If a border ain’t nothin’ but a line on a map, why not push that line as far as you can?
words :: Feet Banks
photography :: Mark Gribbon
Date: 12 January, 2013 8:29:38 AM PST
To: Mark Gribbon; Feet Banks
Subject: Re: splitboard/sled trip
Not so much my kind of trip. we like to stay on this side of the border, as for routes? not a clue, not my cup of tea and never has been but if you want to go on a trip north of the border to shred multi stacks of bus-size pillows give me a call. Someone around Nelson may be able to help you out but to me this trip sounds like a bad idea. Are you getting permission from the US embassy? or are you just going to do it like a terrorist? good luck with this trip.
On the edge of the Cascade Mountains, just a few kilometers north of Mount Baker, Canadian Border Peak is a sharp, stunning pile of rock jutting 2,291 metres (7,516 ft) above the cow shit and corncobs of Chilliwack BC. She’s a steep pile of ancient volcanic choss with a flanking white ridge that creeps south to join her sister-cousin, American Border Peak. And in between: an international border.
The plan was to do it like terrorists and just snowmobile up to that snowy ridgeline and crank toeside turns in one country and heelsides in another. A border is just an imaginary line on a map, right?
Wrong. It’s also an imaginary line on the ground, a line that separates us from one of the most security-obsessed nations on the planet. From the outset our talk about making a run for the border was met with incredulous looks, hushed-tones, and recounted hearsay of everything from weaponized drones to sensors in the trees to Black Hawk helicopters patrolling the hills with speakers blasting that song from Apocalypse Now.
Dangerous, illegal, or just plain stupid the whole idea reeked of adventure and that was enough for Trevan Salmon, Beau Bishop and Joel Loverin. Snowboarding might be all about progression and karmic freedom these days but not that long ago it used to be about punk rock and whiskey and getting kicked out of everywhere because you thought ski poles were lame. To be a snowboarder meant literally fighting for the freedom to ride how and where you wanted. We were hoping to recapture a little bit of that fuck-you attitude. Border-schmorder, gravity is the only law we give a shit about. And what’s the duty on untracked powder anyhow?
Of course, we were not the first crew of outcasts to disregard a line on the map. The Canada-US boundary is the longest shared international border on the planet and from about the day it was established renegades have found ways to push that line until it broke.
Billy Miner rode a horse, not a snowboard, but he certainly had the right spirit. A famous American train robber, Miner had already served three prison sentences and was on the run from a fourth when he first slipped north over the border in 1903. After orchestrating the first two train robberies in British Columbia history, Miner was eventually caught (in a shootout with the Mounties) but he promptly escaped from New Westminster Provincial Prison, slid back across the line and was never seen in Canada again. Miner’s exact escape route is unknown but he was no stranger to riding through remote mountain passes and the edge of the Cascade Mountains has plenty of those.
Whiskey is not just the name of the best snowboard video series ever, it was also BC’s fist big illegal export. In the 1920s bootleggers and rum runners moved boatloads of BC whiskey down into Prohibition-shackled Washington State and beyond. The most famous smuggling ship of the time was the Malahat, which could reportedly carry 100,000 bottles of booze per trip and evaded Coast Guard officials for over thirteen years before retiring a legend in 1944.
A generation later, huge numbers of American draft-dodgers flooded north to set up peaceful lives in some of the more secluded nooks and crannies (and best snowboarding terrain) in British Columbia.
Skip ahead a few years and it’s organized criminals working the drug trade– weed for coke straight-up or pills for cash, guns, Burmese pythons, or whatever else is hot at the time. Recent border tales include midnight heli-drops and kilometer-long subterranean railways. There have been logging trucks with hollowed-out logs and kicked-in Pontiacs with false spare tires. In April 2010 US border patrol followed snowshoe tracks from Liumchen Ecological Reserve just south of Chilliwack and caught five dudes with 60+ kilograms of weed in backpacks. In June 2013, BC Mounties arrested a guy for smuggling in thousands of bricks of undeclared cheese.
