Deep in the Lizard Range southeast of Fernie, Island Lake Lodge serves up heroes’ helpings of catskiing bliss.
words: Feet Banks. Article sponsored by Island Lake Lodge.
It always feels like magic when it happens, but sometimes in that perfect combination of snow, pitch, gravity, friction, momentum, and stoke…riding powder can create a time warp. You’re descending a mountain with the snow moving with you, even as it blows back up, and it feels almost like nothing is moving at all.
Getting time to stand still like that, finding that flow state, is exactly what shred dreams are made of. And at Island Lake Lodge, in the heart of southeastern British Columbia’s Lizard Range mountains, there’s an extra element to the time warp—because chances are your heroes have ripped that exact same run many moons ago…
“The first time I saw it I felt like, ‘this is a magical place,” says ski legend Scot Schmidt, best known for his prolific ripping in ski films and magazines through the late 1980s and ’90s. “I loved the scale— it’s just the right size with really cool features, no glaciers and these vertical limestone layers. And it’s in the snowbelt. It’s always been a special place.”
Schmidt was introduced to Island Lake Lodge in the early ’90s by snowboard icon Craig Kelly. Craig was first shown the powder paradise a few years earlier by Mark Gallup, a then-budding snowboard photographer mostly based out of Alberta.
“Being a ski bum, Island Lake caught my eye,” Gallup says, “so I marched into their offices and told them who I thought I was and why they should bring me up there. We became buddies. One of the original owners, Dan McDonald, understood that photographers and athletes could give them the marketing they wanted without the costs, so there was always room in the cat, or space in the attic. They would get us up the hill somehow.”
Mountain people had been enjoying the Island Lake area for decades, but in very small numbers. Located within the traditional territory of the Ktunaxa (pronounced ‘k-too-nah-ha’) First Nations, Island Lake Lodge sits on the eastern edge of the Lizard Range, a 44 km long strip of mountains southeast of Fernie with peaks jutting up to 2,360 m (7,740 ft).
Originally purchased in 1907 by a logging company and used by locals for fishing and hunting, the 7000-acre patch of powder paradise saw winter exploration in the 1940s, as a playground for ski tourers and mountaineers. In 1960-61 ski hill developers showed interest in the Island Lake zone, even putting in a handle tow and starting construction on a Euro-style lodge there before opting to relocate the resort down the road.
It wasn’t until 1988 when one of the founders of the fledgling Island Lake Mountain Tours purchased a PistenBully snowcat, built the Bear Lodge, and kicked off one of the first, and most celebrated, catskiing operations on the planet.
“We were touring out of the cat at first,” Gallup recalls. “But I remember Dan Mac waving his hand up at all these mountains saying, ‘one day we will get cats up into all these bowls. We will build roads!’ And that is what he did.”
Skis were still pretty skinny in the late ’80s but snowboarding, a very young sport at the time, proved the ideal way to truly blast Island Lake’s deep and delicious snowpack. Before long Gallup and Kelly had lured other pros to their little patch of paradise, including shredders Jason Ford and Jake Blatner. Along with Schmidt, those four became part owners of Island Lake when the then-rented land went up for sale. There are tales of Dale McDonald running through the streets of Fernie, certified bank draft in hand, with just minutes before the sale deadline hit.
“It seemed like a pretty good idea to me,” says Jake Blattner of the purchase. “I liked the snow and the place, figured better to spend my money on this than just waste it.”
“Of course, I was in,” Schmidt says. “I wanted to be a part of it.”
With the industry’s top pros (and their top pro buddies) suddenly in possession of some of the best snow and terrain in North America, it didn’t take long for word to spread, especially as snowboarding exploded. “There was an Island Lake photo in multiple magazines every month,” Gallup recalls.
The film companies arrived shortly after—Greg Stump, Matchstick Productions, Warren Miller, Sherpas Cinema—and Island Lake quickly achieved near-mythical status, the heroes of the sport recounting tales of perfect snowpack and endless variety of terrain.
“The snow is so light and so deep,” explains skier Seth Morrison, who first filmed at Island Lake for classic MSP film Fetish. “All you need to think about is your speed.”
“They had great food, a beautiful hot tub. I think it was my first time in a snowcat,” recalls Ace MacKay-Smith, who filmed with Kelly and Schmidt twice at Island Lake. “I wanted to go back someday but the word got out, they book up quickly I think.”
Which is why these unprecedented times of the COVID-19 pandemic could be advantageous to Canadians looking to get in and shred the lines of legends at Island Lake. With border closures and travel quarantines in place, is this the winter you’ll finally make it to Island Lake Lodge and get into some of those time warp turns of your own? And as perennial Island Lake guest Warren Miller would say, if you don’t do it this year, you’ll be that much older when you do…