Six landlubbers find their sea legs, and the deepest snow of the year, amidst the salty spray and coastal rainforests of Vancouver Island.
words :: Feet Banks
photography :: Mark Gribbon
A machete of Arctic cold slashes across the top deck of BC Ferries Queen of Esquimalt where 17-year-old Dan Stubbs sits hunkered in a bright yellow jacket, smoking a cigarette and trying to explain how snowboard road trips and oceanic cloud theory are intrinsically linked.
“It’s human nature,” he enthuses. “At the end of a long trip we all have to take a piss, right? Well, Mother Nature is the same way.”
Stubbs is an Ontario/Whistler transplant who arguably spends more time sitting in a gondola than a high school classroom, but according to him the massive grey storms that slam into BC’s coast spend, “a long-ass time swirling out over the Pacific.”
“Days, weeks even,” Stubbs continues, “drifting around out there, sucking up moisture as they spin and twist towards the coast.”
With the choppy ocean behind him, Stubbs looks something like a rubber duck bobbing along, quacking– but he has our attention.
“The clouds get bigger and stormier and swirlier the longer they stay out there,” he gestures. “And then, after weeks of travel, the first piece of land those storms hit is Vancouver Island.”
Stubbs stands up, leans back, “And that’s where they piss! Or…” he smirks at his own wit, “if the temperature is right, they dump.” Stubbs later admits to learning more than half of his theory from the Internet and making the rest up but we have to hand it to him, it makes sense.
Vancouver Island is a 460-kilometre breakwater protecting nearly a third of BC’s famous Coast Mountains from the open sea. But the lesser known (and underwhelmingly named) Vancouver Island Range juts up over 7,200 feet (2,195 metres) from the frigid, smashing seas and all those legendary storms that dump on Whistler or Seymour or the BC interior, they all hit the Island first.
For decades rumours had circulated the mainland. Whispers of overnight Island snowfalls of more than a metre, or of thousand-year-old tree runs with powder deep enough to drown in. Tales of haunted ski hills built on ancient Indian battlefields and weird logger-hippie snowfreaks living off-the grid in the mountains for months at a time, alternating between riding deep-powder and surfing huge winter swells.
With a blast from the ship’s whistle, the Queen of Esquimalt eases into port. Ours are the only trucks with snowmobiles and much like the massive moisture system holding just off the west coast and the huge cold front drifting down from the north, we’re ready to storm the island.
Mount Cain – The First Line of Defense.
“It’s like an Ewok Village fell out of the trees and landed at the top of the world’s sketchiest Logging Road.” – Brittany Davis
With dozens of private cabins and hand-built wood huts scattered throughout the rainforest the base of Mount Cain is Ewok-esque but the planet Endor didn’t have mountains like this. Surrounded by worn, dark rocky peaks, snowy chutes, burly lines and impressive cliffs it’s hard to believe we’re on the Island. Britt and her boyfriend Joel Loverin instantly head for higher ground, hiking into an untouched line with some nice-looking spines while Stubbs and Island local Trevan Salmon jump, slash, and enjoy a nice ridgeline.
A few splitboarders out for a tour stop for moment to say hi but for most part the hill feels deserted. “It’s an average day,” our guide Peter Knott explains. “Yesterday was our busiest ever though, we sold 400 tickets.”
That sounds too good to be true but Mount Cain is British Columbia’s only community-owned ski hill and they like to keep things pretty low key. Most of the staff are volunteers– local kids shovel out the hill’s two T-bars for free passes, Patrollers patrol simply for the love (and the snow) and even the girl selling chili dogs is just doing her part to keep things running smooth. The entire operation survives on community elbow grease, limited government funding and scrounging supplies from wherever they can (the lodge is built from salvaged timber, parts for the T-bars were pillaged from defunct resorts to the south.)
Die-hard Island powder fiends will pitch tents in the parking lot or sleep in their trucks when the Pacific storms unload and with three backcountry bowls on three separate aspects Cain offers plenty of terrain for those with the safety gear and knowledge. In bounds on the front side, the T-bars only run two or three days a week ensuring riders always get four or five days of accumulation. At Mount Cain things can get very deep, very fast.
“It’s not uncommon for us to get a metre overnight,” says Peter nonchalantly as we dip over another ridge and into old-growth hemlock, fir and yellow cedar –big coastal giants that have been pushing up into the clouds for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. “We’ve had seasons where the top t-bar towers are buried, cabins are buried. We get 8 meters of snow some years.”
The “Three O’Clock Trees” are deep and steep. A heavy silence and vast sense of emptiness permeates the air– we slash turns and pop airs for the better part of two hours and see only a handful of tracks and just four other riders, one who goes out of his way to crank a turn that sprays snow into our camera equipment.
“I don’t know why that guy thinks he’s so special,” Peter mutters, “he’s from Vancouver.” The real locals are a lot friendlier, especially the ones who’ve been around for the long haul.
“It’s 30 years since we got the certificate allowing us to operate the mountain,” explains Bill Coyne, 72, one of the remaining true old-timers at Cain.