But don’t be fooled, every time your board bag gets ransacked or your buddy with the ten-year old weed charge gets turned back at the border, someone somewhere is blowing right through. The border looks scary when you drive across it but out in the mountains it’s just an imaginary line inspiring renegades to get creative.
And all we wanted to do was ride a board down a hill. Compared to guns, coke and illegal cheese what real harm could a couple pow turns do?
“You wanna see my dad beat the shit out of this guy?”
Beau Bishop’s old man is an ex-AHL hockey player and Beau was killing time in the hotel by drinking beers and showing off a Youtube clip of Wayne Bishop scrapping with Rick Hendricks in 1983. Wayne could throw them pretty good and his AHL career lasted long enough that his son was born in the US – Beau has dual citizenship, which meant insurance for the rest of us. If we ended up en route to Guantanemo Bay we figured Beau could come bail us out with his US dollars and half-American charm. Plus he can throw Front 3 Indys so buttery they probably could have ended the cold war.
“I like the sound of that.”
Trevan Salmon agreed to come about two seconds after we asked him. A lot of guys had declined, slinking back into the shadows of whatever Whistler boozecan was hosting “industry night” that evening. Not Salmon, he’s still got the energy of youth and he grew up fighting three brothers for his own piece of everything. He’s got balls and enough muscle to kick down a door if he needs to, but he also understands self-restraint and why methods will always rule. The salmon is one of nature’s most persistent beasts and Trevan was to be our muscle.
“Chilliwack? Sweet, I’ll bring my fishing rod.”
Joel Loverin is a mountain guy. When everyone else is looking for a booter he’s eyeing up a straightline-to-booter. While you’re reheating a Poor Boy sandwich on your sled pipe and patting yourself on the back for nailing one landing that day, Joel’s hiking the 35-foot cliff to left of the lunch spot (the one with about four feet of tranny) and nailing it. He can gut a fish with his fingernails, got a cover from the last trip we did together, and if there was a chance we’d have to haul ass through the trees on the run from dudes in white camo, Joel was the guy we wanted leading the way.
The team was solid. Everyone cleaned their wallets with rubbing alcohol, emptied the crumbs from their waterproof pockets, and zipped in their passports. The escape plan was so simple we only had to repeat it once, “If you get caught, play dumb. If that doesn’t work, play dumber. If that doesn’t work…. just be sure to head north.”
The Run For the Border
One criminal advantage to technology: our iPhone clocks were already synchronized. We left Chilliwack as dawn cracked and began bouncing up the Tamihi Creek Forest Service Road, the integral access artery that would deliver us from civilization to snowline, and from snowline to the big line.
The big yellow gate spanning the gravel road was unlocked, as we’d been assured it would be. Here we go boys!! I love it when a plan comes together. A few excited kilometers later Mother Nature kicked our “perfect plan,” square in the nuts: we rounded a corner and were suddenly staring into empty space. The road was just… gone. Tamihi Creek FSR had apparently suffered a gnarly 50-foot wash-out sometime since Google Earth last updated their sat-feed of the area. Whereas Homeland Security is able to hack cellphones and satellite-zoom in close enough to read a goggle logo, we had been stuck with consumer-grade intel on this mission. And it let us down.
Those coveted powdery lines of Canadian Border Peak lay maybe ten or twelve kilometers ahead but they may as well have been in Utah. We were three trucks and five sleds stranded well below snowline with nowhere near the right gear or supplies for an extended hike/splitboard/camping mission. Real terrorists probably could have walked in and survived on tree lichen and beef jerky for a week but we only had a day and a half. And no one had touched a single flake of snow.
Plan B– Bombs and Bullets
In amongst the carpet of expended shotgun shells Beau discovered the decapitated head of a doll, the toy kind that a three-year-old might carry around but with the hair hacked from its rubber scalp and buckshot holes pocking the face. The rest of the pullout looked like a war zone—spent ammunition crunched like fortune cookies underfoot and everything–even the ground itself–was riddled in bullet holes. Welcome to Plan B.
