Cat Skiing: Island Lake Lodge
"Ha-ha-ha-aya-ya-ya-ya-eeeee!" Barely past sunup, my eyes crack open to the sound filtering through the walls at Island Lake Lodge. Are they at it again already?Or have they been awake all night?
I need to get up anyway. The gray sky has borne us another 10 inches overnight, and the thermometer hovers around zero. I gear up and file outside with the others for my second introductory lesson on avalanche safety, before we all climb into the tractor-style cats and head up the mountain. With their enormous treads and boxy metal cabins, the cats look prehistorically futuristic, like Jurassic-era robots. They're not fast, and they're not pretty, but with the roads buried, they're the only way to get people and supplies in and out of the lodge.
Unlike any other lodge in Canada, Island Lake owns all the terrain it skis—5,000 skiable acres out of 7,000, about the size of Whistler. The property was bought from Shell Oil in 1996 by a consortium of partners, including the famed extreme skier Scot Schmidt. The lack of winter road access reflects the environmentalist philosophy of the lodge, which seeks to minimize its own impact on the valley. Island Lake can accommodate only 36 skiers, and peak-season slots are booked up to a year in advance. "What you're about to experience is the best cat skiing in the world," says Harry, a 60-year-old Calgary businessman. "That's because Canadian cat skiing is the best in the world, and this is definitely the best in Canada."
With a lurch the cat rumbles into motion, and we settle in for the ride—this is no two-minute hop to the summit. But there are amenities: hooks for our clothing, hot-air dryers for our gloves, boxes of sandwiches and cookies, thermoses holding steaming drinks. The road grows steeper until we're trundling upward at an alarming angle, sheer drop-offs rolling past the windows. After 20 minutes we level off, the cat clunks to a stop, and the door swings open. One by one we clamber out.
I take a deep breath. We're standing on the saddle of a ridge that falls off on either side at a grade steeper than any I've ever skied before. Beyond that, it's hard to see. Low clouds and heavy snowfall obscure everything past a few hundred yards. We put on our skis; as the group heads off down the hill, I keep reminding myself that powder is soft.
I'm in over my head—not literally, but almost. The snow is deeper and wetter than anything I experienced while heli-skiing, and the trees seem closer together. It's not until we arrive at an open glade dotted with head-high saplings, where the mountain slopes more gently, that I stop worrying for a while. For a few moments, it's just me and the snow and the little pines, and I bounce through them, light as a moonwalker.
After the last run we roll back to the lodge, exhausted. The fervent energy of the previous night has dimmed to a low-wattage glow, and everyone sits talking quietly around the bar in a faint and pleasant delirium.
I stay at Island Lake two more days, getting progressively more comfortable on the tricky slopes. As I climb into the cat on my last morning, I catch myself grinning like a maniac and I realize how far I've come since arriving in Canada. Before I tasted powder, I feared it. Now I'm eagerly hurling myself into its cottony embrace.
That night, I ride the cat out of the resort and check into a lodge at the base of Fernie Alpine Resort, located nearby on the Lizard Range, with five huge bowls and about two-thirds the terrain of Kicking Horse. Tomorrow I'll be as free as a bird, roaming the slopes at liberty. With any luck I'll be able to find some patches of untracked powder here and there.
I walk outside at midnight to check the condition of the sky. Big, fist-sized flakes come floating down—divots of snow, lit up against the black sky by the sodium glare of the streetlights, settling onto the snowbanks. It's shaping up to be an epic dump, the kind of storm that closes passes and shuts down roads. Civilization will be brought to its knees. I can't wait.