Transcending Myth_Featured Story

Legend encompasses the mountains surrounding this Kootenay town and resort, but Fernie’s snow is the sacred narrative that defines this epic ski destination

BY: Claire Challen
PHOTOGRAPHY: Paul Morrison

A shot rang out against the quiet night as the ancient gun released powerfully into the air. The almighty presence of the fur-clad giant lowered his musket slowly, nodding his head almost imperceptibly as if to say, “my work is done.” That night, fluffy flakes journeyed downward from the sky to blanket the mountains and valleys below to the sheer joy of the inhabitants and visitors, awaiting its arrival. Later, glasses were raised to the Griz in thanks as the revered white provisions were replenished yet again upon this snow-filled heaven on earth.

“Change of plans, we’re heading out in 15 minutes!” Half asleep, I was looking forward to breakfast and my morning coffee ritual, however the alternative sounded too good to pass up. We were scoring an early lift load at Fernie Alpine Resort. A short walk to the Timber Bowl chairlift from our on-mountain condo and a smooth transition past waiting locals, we headed up.

Catching a brief glimpse of the possibilities as the skies opened, I was excited to have our guide show us around. As we closed in on the peaks, the sun revealed itself as we cast our eyes to the fresh snow on the runs above.

Surrounded by timeless snow-capped peaks and endless views of the Elk Valley, Fernie’s newest lift – the Polar Peak – is a memorable experience even before making any turns. Snow-covered stunted pine trees run alongside the lift on top of steep cliffs, anchoring the most amazing snow ghosts I have ever seen. Polar Peak is not only a draw for the above average skier, but can also be conquered by the intermediate skier by way of blue runs Polar Coaster and Polar Circus. Our small group was alone at the top with time to lay claim. Fresh tracks and steep terrain loomed in sight. From the lift came hollers of support from locals and visitors close on our heels as we dropped in for our first real turns of the day.

There are no shortcuts to any place worth going. Scooped up at the Vancouver Airport after a quick flight from my hometown of Smithers, I headed onward. After 12 hours on the road (including a bypass of the Coquihalla, which was pending closure due to heavy snowfall) we arrived in Fernie. I could not have been more ready to extract my flattened hind-quarters from the vehicle.

Almost instantly I could feel the rich skiing heritage from this not-so-secret-place-anymore destination. Fernie has produced a great many skiers and racers. Alpine resort visionary Heiko Socher, and racers Kim Sedrovic, Ralf Socher, and Emily Brydon began their athletic careers in Fernie.

I’d always imagined this area to be “not for the faint of heart,” so I was surprised to see that the mountain caters to all levels of skiers. A closely connected base area provides lift access to mellow terrain for beginners and beyond to the five bowls, which are covered by tree-skiing runs, bumps, and steep groomers.

The resort name changed, the two bowls are now five, and numerous new lifts have been added – yet Fernie still delivers a simple yet effective product comprised of snow, variety, and quality on a real mountain and a real (and charming) town.

No matter how much it snows in a winter, I have yet to quench that insatiable need for more of the deep, light powder on mountains like Fernie. I am always in search of more, so it only made sense that I check out the famed Fernie, which boasts the deepest snow in the Rockies. Sounds delicious.

After a blanket of new snow covers any ski area, the usual frenzy ensues. Skiers compete for a boundless amount of untracked snow to be violated before 10 a.m. No longer are the lanes in the lift line alternating, heaven forbid will you hear a “you go ahead”, as you eye up the efficiency of the singles line. But at Fernie, the keeners lined up early, but with no rude, mad rush to be the first. I get the feeling that the kind of people attracted to Fernie are ski-loving mountain freaks, but without the self-serving attitude. It became really evident as we went for a short hike along the Lizard Traverse out to the Turkey Bowl. There was no panic to hike at a sprint pace, nor did we need to click into our skis in record time. As we surveyed the scene of new snow upon an already bottomless base, it seemed only fitting that we give our thanks to the “Griz” for our daily allotment of new snow.