“Back then you could buy a lifetime membership for five dollars but all it entitled you was use of a big fire kettle and that was it. Eventually we finished the first t-bar in ’81.”
Bill is also quick to credit the volunteers for Cain’s success and points out that since there is no single owner, no one is ever looking to cash out. “It really is a family, the whole mountain. We’re not rich but we’re not bankrupt. We’ll never have a chairlift– insurance, maintenance, everything goes up when you deal with chairlifts. These North Island storms can shut down a lift pretty fast and it’s a heck of a lot easier to rescue people from a T-bar.”
Back in the trees Peter tells us we’ve hit a good cold snap, that they can get screwed by warm weather the same as anywhere. But the real magic of Mount Cain isn’t the snow (which is ridiculous) it’s that it feels like stepping back in time and strapping into an era most of us have only heard our parents talk about with far-away eyes. A time when people rode just for fun and “aggressive branding” was something you did to overly energetic cattle. The real magic is that this place will never change and everyone– from Peter to Bill to the groomers to the dude living in a bus (with a woodstove in it) and riding a dried up old Crazy Banana– everyone here is incredibly proud of what they have. Not bragging, just proud.
And so they should be. Mount Cain is the kind of place that’s hard to get to (tire chains absolutely necessary) and takes dedicated effort to keep up and running. But catch a drippy Pacific rainstorm hitting a swath of Arctic outblast and there might not be a ski hill like Mount Cain anywhere else on the continent– hit the perfect storm and this place is heaven.
“I always think of those cakes,” Says Ture Lars Loffler, an old Cain-shredder-turned-Whistler-local. “Those McCains cakes… Mount Cain– Deep and Delicious.”
Mount Washington– The Heavy Artillery
“We’d ride the bus three hours to get there, snowboard for six hours and then bus three hours back. We’d do that three times on a long weekend.” – Trevan Salmon
Real beds are a luxury on any snowboard trip but free beds are like winning the lotto. At Mount Washington we get hooked up with two large, multi-bed suites located right above the liquor store. Island hospitality at its finest.
It comes as no real surprise when Stubbs “volunteers” to share a room with Britt and Joel. The night prior we’d stayed in Woss, BC, where the motel rooms smelled like old corpses and stale tobacco but offset that with a complimentary condom and free porn on their TVs. As such, Stubbs has been talking about threesomes all day. Mark and I gladly take the larger room with Trevan Salmon, an Island local who’s been ripping Washington since he was a fry.
Sprawling-wide with eight lifts and a good fall line, Mount Washington gets absolutely pummeled with snow. On a good year their base will be up over 900cm, more than twice what most mainland hills ever get. “This is where the moisture unloads,” says PR man Brent Curtain as he hands us our passes. “Everyone else gets sloppy seconds.”
We’ve lucked into some bluebird skies however, so Brent sends us out to the Boomerang Chair, a genius-designed lift that carries riders up both aspects of a single ridge at the same time, unloading them at the top before dropping back over the edge and down the other side. Built in 2006, The Boomerang, and the new terrain it opened up, was a game-changer for the Island’s core riders. “There’s an old mine site out there,” Brent says. “It’s a copper mine but you should be able to find some gold.”
What we find coming off the Boomerang is a slew of steep forested gulches, cliff bands, and runs with perfect “haulin’ ass” fall line. Trevan leads the way. “I learned to sled at that mine,” he says. “On a 93 arctic Cat with metal skis.”
Having ripped Mount Washington since grade one, and suffered through more than a few balmy, wet coastal snowfalls, Trevan is extra stoked to shred the dry pow we’ve arrived to and he shifts gears to fully “work” it. He double-packs the take-off point atop his cliffs, he hikes the same feature repeatedly until we get the shot. He shovels like a gravedigger on a per-hole pay scale and by the end of the day Trevan has nailed as many shots as the threesome crew combined. Home ice advantage, perhaps. Or maybe a better night’s sleep.
The only après spot is Fat Teddy’s Bar and Grill. Brent Curtain buys us a late lunch, outlining the resorts plans to expand “some new slackcountry on the backside. A thousand acres or so.” He also addresses Mount Washington’s distinct lack of outdoor patio/party space. “Yeah, the lodge was built in 79 and they weren’t thinking that far ahead as far as patio action. We’re waiting for an earthquake to level us so we can start again.”
The line is delivered as a joke, but the epicentre of Canada’s largest onshore earthquake, a 7.3 magnitude doozy in 1946, is literally just around the corner at Forbidden Plateau. Forbidden is also an abandoned ski hill. We’ve covered both the Island’s functioning resorts, time to dig into some of its dead ones…
Forbidden Plateau – The Safehaven
“Everyone was real quick to say how much they loved Forbidden, and how they grew up on Forbidden, but then every weekend they’d drive right past it.” – Patrick Kitto
As a ski resort, the nail in the coffin for Forbidden Plateau came at the hands of the 98-99 la nina storm cycle, the one whose now-legendary snow dumps broke records across coastal BC. At Forbidden Plateau they also broke the lodge, literally collapsing the building and crushing the resort’s future.
