Island Lake Lodge: great backcountry skiing

Border Crossing: Powder Skiing at Island Lake Lodge
November 02, 2008

      Outside the ice-caked windows, huge Teton-looking peaks poke up all around us, and inside the snow cat a sense of anticipation grows as we near the summit.
       At the summit of Mount Baldy, eight skiers pour out of the two-tracked snowcat and gawk at what lies before them; to the west, that spiny row of jagged mountains known as the Lizard Range of the Canadian Rockies; to the north and east, more twisted and mis-shapen peaks as far as you can see. Below them, powder; Dry, light, and 2,200 vertical feet of it.
      This was cat skiing Canadian style, at Island Lake Lodge in the Rockies or British Columbia, two hours and a border crossing north of the Flathead Valley. Island Lake Lodge is the largest cat-skiing operation in southern British Columbia, servicing 6,500 acres of skiable terrain that is leased from the Shell Oil Company. Smack-dab in the middle of all this terrain is the lodge itself, which overlooks the tiny alpine Island Lake. The lodge invited journalists and photographers to witness first hand what this place, so close but yet so remote, is all about.
      You can’t drive to Island Lake Lodge. A 20-minute snowcat ride from the parking lot gets you to the base lodge at 4,300 feet, and once there, a glacial cirque surrounds the log structure in all directions.
      A half-hour cat trip in any direction from the lodge will get you into some incredible terrain. Several 7,500-foot-plus peaks stick out in front of the lodge, and out back, Mount Baldy offers thousands of feet of tree skiing. Despite the ominous-looking peaks surrounding Island Lake, most of the cat skiing is on intermediate slopes. More advanced terrain is available also; you just have to ask for it.
      Sometimes called “a poor man’s helicopter skiing,” cat skiing is becoming increasingly popular as skiers and snowboarders search for new ways to explore the backcountry. The Big Mountain began offering cat skiing last year on a secluded area on the back side of the mountain, and a smaller operation using snowmobiles has emerged in Whitefish. 
      The cost for all the vertical you can take in one day is $160 at Island Lake, where the longest run is 2,800 feet.
      “It’s very comparable to the heli-skiing environment, at a fraction of the cost,” says Dan McDonald, president of Island Lake. “It’s put it within the range of everyone to go cat skiing.”
      The pace of cat skiing is a little more relaxed than what you might find on a heli-skiing trip, where air time is a precious commodity. “There’s no pressure like that here,” says operations manager Dale Bowman.
      Before venturing out into the powder bowls at Island Lake, at least an hour is spent on training clients in the use of rescue transceivers and familiarizing them with the natural hazards that exist in the Lizard Range. For instance, the limestone formations that characterize the Lizard Range have left large “sink holes” in the sides of the mountains. These large dimples can be as large as 50 yards across, and often that deep, and can catch an unsuspecting skier. (None yet have skied into them.) But since little avalanche-control work is performed on the wild terrain around Island Lake, the guides take as much time as is needed to familiarize the guest with the natural hazards.
      With 6,500 acres to ski on, though, they have plenty of area to choose from if avalanche conditions are high. “That’s the trick. Knowing when the terrain is safe,” says McDonald.
       The area that Island Lake sits in was was Canada’s choice for a bid for the 1958 Winter Olympics. “But they lost the bid and Island Lake went back to sleep,” McDonald said. “Until now.”

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