When people conjure images of a ski town, it would be hard to come up with an archetype better than that provided by the Kootenays, specifically the towns of Rossland, Nelson and Fernie.
Nestled in the mountains, these towns are characterized by heritage houses and buildings that seem to mimic the landscape with their steep-sided roofs and angles. Locally owned businesses appear to dominate over big chains and franchises. Small yet somehow worldly, these places buzz with a kind of youthful energy and exuberance that is contagious. Visit once, and something makes you want to go back home, sell the farm, load up the bikes, boards and boats and return for good.
High-paid ski village planners could go bankrupt trying to design and build a resort that even comes close to capturing this quintessentially earthy and funky vibe. No offence to ski resorts, but although it’s possible to attempt to replicate the physical appearance, perhaps even build character villages that look more authentic than a real heritage town (is that possible?), it’s not possible to create a corporate-sponsored synthetic scene that rivals what oozes naturally from the pores of the Kootenay landscape and culture. At the end of the day, a “planned” resort town will always feel, well, planned.
Perhaps the answer to this riddle, the secret to the Kootenays’s unassuming appeal, is the fact that these places were fully functioning communities before they were ski towns. Their origins are inextricably bound to the colourful mining history of the region that spurred railway tracks to be laid down, towns to be built and many a beer or whisky to be downed in the local saloons and brothels by adventurers, ne’er do wells and a host of other characters who all sought golddusted dreams in this remote corner of B.C.
The Kootenays isn’t a truck stop. It isn’t truly on the way to anywhere. There are no international airports within easy striking distance, and to get there you have to plan your trip accordingly. Even though it isn’t really all that isolated anymore, the Kootenays still feels that way, which is probably why people who live there identify so strongly with their geography. When someone says they’re from the Kootenays, it means something more than an address on an envelope. It is as much a lifestyle as it is a place. Today, the Kootenays still attracts adventurers, and the casual, fun-loving attitude of the locals reflects the region’s colourful heritage.
Mining has long since taken a back seat to tourism in the Kootenays, and dreamers of a different sort are coming here—people seeking gold-dusted dreams of a free, unfettered lifestyle carved from mountains blessed with some of the tastiest snow on the planet. Do a quick visual survey from the non high-speed chairlifts and you’ll quickly notice that per capita there are more guys and gals who rip—be it on bikes, boards, boats or otherwise—than pretty much anywhere else.
Still the Kootenays can get named to only so many outdoor magazine top-10 lists before the world takes notice. Consequently, it’s official—these towns have been discovered and all three are experiencing their share of growing pains as real estate is priced beyond reach of the average avowed ski bum.
After an exhaustive survey of photographers, writers and ski movie stars, we’ve come up with an unabashedly biased, spiritually rather than scientifically driven guide to the curious Zeitgeist of Kootenay ski towns. Feel free to disregard this guide and explore on your own. In fact, we encourage it.
Tucked among the rounded summits of the southern Monashees, Rossland is worlds away from the nearby smelter town of Trail on the banks of the Columbia River. This consummate skier’s town seems to have been perpetually teetering on the edge of big change. This is where unleashed husky-lab mutts outnumber humans, where black-and-white photos of the town’s favourite daughter, Nancy Greene, still hang wistfully on the walls of the timeless Rafter’s Lounge at the base of the ski area, and where having a girlfriend or boyfriend who doesn’t ski, board and ride a mountain bike means certain relationship implosion.
Winter Night Diversions: Strap on your rock boards and crank some turns beneath the streetlights on Rossland’s steep streets after a fresh dump of snow.
Eats:The cozy confines on 2nd Avenue have housed numerous eateries over the years, but Idgies Restaurant has become a fixture, searing a mean steak as well as preparing appetizing daily specials. When the right stars are in alignment, the owners set up a stage for live blues and jazz.
Lounging: Rossland remains a fairly sleepy place on the after-dark side of the equation, with people more often than not opting for kitchen parties with guitars than a night out on the town. However, Nowhere Special on Columbia Street is a new offering on the evening scene that brings a uniquely urban aesthetic to this mountain mecca, playing host to local and out-of-town DJs and bands. It’s a chill place to hang out and sip a cold microbrew.
Best run to finish the day: Red Mountain is legendary for its vertical and fall-line skiing—terrain that has helped hone the skills of more than one Canadian skiing legend. For afternoon views and moderately steep tree skiing that feels off-piste but is well within bounds, it’s hard to beat Han’s Run, The Orchards or Powder Fields for a leg burner.