The ski runs are still there however, laying empty under one last decrepit chairlift– remnants of good times past. The road and parking lot still gets plowed though and the mountain now caters to everyone from weekend tobogganers to dreadlocked ski tourers to local savages like Patrick Kitto. Patrick brings new life to the creaky old hill every spring with JumpCamp, the most prestigious riding camp on the Island, but today he’s just happy to show us his favourite spots.
We meet in the parking lot and fire up the two-strokes. Patrick has a small crew with him and as the clouds roll in we take to the trees and start defiling the endless untracked pillows and hits, wall-drops and glades. We build up the “Upper Boston Hip,” a JumpCamp big-air standard that catapults riders up into unparalleled views of the Pacific ocean and Comox lake. With the cut runs as a perfect sled paths riding Forbidden feels like a private slice of snowboard heaven, and we don’t even get into the splitboard terrain available off the backside in Strathcona Park. Under abandoned lifts with snow piled high where the people should be, Forbidden truly feels like dipping into something unallowed, riding what we are not supposed to– forbidden fruits always taste the sweetest.
But fruits aren’t how Forbidden got the name.
“No, it was never an Indigenous tribe battleground,” Patrick explains, wiping the last run’s pow from his goggles as we wait for a sled pickup. “The Comox tribe used to send the women and children up here when they would battle with the neighbouring Cowichan tribe, to keep them safe, but one time they came back up and the whole area was covered in blood red flowers and all the families had disappeared into thin air. It was a forbidden place after that. ”
Other legends have it that it was a red-tinged algae on the snow that gave the plateau its bloody feeling but regardless, the name stuck. And the trees do loom a bit heavier, their branches loaded with snow and stories.
In the trees is also where we come across the cabin. Hand built, cozy, half buried and totally legit in the way only a good backcountry cabin can be. The Island crew who put this one together didn’t skimp on luxury– fully insulated with a wood stove, sinks, drying racks, wall art and a huge sectional couch.
“Who carried the couch up?” Joel asks. We’re a hundred metres from the nearest run, no truck could have made it in this deep.
“Oh, the men are real men around here,” Patrick says. “Someone probably brought it up in his beard.”
At the end of it all, Lucky Lagers are crushed, fives are highed, and a plan is made to head southwest in search of the alpine jewel in the Island’s rocky crown, Mount Arrowsmith.
Mount Arrowsmith– The Inner Sanctuary
“This is unbelievable, best snow of the season.” – Everyone.
With all the snow they get, and the overall stoke level of its populace, you’d think Vancouver Island would have an easier time keeping ski hills open. Forbidden was literally crushed to death, Mt Green (a tiny spot outside of Nanaimo) just sort of faded back into the bush, and Mt Arrowsmith apparently somehow burned its lodge to the ground.
It isn’t the lack of a ski lodge that makes it tough for us to find Arrowsmith however, it’s the depth of the snow. With Joel and Trevan breaking trail through literal waist-deep, we come close to the legendary big open bowls and sharp jagged peaks of Mount Arrowsmith, but not close enough. Anything we can sled up isn’t steep enough to snowboard down and anything with a ride-able slope may as well be on the moon, we can’t reach it. Deepest snow of the season for all of us and somewhere up above us is a ghost-town alpine playground unwilling to give up its gifts. The Island is nothing if not mysterious.
So we burn gas and stare at the ocean. The snow is so dry and light it feels like frozen air spray-painted white. The sleds submarine and power back out at will, riders coughing and spitting out mouthfuls of snow. It’s not snowboarding but no one complains. There’s no such thing as “too-deep” and in the past week we’ve cranked turns at a flashback powder utopia and ridden the smartest chairlift going. We’ve jousted with snowghosts, laughed with locals, digested glistening red Chinese buffets and slayed some of the driest pacific powder to ever hit the Island. There is nothing left but the road, the ferry, and home. Five more hours and another big trip will be in the can. Providing we don’t miss the ferry.
“It’s gonna be close,” Stubbs declares. “We’re gonna need to haul ass to make the last boat. No stopping, not for anything… Everyone got their piss jugs?”
Do It Yourself…
With multiple sailings each day, BC Ferries is a rite of passage for anyone looking to make the trip to Vancouver Island. It’s also one of the largest ferry fleets in the world. Depart from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver and make sure to hit the top deck, enjoy the scenery and keep an eye out for whales. bcferries.com or hit hellobc.com for help planning any trip there.
Mount Cain is open Saturdays, Sundays and some Mondays. Make sure to carry chains for your vehicle (even 4×4’s) and watch the forecast for a spell of cold weather to catch some of that super-dry island pow. mountcain.com
Gribbon and I loved this trip because we got a bit of hotel budget and free Ferry passes from the BC Government (for readers that don’t live in BC, the ferries can be challenging). The story was originally published in Snowboard Canada Magazine, and Gribbon nabbed the cover as well