The Road to Cherryville

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by RON BETTS    photos ROBERT SIM in the Winter 2018 issue

One of the most remarkable things about living in Canada is space, lots and lots of space. Just point the old family roadster in almost any direction and soon the hustle and bustle is in the rear-view mirror and there’s nothing but 360-degree, panoramic views of everyone’s favourite mother—nature.

It was in one of these less-travelled corners of B.C. that the owners of Kingfisher Heliskiing and Keefer Lake Catskiing discovered what could be the Southern Interior’s most incredible hidden gem, a snow zone ripe for the picking. In fact, it could be powder skiing that puts the small town of Cherryville on the bucket list of every skier who’s ever dreamt of pillow lines without lift lines.

The road to Cherryville is similar to the roads leading to many small towns in B.C. It starts in a bigger city, in this case Kelowna. Most guests arrive at Kelowna International Airport and drive the hour and a half to the Kingfisher Heli Village, located at the historic Gold Panner Campground in Cherryville. Those looking for a more pampered experience have the option of being picked up and flown from the posh Sparkling Hill Resort outside of Vernon. From the doorstep of Sparkling Hill, it’s a short 15-minute flight to Kingfisher’s allotted portion of the Monashees and some of the deepest, driest snow on the planet.

Guests who choose to stage from the Gold Panner Campground needn’t worry about missing out on luxury. The word campground often conjures up images of campfires, s’mores and roughing it. The digs at Kingfisher are far from that—two new on-site guest cabins, along with an existing log chalet ensure that creature comforts are looked after. Throw in a sauna, hot tub, massage and executive chef and most guests won’t feel as if they’re in the wilderness.

The mix of modern amenities and rustic charm is most obvious at suppertime, when guests gather in the 70-year-old Gold Pan dining hall. The building is a true original, still showing axe marks on the hand-hewn logs that are a throwback to the area’s rich gold-mining history. The first working claim was staked here in 1862, but these days the real gold is white, deep and much easier to find.

Kingfisher was the brainchild of long-time guide Matt Devlin and his former business partner Tim Shenkariuk, or Shanks for short. As Devlin puts it, “I’d lived and skied at SilverStar for years, I had guided for many operators from B.C. to Alaska, and this zone was right under my nose the whole time.”

A lead from a forestry contact in 2012 got Devlin exploring the mountains around Cherryville, and the seeds for B.C.’s newest heli-ski operation were sown. After securing a tenure, Devlin and Shanks began the fun work of exploring the area with guests, discovering well-spaced, old-growth tree runs with more than 600m of faceshots and steep north-facing runs like Geronimo, a gem that starts in the upper treeline and finishes 1,200m later at the valley bottom. A tenure expansion this season gives skiers a mix of 20% alpine, 20% treeline and 60% tree-skiing. As well, a new partnership, with Devlin remaining as operations manager, ensures that the future is looking good for a company with solid roots in the gold-mining past.

Keefer Lake Catskiing, just a little farther up the road from Cherryville, was once a rustic fishing resort that shuttered the windows and turned off the heat for the winter. Former owners, perhaps not recognizing the ski quality of nearby mountains Yeoward and Dome, sold the property to the Gostlin family. Jeff Gostlin, along with his father, Keith, had an entrepreneurial streak and the vision necessary to reinvent the resort as one of the most luxurious cat-skiing operations anywhere in B.C.

Standing out in a market crowded with choices is a challenge. So when the Gostlins started designing the lodge for their new venture, they knew they had to be at the top of their game. What they’ve managed to create is a sustainable, self-sufficient, luxurious resort in the wilderness, with all the amenities that powder heli- and cat-skiers have come to expect, plus a few surprises that are unexpected. One of those is a maintained forestry road that allows guests to drive straight to the front door of the lodge—no transfers, no awkward half-day of travel, just pull up, throw the keys to the valet and ski.

Above all, though, no matter how comfortable the beds are, no matter how good the food is, nothing substitutes for great skiing. Guests remember how many faceshots they got, not the thread count of the duvets. Luckily, Keefer Lake delivers on both counts, and the duvets are locally sourced no less.

The terrain is a fun mix of tree-skiing, with some treeline and open-bowl features to keep things interesting. The cat roads are well laid out, and most runs finish with an easy glide to the waiting machine, which is custom all the way: from individual seats to heated glove racks and a high-tech sound system. The Gostlins wanted comfort on the way up, excitement on the way down.

When asked to pick his favourite run, Jeff Gostlin chose Kanezilla, a wide-open bowl with all the fixings—drops, steeps and length. It’s never easy picking favourites, but after skiing Kanezilla last winter, I’d have to agree. It was there I watched the lodge barman throw down one of the biggest front flips I’ve ever seen. Talk about staff benefits!

Never content to rest on their laurels, the Gostlins have added a second guest lodge and a new cat to the fleet this season. Guests will still get a custom, exclusive experience, but they might have to share it with a few more skiers. Not that they’ll ever see one another outside the lodge; the terrain is big enough to spread out with everyone finding their own nuggets.

Both operations, Kingfisher and Keefer Lake, are looking to the future and hoping to capitalize on the terrain and lure of untracked snow. Their success depends on how many people discover the road to Cherryville and go in search of the hidden treasure. Without doubt, there’s white gold in them thar hills, and this snow zone won’t stay hidden much longer. 

Ron Betts
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