The Buzz: Eventually someone was going to survey Red’s expansive terrain and the aesthetic town at its foot and say, “Hey, there’s some money to be made here.” Locals are watching with trepidation as the mountain becomes the personal business experiment of San Diego entrepreneur Howard Katkov. So far real estate development seems to be coming long before lift upgrades. That means Red and Granite are still in the dark ages when it comes to on-hill infrastructure—a happy state-of-affairs for riders with duct tape holding their ski pants together, but disconcerting for high-speed city types who have only ridden bubble lifts and gondolas.
Fernie, collected on a bend in the Elk River where it’s joined by tributaries Coal, Lizard and Fairy creeks, was founded on coal mining— and they’re still digging the stuff out of the Rocky Mountains near the B.C.-Alberta border. These days, town residents are more interested in what happens on rather than inside the mountains. The most accessible of the Kootenay communities to a major Canuck metropolis, Fernie would be annexed by Alberta if those Hummer-driving oil sheiks could have their way. Though the nouveaux riches of wild rose country are doing their best to turn this east Kootenay outdoor hub into a recreational suburb of Calgary, thankfully Fernie still retains its soulful vibe.
Whetting your Whistle: The Central, in the 100-year-old Grand Central Hotel, has everything you need for slaking a thirst and rubbing elbows with the locals: great food, pool tables, live music and a crowd that doesn’t make you feel as if your next stop is the Canada Pension Plan.
Chowing down: Yamagoya Sushi brings in top-shelf fresh fish and seafood, and puts creativity and imagination into its roster of rolls. It’s often busy and doesn’t take reservations so be prepared to wait for a table. You can always head across the street for a pint while you wait.
Best run to finish the day: If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you. The best things in life take a little effort to acquire. The run Steep and Deep has long fall-line skiing with perfect pitch where the fresh pow tends to stick around a little longer. Chalk that up to the required 10-minute traverse across Cedar Bowl onto Snake Ridge to get there. A high avalanche hazard can keep Cedar Bowl closed for days on end, meaning snow has time to accumulate. Tourists—meaning you—are usually put off by the hike, therefore can’t be bothered heading out to Steep and Deep to soil the best lines.
The Buzz: One word—“Calgi- Ferniecation.” Disposable income flooding across the border from Alberta’s booming economy is having a profound impact on the local housing and development picture. Great if you’re a builder, not so great if you’re a liftee looking for a place to park your quiver for the winter, which has prompted the city to start developing an “affordable and attainable housing strategy.”
Nestled on the shores of Kootenay Lake and hemmed in by lushly forested mountains, Nelson is a place where provincial court judges need degrees in horticulture and hydroponics to effectively carry out their judiciary duties, and where you can take lessons in tabla drumming, go ski touring then groove to a DJ from San Francisco all in one fulfilling spring day.
Eats: Not only has Nelson evolved into a recreational nirvana, it’s also become a mosaic of multiculturalism that puts most towns twice its size to shame. Not surprisingly, this is reflected in local cuisine. Baba’s Indian Cuisine on Baker Street brings an authentic slice of the great Indian subcontinent to the Kootenays with its sumptuous curries. Don’t miss all-you-can-eat nights.
Beverages: Nelson Brewing Company’s After Dark is like the Kootenays in a bottle— organic, rich in taste and flavour, and a little cheeky.
Best run to finish the day: As one writer recently stated, Whitewater is essentially a portal to the backcountry—meaning it’s more renowned for the off-piste access its lifts provide than the in-bounds shredding. Ride the Silver King Chair and then follow the short bootpack trail to the top of the wooded ridge above the lift to enjoy the afternoon sun before returning to the lodge via Nugget. Check for avalanche conditions or closures and grab your touring gear before heading up the T-bar and hiking to the top. This steep fallline run of off-piste tree and chute skiing spits you onto the road, where your friends will be waiting with cold beer in a warm truck.
Birthday suit Bathing: Most visitors head to Ainsworth Hot Springs for a soak in the mineral pools. A worthy après-ski endeavour, indeed, but if you prefer your hot springs without the gift shop, make it a day trip and travel up Slocan Valley then north to Nakusp to explore the hidden treasures of Halfway and St. Lyon hot springs.
Hanging out: Oso Negra is where the art of socializing over a foamy latte of shade-grown organic coffee is being constantly refined and perfected by Nelsonites—day after day after day after day. Great place to hang if long days chatting to people with ambiguous careers and sharing powder epics is your idea of a good time, but if your clock ticks with New York minutes, keep walking.
The Buzz: If you’ve yet to act on your dream of buying a shack in Nelson and making the mountains your full-time career, then you may have missed the boat. Any doubts about Nelson’s stature as the premier mountain town in Canada were dashed during last season’s staggeringly successful Kootenay Cold Smoke Festival that drew writers, photographers and other media types from across North America and even Europe to snack on the local goods.Tags: best ski towns, British Columbia, Fernie, Kootenays, Nelson, Rossland, ski towns