Off the Beaten Track at some of Canada’s most eclectic (and awesome) ski resorts
By Juan Hitta
There is an inherent conundrum in skiing: the best moments are untracked, just you and the wild, white wilderness. However, the best days almost always include sharing those moments with a friend, or three. And so the secret to snow-sliding happiness is to find the middle ground—slopes and resorts that have enough snow for everyone, but not everyone knows about them.
Thankfully, such places exist all across the Great White North. Hidden winter gems that often require a bit more effort to get too (and there is no super fancy spa at the base), but they’re out there, and they’re amazing.
Surrounded by the North Atlantic Ocean, the Labrador Sea and the ice-clogged Gulf of St Lawrence, Western Newfoundland’s Marble Mountain is under almost constant attack from winter storms and weather. Funded by the Provincial Government to ensure Newfoundlanders have easy pow access whenever they want it, Marble is unbelievably not busy considering the quality of the snow. Midweek they often skip setting up the lift line mazes because there may only be 30-40 people on the hill. With with 39 runs, 225 acres, 1700 feet of vertical and a foot of fresh pow—that makes for a nice terrain-to-rider ratio.
Even if there’s no fresh snow, The Corkscrew, an aptly named twister of banked corners and steep fall line with no cat tracks, obstacles or reasons to slow down, might be one of the best speed cruisers in the country. On a pow day, it’s the stuff shred daydreams are made of.
On the other side of the country, Vancouver Island is hiding some pretty decent pow stashes of their own. All those storms that hit Whistler and the British Columbia interior slam into Vancouver Island first, and when the temperatures are right, it dumps.
Mount Cain sits on the North end of the Island, 3 hours drive from the Nanaimo ferry (plus another half hour of gnarly, chains-required logging road). A two T-Bar lift system build above what feels like an Ewok Village that fell out of the trees, Cain is owned by the surrounding communities and largely staffed by volunteers (the high school kids loading the lifts are likely on a work experience program). The lifts only turn on weekends. Averaging less than 200 visitors/day, the entire Cain operation runs on the love of skiing, community-powered elbow grease, and an aversion to typical resort “expansion plans.”
Which makes for one of the most unique ski hill experiences in the country, especially for the backcountry crowd–Cain is surrounded by dark rocky peaks, snowy chutes, burly lines, impressive cliffs, and towering old-growth cedar and fir forests. And when the weather is right, they can get a meter of fresh overnight… Mount Cain–deep and delicious.
About 760 km to the North, Shames Mountain is another ski hill run by a local non-profit co-operative based out of nearby Terrace, BC. Shames boasts 28 cut runs and plenty of glades with some of Canada’s most consistent snowpack (average 1200 cm/year). Usually an extended-weekend ski hill, Shames will be open five days a week this January which is good news for anyone looking to really get a chance to test out their all-time backcountry access (check out the guided touring program!) Shames has big mountains, small crowds and feather-dry northern BC pow (and lots of it). And on down days you can fly fish for steelhead.
You needn’t fly to the edges of the country to find a hidden nugget, however. There’s good pow and great fun lurking all across this great nation. With the growing popularity of backcountry skinning, Quebec’s entire Chic-Choc range is a buried treasure, but for lift access, Le Massif de Charlevoix might be the shiniest jewel of the bunch. With the highest vertical drop in Eastern Canada, Le Massif is favoured among locals for “good snow, awesome people and none of that commercial Disney resort village crap. It’s just pure skiing.” Hard to argue with that.
The big resorts are big for a reason, the terrain is incomparable and the local culture crackles with the punk rock stoke of young skiers and snowboarders sacrificing comfort to live the dream. But there’s a certain peace, tranquility, and sense of wild zen awesomeness that comes with quiet time in the mountains, away from all that. Canada’s smallest, most tucked away resorts can offer some of the biggest smiles. And you won’t know if you don’t go, happy exploring.