Finding White Grizzly’s Powder Den Deep In The Kootenays
There are a few places in the ski world that have almost mythical reputations, Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah for the powder, La Grave in France for the terrain, Arlberg in Austria for après ski. British Columbia’s Kootenay region has a well-deserved place on that list. The Koots, especially the West Kootenays, have the perfect mix of incredible terrain and snow, with just the right amount of dirtbag ski bummery thrown in. There aren’t many hardcore Kootenay skiers sending it in Bogner ski suits or driving to the trailhead in Range Rovers. This is the land of the Canadian tuxedo, duct tape on jackets, old pickups and new snowmobiles. Kootenay skiers have their priorities straight.
It’s with this backwoods background that Carole and Brad Karafil founded White Grizzly Cat Skiing in 1998. Details like choosing the location for the operation weren’t random. They studied weather patterns, scoured maps, and built the lodge in Meadow Creek, at the northern end of Kootenay Lake, on the doorstep of the Goat Range in the Selkirk Mountains. This area is one of the most fertile snow belts in the country and the tenure is home to some of the best tree skiing imaginable. In fact, it’s become so legendary, a local bumper sticker reads, “Ski Good or Eat Wood.”
The operation was based on the philosophy that skiing in waist-deep powder shouldn’t be exclusive to the wealthy. The Karafil’s vision was to create a unique mountain offering that was affordable. The cool thing about a vision is that, when it’s combined with passion and time, magic can happen. That’s the case at White Grizzly. Carole and Brad set out to deliberately build a lifestyle for themselves, and their guests were able to share in that for 22 years.
After much soul searching, the Karafils handed the reins over to a group of new owners in 2020. The group, five couples from nearby Nelson, are largely new to the game. Two of the principals, Tom Weager and Cyrus Harrison are looking after the day-to-day operations. Both Weager and Harrison bring some cat-ski experience—Weager as a former photographer for neighbouring Selkirk Snowcat Skiing, the world’s first cat-ski operation and Harrison as a tail guide at White Grizzly. The legacy they’ve inherited isn’t lost on the new owners, who say they are committed to maintaining what they see as White Grizzly’s core values. Weager says reinventing the wheel isn’t being considered, but putting their personal stamp on the operation is already well underway. What return guests will notice are some upgrades to the lodging, a new executive chef, and some fresh faces among the attentive lodge staff and guiding team. New guests will still be treated to the “Best day of my life” effect, thanks to the deep snow and steep skiing, which no one has plans to change.
It was crushing snow outside. Stoke levels were at maximum.
THE RIGHT WAY
To borrow a line from Tolkien, “One does not simply walk into Mordor.” The same could be said for Meadow Creek, getting there is part of the adventure. I travelled from Sun Peaks near Kamloops and the drive took me east to Revelstoke. Then, after a ferry ride across Arrow Lake, south to Nakusp and further east to the historic town of Kaslo. At Kaslo the road heads north along the shore of Kootenay Lake.
Forty lakeside kilometres later, I arrived in Meadow Creek. It’s one of those drives that has you constantly thinking “I hope this is the right way.” Pulling into the quaint and unassuming lodge, I knew that, without doubt, I’d come exactly the right way.
I’d shown up the day before the rest of the guests arrived. The guiding team for the week was doing a day of ski touring and checking out the snowpack. The opportunity to get at it a day early was like someone offering you the chance to go to Disney World, without the crowds. Like a kid at Space Mountain, I was all over it. One of the most compelling aspects of White Grizzly: a large portion of their tenure is not (yet) accessible by snow cat. That might seem like a disadvantage, but that untapped terrain is prime for ski touring, and the terrain that’s currently included in its cat-skiing program is epic. Part of the long-term vision is to offer guided ski touring for those who like to earn their turns.
During that first day, lead guide Silas Patterson got us into some sporty chutes, amazing open terrain and a rock garden with hit after hit of fun drops and soft landings. The freedom to access terrain on skins and touring gear is going to open a whole new world of opportunity. The short-term plan is to introduce the touring option this season, and to continue to develop it in the future.
As much as I enjoyed having some alone time in the mountains, ski trips are always better when shared with interesting people. That’s one of the things I liked the most about the White Grizzly scene. The lodge is warm, inviting and welcoming. It feels more like a home than a hotel. As you enter there is a boot room, necessary for drying gear after a day of overhead faceshots. The real jewel though, is the floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace in the great room. It’s a natural gathering place, and within minutes strangers were chatting like old friends. There is an easy familiarity that happens when a group of kindred spirits are all under one roof. This being a one-cat operation, it was easy to quickly get to know everyone. We shared the giddy excitement that accompanies anticipation. Our first night had all the right ingredients; our newbies were leaning toward stoked, not scared, which is always encouraging, and the conversation and drinks flowed freely. Those drinks, by the way are BYOB, another way White Grizzly stays affordable for guests.
The easy atmosphere wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Former owners Brad and Carole were the stewards, hosts, curators and custodians at White Grizzly, and they treated guests like family—Carole as lodge manager, Brad handling lead guiding duties. With them being so involved, the change of ownership was bound to raise some questions. Luckily, the new owners convinced the Karafils to stay on for the first year, to ease the transition and to enjoy a swan song with many of the other long-time guests.
During my stay, I bunked with a guest named Barry Rollins, probably the best person for me to hang with for some true perspective. He started skiing at White Grizzly the first year they opened and has been back every year since.
Given Rollins’ longevity, a new owner was always going to feel different to him. What stayed the same, Rollins pointed out, was the camaraderie in the lodge. Any time an operation gets new owners, there are bound to be some minor changes, but Rollins was glad White Grizzly had maintained the down-to-earth feel that guests love.
He also mentioned the things that weren’t about to change no matter the ownership—the quality of the skiing in the incredibly diverse terrain—and, as it happened, it was crushing snow outside. Stoke levels were at maximum.
Morning starts early in the mountains. While guests were waking up to the delicious smells of a full breakfast, the guiding team had already been up for a couple of hours, checking weather and forecasting snow stability, preparing gear, and making sure each guest was ready for the day. I sat in on the morning guide’s meeting and was impressed with how thorough the small, three-person team was in crafting a clear plan for the day. The 20cm of new snow from the previous day was factored in, but the size of the tenure meant that it would be easy to ease into the day and let the snowpack prove itself.
Despite the size of the tenure being big enough for two cats, the operation at White Grizzly has always been a one-snowcat show. As a result, each run feels like something special, shared among a small group of friends. We spent the morning warming up and getting a feel for the snow on some well-spaced, low-angle tree runs. Some recent logging offered a couple of runs into wide open cut blocks, with tons of fun stumps to jump off. When the guides determined that our group was up to it, the terrain ramped up nicely. We spent the afternoon on some really steep, treed runs. The guides did a great job of letting the horses run, we were skiing sustained pitches that were well over 300 metres to mid-run rendezvous spots, leaving plenty of time to get in a rhythm. By the end of the day, everyone was tired, hungry and smiling from ear to ear.
There’s an axiom, often used in hospitality, that encourages under-promising and over-delivering. That seems to be a specialty at White Grizzly, with emphasis on the overdelivering. In a B.C. market that now has more than 16 cat-skiing operations and 22 heli-ski operators, standing out from the crowd is a challenge. It would be tempting to be boastful to differentiate yourself from the competition. White Grizzly seems to be an operation that would rather show you how awesome it is, than tell you. Like any diamond in the rough, it won’t be long before there’s a waitlist and you’ll be wishing you’d booked earlier. If I were you, I’d circle Meadow Creek on a map and follow it to some of the best skiing the Kootenays has to offer.