sense. It’s also easier to rationalize a return trip later in the season with the boys,” he laughs.
It made immediate sense to my brother-in-law Gordo, Aunt Sue and their portion of cousins when I proposed the idea one summer at the cottage. The previously powder-virgins, but long-time Ontario club racers, had the usual insecurities about their abilities to ski powder and trees. However, these were all easily assuaged with my reminders that enjoying powder comes quickly to skiers who can handle Ontario ice.
Meanwhile, Benjamin had long switched to snowboarding after a nasty compound fracture back home in the French Alps left the skier, at that time, healing in a wheelchair for six months. In fact, I had to explain the entire concept of cat-skiing (or boarding anyway), which he then relayed to his somewhat confused parents on a transatlantic FaceTime call. Being young, male, fearless and French, they were mildly concerned about another adventure of their son’s, so on Day 2, I sent them a short video clip of Benjamin leaping from the roof of the cat. In a slow-mo, relaxed pose of a BASE jumper, his body quietly disappeared into two metres of dry Selkirk pouf—which explained things perfectly.
So, for the virgins in the group, what better spot to begin a new genre of skiing than where cat-skiing was invented? It’s been almost 50 years since Selkirk Snowcat Skiing opened the ski world’s eyes when they started packing powder-hungry skiers into a custom-made box-cat to share their piece of B.C. The valley farmhouse in Meadow Creek, an hour and a halfish north of Nelson, remains the staging area today, while Selkirk’s warm and inviting off-grid lodge sits another 30-minute drive and cat-ride away. Nestled up in a magical forest, the fir and pine boughs droop low with the 10 metres of annual snowfall. Selkirk’s terrain tenure remains almost equal in size to Whistler, Blackcomb, Big White and Sun Peaks—combined. More than 125 named runs. And for four days one special Christmas, it was all shared by us, and the Letterkenny boys.
As one of the two mums in the group, Safety Sue wasn’t immune to Kevin’s caustic teasing, who, to the delight of her three, noted her impressive running speed while in ski boots, carrying her avalanche probe “like a javelin.” Kevin boomed out helpful advice to the group like “Don’t saunter over to the slide that just buried your ski buddy, run like Sue, RUN!” Although he sometimes softened it a notch, “Okay, Safety Sue, you’ve located the victim, now you don’t need to stab him like you’re spear fishing.”
Without remedial classes, we passed our safety training in standard time and were soon jiggling our way wide-eyed into the alpine. And in a nutshell, each one of our four days of private powder was dreamier than the one previous. So much so that near the end of the stay I realized I was only taking notes on silly quotes, jokes and slapstick anecdotes, nothing on the actual runs we skied or the perfect snow in which we wallowed.
But even when you’re as old as the hills, there’s a “first time for everything.” And at Selkirk Snowcat Skiing that Christmas it turned out to be reading the guide’s notes. Well, technically it was our tail guide Liam’s notebook that I was later allowed to peek at. Under the auspices of needing a reminder of which runs we’d skied, I was expecting a juicy diary of tidbits describing our noisy lot in colourful terms. Instead, I found neat condensed weather reports and cryptic annotations about snow description, notes on avalanche reports, as well as each run and face we’d skied and at what time.
Our first run, Penthouse, a name full of meaning to anyone over 40, was completely lost on our teens and 20-somethings but quickly proved to be instant gratification that we’d done the right thing moving Christmas to the mountains. Singing carols while rhythmically porpoising through cold, dry, untracked Kootenay powder while the season’s low-angle sun shone above a clouded valley was nothing short of heavenly. Unlike many cat- or heli-skiing experiences, we weren’t a group of chargers, elbowing each other to be first to follow the guide or (knowingly) skiing off instructions to find a better line. Meanwhile, Benjamin on his snowboard took Kevin’s advice to ride with ski poles, holding both in one hand à la grand baton.