Descending into the bowl, the widely spaced trees fuelled my creativity, as irresistibly deep snow drew me into its welcome embrace. Looking back up at my tracks, I always spotted an untracked line that would wait for me as I looped around for another run. I may have missed out on my morning coffee, but out on the mountain I was tapping into free refills all day long. My earlier concerns of “would there be enough snow?” were, at best, laughable. Sounds of glee came out of the trees as other skiers joined our choice of descent to which we happily responded with our own calls of jubilance. The relaxed vibe on a powder day was really sinking in … people here aren’t rushed and seem to believe that part of the fun is to share it all with others of the same mind-set. It could also be that they know how much snow there is and don’t need to rush to get it.

The Fernie local mellow-tude was noted yet again when we were forced to traverse across ski-able terrain for line access. In other ski areas this would warrant jeers from the chairlift. But not here. As I followed the group across open terrain, I hunched my shoulders in anticipation of the verbal onslaught and was in shock as it never came. The only sounds were the happy calls of skiers enjoying their day.

The thing is, there are some amazing skiers out on the mountain. They are well-respected, yet grounded individuals. In a sport and world where the “me attitude” is ever-present, this is refreshing. Everybody is somebody at Fernie.

Real skiing. Endless steeps and ripper groomers. Fresh snow and lots of it. Thigh-burning vertical. Genuine, funny, kind-hearted people. Good food and drink. I don’t think that is asking for too much, do you? Apparently, Fernie doesn’t think so either. I’d heard tales of endless snowfall, epic terrain, gnarly downhill ski races, and cultural scene to rival any urban center. Plus, some of the coolest people I know hail from Fernie.

This northern girl had made time to explore the legend … only, it’s no legend. It’s really just like you’ve always imagined.

Mining roots meets funky vibe

Situated in the Canadian Rockies on the Powder Highway, Fernie sits in the East Kootenay region of B.C., over 1,000km east of Vancouver and just over a 250km drive west from the Calgary Airport. A population of more than 4,800 year-round residents and 1,800 more in communities just outside city limits, the town also sees a regular influx of seasonal dwellers and tourists wishing to experience the joys of a Kootenay winter. With the discovery of coal deposits by Prospector William Fernie in 1897, the town of Fernie emerged. Today, mining endures as a large part of this community with Teck Mining still in operation in the Elk Valley. Miners and their families remain a vital component to the success of local businesses. From treasured character buildings like the original railway station (now the Arts Centre) to the heritage Museum on Main Street, you can’t walk a block without being reminded of the town’s roots. Rich in mining heritage, architecture helps to depict the past of this town. History oozes from the walls of restaurants, pubs, and shops on the quaint and funky Main Street.

Tourism development continues in order to provide accommodations for both seasonal residents and visitors. From its rough and tumble blue-collar beginnings, Fernie has emerged as a hip ski town, which continues to attract new residents of beginner to hard-core skiers, singles, and young families. At the same time, Fernie has retained enough of its old charm and business opportunities in resource extraction to continue to appeal to it’s earlier residents. Over 100 years after the original settlement, the focus of economic activity is shifting from the mountain’s interior up to its peaks and slopes. As a result of this shift, many are choosing to make their homes and lives in Fernie.

The legend of the Griz

A well-known tale to the citizens of Fernie, the mythical story describes a man – larger and broader than any man – dressed in bear skins and carrying a massive musket that is the key to Fernie’s “Legendary Powder” (Excerpt taken from the display at Fernie Museum). Since his birth in 1879, the Griz has been shooting his giant musket into the clouds to tempt the snow to fall from the sky. Not only does he entice the snow to fall, but the Griz specifies that it be the celebrated champagne powder. The legend morphed its way into a reason for a party, which comes in the form of an annual Griz competition. The celebratory competition brings out strapping, grizzled contestants for the black-powder musket event to honour the legend, thus ensuring a winter of snowfall. Over a century after he first began, the Griz continues to give back to the snow lovers who live and visit Fernie.