BY: Julie Nieuwenhuys PHOTOGRAPHY: Caroline van ‘t Hoff
“I forgot that you work here,” our handyman Jack says to a friend. “I try not to use that four letter word,” the friend replies with a chuckle. This laid back mentality sums up the easygoing attitude that is the norm in Nelson. Dotted with Victorian gingerbread cottages, the B.C. town in the Kootenays is home to dozens of artists, musicians, yogis and of course powder junkies. Some of their hairstyles give new meaning to local colour, and everyone leads a no stress lifestyle. They seem to embrace a collective fearlessness when it comes to taking the roads less travelled; there is a genuine sense of “anything goes”. Passionate, well educated ski bums do odd jobs such as tree planting, mining or growing a particular green plant in order to be able to ski full time. For us, two Dutch women, it is extraordinary to be surrounded by skiers and, unsurprisingly, we immediately feel at home in this paradise.
PURE, SIMPLE AND REAL … DEEP
“Go Dutch girls!” I hear someone call out enthusiastically from the chairlift as I hurtle a little too fast past a huge pine tree. The speed makes it feel like I am flying as the snow blows across my face. Everything about this descent seems aligned. It is the perfect powder run and the quintessential moment I daydream about during summer. The snow is so light it turns my spray into a cloud that lingers in the air for a couple of seconds, which around here is referred to as “cold smoke”. The excitement during a powder day like today is positively palpable among the skiers. I hear people laughing loudly and see them glow as joyful shouts echo from the trees. It just so happens that this is the weekend of the Coldsmoke Powder Fest in Whitewater. Only a 20 minute drive from Nelson, the small ski area is a way of life for many locals. During the festival, backcountry skiers and boarders celebrate life in the mountains. Ski touring is immensely popular and sports loving locals proudly take us to their favourite spots just outside the ski boundaries. We put on our climbing skins for a short tour almost every day, and weeks after a typical snowfall we are still skiing freshies. Even after nearly three months we have barely made a dent in our “to ski” list, so we will be back!
SIZE DOESN’T ALWAYS MATTER
Despite the fact that Powder Magazine readers voted Nelson, together with the neighbouring town of Rossland, “Best Ski Town in North America,” in some ways time has stood still in this powder paradise for the past 30 years. Whitewater, with the cool moniker WH2O, is an authentic ski hill; it’s the exact opposite of a crowded European resort, which is refreshing in an age when it seems like everything has to be bigger and better. In Nelson, less is more. The three old fashioned, rickety secondhand chairlifts take you up to extremely steep and challenging tree runs. Thanks to this remote location – both Calgary and Vancouver are more than eight hours away by car — it is nice and quiet around here, and we seldom have to wait in line. When we do, those few minutes are nothing to us Europeans and we grin at the locals who are up in arms about how “crazy busy” it is. According to marketing manager Anne Pigeon, there were 2,200 visitors on the busiest day last season.
The only restaurant on the mountain is a simple; a cozy timber frame day lodge, where young and old mingle and everyone seems to know each other. We stand out in our colourful gear and are quickly known as “the Dutch Girls”. Every day we enjoy their healthy, delicious and affordable food. The food is so popular that Shelley Adams — the former owner of Whitewater who also worked there as a chef — has published several cookbooks with recipes from the lodge. These include the Glory Bowl, my favourite, with marinated tofu, brown rice, caramelized almonds, greens and a heavenly dressing. During lunch, I always have to ask our new ski friends what brought them to Nelson. An oft heard response is: “I came here for a few days and just never left.” I certainly cannot blame them; the deep powder, pure stoke and genuine atmosphere make WH2O a special place. Dedicated ski bums of all ages make me realize that skiing is more than just a sport here; it is positively a way of life. I feel privileged to be out there with such fervent and fanatical skiers and to be able to share my passion. Out of all of the places I have skied around the world, I have never felt so proud to be a skier as I do here!
LIGHT MY FIRE
Baker Street is the main street populated by everyone from dreadlocked buskers to groups of hippies sporting colourful mohawks. Nearly everyone clutches a thermos coffee mug. In addition to powder snow and marijuana, coffee seems to be one of life’s necessities in these parts. We get our fix from our favourite coffee place, John Ward, where we meet interesting people over a cup of blissfully foamy cappuccino. Such as Nick Waggoner, one of the filmmakers from Sweetgrass Productions. Their unique, artistic style fits perfectly with the unconventional Nelson, which is the backdrop of their latest film, Valhalla. He spontaneously invites us to a barbecue in the woods of Whitewater that night. Later, we gather unsuspectingly at the Sweetgrass house, where we are asked to select a bohemian 1960s outfit from the box of dress up clothes. Kitted out in floral dresses, retro print robes and knitted vests, we drive in darkness to WH2O, where the psychedelic music of The Doors booms from the forest. Much to our surprise, we have landed on the set of Valhalla. Together with 30 or so other “bohemians,” we are asked to dance wildly around the crackling campfire. Which is exactly what we feel like doing, and the party only gets wilder as the night progresses. Items of clothing are removed and a fire dancer does this daring number with a burning hula hoop. While this is one of the most far out parties I have ever been to, at the same time I realize that it is not all that unusual in Nelson!
OLD WORLD CHARM
The lovely Victorian cottages and Baker Street’s heritage buildings dating back more than a century make Nelson a charming city. Fortunately, unlike most cities in North America, you will not find any Starbucks, McDonald’s or other fast food chains here. It is no wonder that The New York Times named Nelson the “prettiest small town in Canada.” Situated on the shores of the Kootenay Lake, which itself is surrounded by white sandy beaches, Nelson is an outdoor sports paradise year round. In spring, skis and boards are gradually replaced by mountain bikes, kayaks, SUP boards and hiking boots. The environmentally conscious residents pursue a healthy lifestyle, something to which the wide variety of organic products sold here testifies. At parties we were repeatedly offered “Scooby Snacks,” an organic stimulant made from magic mushrooms. The locals swear up and down that it is a completely sensible choice; after all, it also contains ginseng and goji berries. We cheerfully took a pass, preferring the genuine natural high. Like its residents, nightlife in Nelson is unconventional and surprising. All of our expectations were exceeded during an intimate living room concert where guests choose the price of admission. We were utterly enchanted by the two young musicians with angelic voices whose personal, emotional songs were delivered with both vulnerability and power.
PEOPLE OF THE POWDER
Sipping a coffee in the sun it hits me: for the first time in my life I am not bummed that the winter is almost over. Nelson is so much more than a powder paradise. It is a close knit community where money is simply a means to fund your passions, and not a goal unto itself. Quality of life is the main thing, and people here wholeheartedly enjoy themselves. For us, the combination of breathtaking nature and mountains of powder in such a friendly and creative town makes Nelson the best place for us to live. After all, where else are people so laid back that they refer to work as “the four letter word we try not to use”?