The run names and returns back up to the alpine went off like a bride’s pyjamas. Come to think of it, that was the name of one run we enjoyed more than once, along with Missoula and Bucket List, as well as some fun sluffing at the tops of Smiley’s, Honeymoon Trees, Blister and Pyramid. Turn after delicious turn in our own private paradise was a world away from the cousin’s private ski club back in Collingwood.
Meanwhile, Kevin’s crazy-uncle banter with everyone, but particularly the kids, continued unabated.
Meg: “It’s funny how we’re in the sun above the clouds again.”
Kevin: “It wouldn’t be funny if you understood science.”
Meg: “I wish Kevin was my dad.”
Kevin: “Were my dad, Ferret Face, use the subjunctive: werrrrre.”
After a scholarly oration about the Moon’s angle, Kevin included bits of native lore to explain how he knew whether or not it would snow that night. To which 16-year-old Johnny replied simply, “Or you could just check The Weather Network.”
According to facetious Kevin, the most important part of a ski guide’s job is humour. None of us now seem to remember the actual punchline of his never-ending bird joke, just that it kept the group entertained for what seemed like an entire afternoon.
On the morning rides into the alpine, the group learned that our stoic (comparatively, given his noisy charges) tail guide Liam had other important responsibilities, such as music selection inside the cat.
Mary: “Hey, DJ Liam, do you have any Taylor Swift?”
Pause—followed by silence, broken by loud group laughter.
Not surprisingly, corralling our giggling lot proved to be a challenge for Liam sometimes, while the parents were more than happy to have people in authority do the admonishing when rules were stretched or broken.
From Meadow Mountain to, well, seemingly infinity, Selkirk proved once again that its varied terrain can fit any level from strong intermediate to ex-national teamers. From wide-open bowls to nicely spaced glades, we found skiing in old burns from forest fires quite surreal, especially with the blue-sky background, early winter sunshine and wisps of crystalline snow gently dropping in a slight breeze. Cleaning charcoal graffiti off your shell or pants after a brushup against a blackened tree trunk was only a reminder of how good the skiing was.
Selkirk is one of few cat operations you can ski last run to the lodge and not download. The aptly named Home Run is a free-for-all, hootin’-and-hollerin’ chaotic scramble back to base camp where we would find the wagging dogs Ulr and Loki waiting excitedly for us from their perch. On the lodge roof.
In the evenings, comical games of Telestrations by a crackling fire were followed by a rousing game of crud around the pool table for us and the Letterkenny boys, who took time off making snow forts and toboggan jumps after supper. Brothers O’Reilly first got caught “practicing” before the big crud match and then admonished for hollering about “bad ref calls” during the tournament. That evening culminated in a wayward pool ball breaking a window, and later Johnny, in loose-fitting sweats, going full monty from being pantsed by his loving cousins.
Christmas Day’s highlights included a 60-second surprise “chunder pirouette” in the morning, thanks to Lily’s meticulous driving skills and the massive appreciation of having someone else roast the turkey, make the stuffing and gravy and all the fixings. Matching PJs for the girls, nutcracker underpants for yours truly and a Borat mankini for Ben were just a few of the notable gifts from Secret Santa. The code of secrecy was broken when poor Gord opened “A Touch of Grey” hair dye and Johnny blurted out “and there was a box of raisins, too, but I ate them.”
At the closing of gift giving, we were serenaded by Osak’s potty-mouthed version of Christmas carols. With the kids still in shock, Safety Sue commented lovingly afterward, “Thank you, Paul, that was so touching.”
Favourite quote of the week? While trying to maintain elevation traversing through some bottomless, Kevin radioed back to Liam for help setting the track: “Okay, Liam, copy that, send in the brothers.”
Favourite run of the week? Being allowed to break away from the group on Right of Way, I laid down 68 sluffy then fluffy non-stop turns on the steeper chute Runaway.
Final thoughts? I’m no aficionado of poetry, but the loaded last line in the opening stanza of The Waking by Theodore Roethke has stuck in my brain for a long time and I thought it a very apt description of our Christmas in the Kootenays: “I learn by going where I have to go.”BC, British Columbia, heli-snowcat skiing, powder, Selkirk Snowcat Skiing