Mid-way through the third day, after 3,000 pillow-soft powder turns (just a wild guess), our guide Steve stops on a narrow spine that empties into untouched bowls on either side. The small group of skiers I’m poaching powder with at Island Lake Lodge are giddy. And, as we follow our leader and gather on this skinny skyline ridge and survey the spectacular white-glazed glory land that falls away in both directions, we can’t help but wonder: which way we gonna go? Somebody says let’s flip a coin. Steve says, “Not necessary. We win either way.”
Indeed, for backcountry skiing aficionados, a day of cat-skiing — or three — at Fernie’s Island Lake Lodge will turn up the winning side of the coin on many fronts. This is, unquestionably, a legendary skiing outpost that sits in the Cedar Valley at the base of the Lizard Range. The culinary experience in the luxurious, timber-framed lodge is exquisite. The level of service is exceptional. Although they do, when conditions allow, get up high above treeline into alpine bowls, the glade skiing, especially, is phenomenal. And, since 1988, people have been coming from all over the world to ski at Island Lake Lodge. That is until COVID-19 came along.
“Like so many other industries, the COVID pandemic has dealt backcountry ski lodges and the mechanized skiing industry [heli and cat] a significant blow,” says Mike McPhee, director of marketing at the lodge, located three hours west of Calgary.
“With the border closed, we had to defer our American guests. And they made up a significant portion of our business. So we have opened up our cat-skiing by the day, which many locals are taking advantage of. We are generally 100 per cent booked out year after year so, during this unprecedented time when so many skiers from around the world can’t get here, there are great opportunities for snowboarders and skiers to join us for both day trips and multi-day trips. It’s a great opportunity for family bubbles to join us and we are seeing plenty of that. We have availability at levels that we haven’t seen in years.”
Other operators, such as Canadian Mountain Holidays, or CMH, which operates 12 backcountry heli-ski lodges in British Columbia, have also been significantly impacted by COVID-19. All of their lodges are currently closed to guests and they are tentatively planning to open just one of their lodges, the recently renovated Bobbie Burns Lodge in the Purcells, to Canadian guests in mid-February.
“We have worked tirelessly with our medical teams and BC Health authorities to build safety policies to limit the spread of COVID-19 should we re-open this winter,” says Salina Reimer, communications manager with CMH. “The response from our guests has been overwhelmingly positive. They understand that we are making these decisions for the right reasons.”
Obviously, given the times, there are plenty of changes in terms of practices and protocols that make the cat-skiing program at Island Lake Lodge as safe as possible. For starters, the maximum capacity at the lodge is just 20 people, approximately half of what it usually is. Even though the dining room is spacious, they stagger dining times for guests. Also, the cats (think grooming machines that you see at the ski resorts) have been equipped with special air filtration systems that completely exchange the air in the cabin every minute and a half. And, of course, when you’re skiing a massive 7,000-acre parcel of terrain with just 20 people, well, social distancing is seldom an issue! (Masks are mandatory at all times, except when you’re seated at your table or skiing.)
“In general, backcountry skiing is more secluded with far fewer people and interactions than most other activities, says McPhee. “With all the extra protocols in place, we are able to offer a socially distanced program.” (You can read more about the health protocols, prices, available dates, lodge amenities, and so on, on their website, www.islandlakelodge.com. The price of a day trip is $599 per person and the price for three-day trips starts at $3,368. The fee includes all lodging, meals, skiing, safety equipment, and skis or snowboards.)
Whether you choose to take a test drive with a day trip or go all-in with your bubble on a multi-day tour, you will be in good hands with the exceptional guides at Island Lake Lodge. They know the terrain like the back of their hands. And, given the terrain — expect to ski some steeps, plenty of beautiful glades, and private alpine bowls — strong intermediate skiing ability is required.
After taking the obligatory phone selfies and absorbing the spectacular vista from the ridge, Steve pounced into the powder to the left, made five perfect turns, and motioned the group to follow. Not surprisingly, he made the right call. With soft, knee-deep powder and perfectly spaced trees down the lower half, it was the best run of the trip. That is until we played along the right side of the spine on the next run. And then, a few hours later, I grudgingly left Island Lake Lodge with Steve’s words — “we win either way” — still fresh in my mind.
Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary. Follow him on Instagram @andrewpennerphotography.