Conjured back at the washout, Plan B included driving around in near-circles pushing huge boulders down the steep creek banks and trying to luck into an easy way to bumrush the border of one of the most militarized nations on the planet. Before long we found ourselves lost in a redneck version of Kafka – a twisting maze of logging roads punctuated by impromptu firing ranges and good places to burn a couch. Eventually, miles from any border or snowline, we stumbled upon General Vokes Military Range. And it was hand-grenade practice day.
“No. You are not permitted to photograph anything here.”
“How about the sign?”
“Not even the sign.” The dude in full camo protecting the gate was maybe 24 years old with hair cut exactly the way young army recruits wear it in the movies. Even the assault rifle on his shoulder looked like a prop, but the heavy popping sounds from behind the 8-foot chain-link gate and the tall row of cottonwoods sure sounded legit.
“Let’s put it this way,” the soldier added firmly. “Snowboard magazine or not, the less people that know about this place the happier we are.” Then he smiled and added, “But I think there’s a snowmobile club trail a couple clicks up the road. Turn left just after the prison.”
Hello Plan C.
Plan C – Powder Lockdown
Ford Mountain Correctional Centre deals mostly in sex offenders and the criminally insane. It also has to be the worst place in Canada for a snowboarder to do hard time because on a sunny morning in late February the South-East face of Foley Peak looms above the yard like a beacon– a snowy, fluted pile of paradise calling from just beyond the fence. Except that fence is a double layered, chain-link job that’s easily 40 feet high, curved inwards and topped with razor wire. Even Billy Miner would have a hard time busting out of this joint.
“I don’t know if we have any snowboarders in here.” The guard spoke through a hidden intercom at first, sussing out our threat level before exiting a double gate to chat in person. “We do get people looking up at the mountains all the time but they’re mostly just staring and drooling…a lot of them in here are pretty medicated. I think the view helps keep ‘em peaceful though, we don’t have too many fights.”
Ford Mountain doesn’t have a very forgiving photo policy either (“Don’t take photos of anything”), so we turned left and began the climb into the Razorback mountains and, finally, some snow– a beautifully groomed trail right up to the northern aspect of Lady Peak. It was on the Lady’s snowy skirts that we finally strapped in and clutched our consolation prize. The boys aired, dropped, popped, slashed, rooped and made the best of a warm day where the clouds refused to cooperate. Every once in a while the gloomy soup blowing off the Pacific would lift enough to reveal the cow fields and stripmalls of Chilliwack with the shimmering Fraser river behind, but to the south, Canadian Border Peak and the illicit treasures nestled in her breast remained shrouded in dark, wispy nothingness.
The hills south of Chilliwack may not be the best place to go hunting for nostalgic snowboard badassery but they’re a great place to shoot toy dolls in the face. True adventure is almost never about easy success, the fun lies in the risk and the setbacks and all the random crap that pops up along the way.
As hard-charging border renegades we had failed – no black helicopters flying low, no laser sights on our outerwear. We didn’t stack up to the legend of Billy Miner,or the rum runners, but at least no one got the jelly finger and our passports remain unconfiscated and clean for another run at another time. And besides, everyone knows all the best mountains are on this side of the border anyhow.
This story was originally published in 2014 in Snowboard Canada Magazine. By this point Gribbon and I had been pitching and getting multiple stories a year–Jib the Ghost towns, Shred the end of the world, Ride the future, Abandoned ski hills–it got trickier to come up with new trips that hadn’t been done (bear in mind there are at least a dozen other crews from all across the country pitching their stories too). Riding the border seemed like a logical step, and not as dangerous as everyone we talked to seemed to think it was. The email at the start of this piece is a real email we got from a guide buddy who we’d asked if he wanted to join. In the end, we were overconfident and didn’t plan enough time to do things correctly. We should have hiked past the washout and splitboarded in. Billy Miner woulda done that and more. The GPS coordinates for a sick looking ridge on Canadian Border Peak are 49º 00’N 121º40’W , in case anyone wants to try this hair-brained idea out for themselves.