A Measure of Legend

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The kind of terrain that can make skiers weep.

by Leslie Anthony

The snow finally came to B.C.. And when it came I was in one of the best places you could be for it. I hadn’t been to cat-skiing icon Island Lake Lodge in 15 years, but there I found its exquisite old-growth forests still in place, its steep glades of improbably symmetrical trees and spectacular alpine bowls much to my liking, the thrusting and parrying of the Lizard Range as dramatic as ever, memories around every turn, and even friends who’d been working there since last I dropped in. All in all it was a great place to experience 50 cm of the kind of powder British Columbia is world famous for.

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An iconic photo from back in the day.

During any of the many epochs in snowsports, a world of possibility and direction has always made itself visible through some newly minted lens. In the early 1990s, that lens was Island Lake Lodge.

It wasn’t that cat skiing was anything new—though Island Lake Mountain Tours, as it was then known, was one of the earliest entries in what became a very populous field. And it wasn’t that other places like, say, Alaska couldn’t spare room for us all—only that the great white beyond and it’s promise of endless first descents and bottomless powder was too far and too expensive for all but the pros and bros of the ski and snowboard film fraternity.

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It was, however, this same video industry—driven by the success of snowboarding, the Steep & Deep ethos portrayed in Greg Stump’s landmark Blizzard of Aahhhs, and a continental clamour for ski areas to open up their boundaries—that created a public desire for alpine and cultural discovery, and an interest in off-piste that followed the visual promise of the Alps and Alaska: uncountable peaks, precipitous faces, untracked snow, few humans.

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You can’t search Island Lake without turning up Mark Gallup’s stunning 1996 POWDER-mag cover photo of Eric Pehota in classic Island lake conditions—still used by the marketing department!

More mountainous yet far more accessible, B.C. became a stand-in for all of this. With magazine-and-movie fascination focused around the so-called Powder Triangle of Fernie, Whitewater and Red Mountain, an unpretentious troika of smallish resorts in the province’s southeast, interest naturally found its way to the unique topography and microclimate of the Cedar Valley and a low-key cat-ski operation called Island Lake.

The visionaries behind this labour of love created something that changed the mechanized backcountry industry. And the difference would be Island Lake’s relationship to the industry. With snowboarding exploding and skiing forced to compete on every front, a sudden glut of movies and magazines cried out for new stories in spectacular places. Embracing this burgeoning demand, Island Lake made an investment in the future that no other operation had thought to do: they simply invited everyone.

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A blueprint for a powder assault.

As one of those pilgrims, and along with Henry Georgi my frequent photo collaborator of the time (now a Fernie resident), I’ll take some credit (or blame, depending on your perspective) for blowing up Island Lake. It has been claimed that bookings increased by some 750 per cent following my feature “Still Life with Lizard” in the November 1993 issue of Powder. Myth or not, it certainly says less about my powers of persuasion than a marketplace suddenly alerted to its perfect object of affection: the very definition of steep and deep.

That was because skiing at Island Lake, just over the imposing alabaster ramparts of the Lizard Range from Fernie Alpine Resort, made the precipitous slopes of even that powder paradise seem pedestrian. On my first trip into Island Lake, grinding along in a cat during heavy snowfall, ancient cedars of coastal proportions rose beside us like living totems, testament to a unique microclimate where East-West and North-South valleys met to funnel precipitation in from all directions. The snowfall and forest were magic, but when we rounded the final corner to behold the hand-hewn, peeled-log splendour of the lodge, I was sold.

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An iconic icon from back in the day: legendary guide and cover boy Steve Kujit.

By promoting a relationship with every major snow media, Island Lake went from a 5-year struggle to a 3-year waiting list. The two biggest stars of the time, skier Scot Schmidt and snowboarder Craig Kelly, both invested. Whether chicken or egg, Island Lake became one of the first places skiers and boarders filmed together, a thread that Stump picked up in his film Siberia. The relevance of this synergy can’t be understated. Turnstile meetings of skiers like Schmidt, Trevor Petersen, Eric Pehota, Seth Morrison and the globetrotting Egan brothers, with snowboard heavyweights like Kelly, Jason Ford and Terje Haakonsen, and photo icons like Georgi, Mark Gallup and Scott Markewitz transformed Island Lake into the kind of industry nexus usually reserved for large resorts. Movies like the Egan brothers’ Extreme Dream, Stump’s P-Tex, Lies and Duct Tape, and MSP’s Fetish contained some of the deepest, most transformative footage produced at the time. Honoring this legacy, Island Lake remains a venue for cutting-edge filmmaking: a good deal of the mind-blowing footage from the Sherpa’s ground-breaking, multi-award-winning 2012 joint, All.I.Can, was shot here.

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Edith Rosza finds out why Island Lake always puts a smile on your face — and sometimes even brings tears to the eyes.

Back in the day, our welcome was a run off Baldy Peak down Suntanner, a plunging ridge of thinned trees; our second was Swiss Run, a gem that alternated between dwarf evergreens and open expanses peppered by snags and snow-ghosts with room to open up, gather speed and choose which trees to sweep around. There was Enchanted Forest on lower Baldy, and on the other side of the valley, below the most outrageous alpine bowls known to cat-skiers at the time, shots through old-growth giants in spaces wide enough to drive a truck through. Roller-coastering over enormous downed trunks, pillow stumps and hero cliffs in the deepest snow we’d ever skied was serious skiing that allowed for almost child-like fun which, in the end, is probably behind most of Island Lake’s lasting mystique.

No matter the epoch, no matter the lens, riding snow is all about fun. And the newfound fun at Island Lake in the early ’90s will always be legendary.

goodbye
Sayanara—hope it’s not another 15 years!

 

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