by Darren Davidson
It's true. Winter does, in fact, await just beyond the mostly unseasonable Inland Empire horizons we've witnessed since the season was supposed have started a month ago. So, shredding brethren, gas up the clunker. Snow junkies unite. Turn the frowns upside down, dudes, and bust a move toward mountains far closer than you think, for a taste of that annual pilgrimage known as the Winter Getaway. Because these days, you never know how long winter's gonna last.
A Nordic Nirvana
OK, there's no denying it: The snowpack isn't exactly what you would call "bottomless" this year (although this past week helped). But for this kind of adventure, the only thing you'll encounter of any depth will be your thoughts -- and the up-to-your-neck ends of some of southern British Columbia's most renowned spots in which to soak, sooth and slip away. Hot springs. Three of them, to be exact -- Ainsworth, Nakusp and Halcyon.
But fear not, adventure lovers. There's more to this road trip than plain ol' chillin'.
Bring your skinny skis, those of the Nordic variety, because located within an easy driving distance from each of the said hot springs are some of the sweetest skate skiing and classic skiing set-tracks in nearby British Columbia. What's more, each of them offer funky apr & Euml;s-ski-or-soak destinations, rife with great historic sights, tons of artisans and cultural hits, and some Polaroid-worthy people-watching.
Your trip starts by heading northward across the Metaline Falls border crossing, 20 miles north of Ione. Your first destination? Nelson's Apex/Busk Nordic ski area, about two-and-a-half hours north of Spokane. Located just outside one of the coolest little towns around, the Apex/Busk area has a variety of loops tailored for every level of cross-country skier. You can disappear for hours up into the Nelson Range, and even overnight at a nearby cabin. Or you can do merry loops around idyllic farmland spread alongside the babbling Salmo River and its mammoth cedars. There's a great warming hut, night lighting -- and for those with wee ones, a pull-along sled called a "pulk" for rent if you want to tow junior about. The price for a pass is $8.50 Canadian.
From Apex, head through Nelson -- it'll be tough not to stop for a stroll down Baker Street's hip heritage main drag -- and then up Highways 3A and 31 along the super-scenic shores of Kootenay Lake to Ainsworth Hot Springs for the first soak of your sojourn. There's great hotel accommodations and good food here. The next day, you're bound for the trippy twin burgs of Silverton and New Denver via Highway 31A. The newly upgraded Galena Trail is as out-there as it gets. With five miles of track starting near New Denver, the trail winds through old growth forest along a route once used by pioneer train lines.
From there, take your pick. Nakusp Hot Springs is another 45 minutes up the road. It's big, clean and usually three-quarters empty. For a five-star soak, travel another half hour to Halcyon. The resort, built only three years ago, is gaining a rep as one of the region's most luxurious weekend hideaways with cabins and hotel accommodations. The next day, take a break from the skiing and enjoy the trip back through New Denver, Silverton and the rest of the Slocan Valley -- a counter-culture hub if ever there was one, where neo-hippies, loggers and upscale urban refugees abound.
Back on Highway 3A, you can head back to Apex or go 45 minutes west to Rossland's Black Jack -- the biggest cross-country ski area in the West Kootenay. You'll only have to hang out in Rossland for a beer or two to realize why this past summer National Geographic Adventurer named the city one of the coolest mountain destinations in North America.
Ainsworth Hot Springs -- www.hotnaturally.com
Nakusp Hot Springs -- www.nakusphotsprings.com
Halcyon Hot Springs -- (250) 265-3554, www.halcyonhotsprings.com
Village of New Denver -- (250) 358-2316
Rossland Chamber of Commerce -- www.rossland.com
And Now for Something Completely Different
If you're looking for a winter weekend of the instant gratification kind, Sandpoint, Idaho's Selkirk Powder Company can take care of business.
Located at the very top of Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Selkirk offers great backcountry adventure getaways, with next to nothing needed in the way of travel time.
Boasting an innovative collection of skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling and snowshoeing packages set in classic Idahoan wilderness, the company's humble headquarters is situated a mere 200 feet from the top of Schweitzer's quad, 6,700 feet above sea level. The idyllic location means that even with real-life backcountry thrills, chills and spills right there, all the comforts and conveniences of 21st-century resort life are a mere schuss away. Now that's what you call on-demand adrenaline.
Selkirk works a big 4,000-acre mountain swath of private and public land west of the resort, a tenure that's serviced by a network of skinny roads kept clear and packed by Schweitzer's groomers -- a veritable expressway to and from deep pow paradise.
With trouble-free, high-speed access to The Goods, highcountry hijinks are only a short snowmobile ride away, and that's all the Selkirk needs -- a few sleds and a guide or two.
The company lays claim to being the first backcountry skiing company in North America to use the Sherpa-Cat, a kooky-looking but brilliant contraption the company employs to shuttle skiers and boarders to an array of ridge-line serviced bowls, chutes and glades. The Sherpa-Cat is basically a snowmobile loaded with a mini-set of bleachers and trailer tailored to fit six bums, including the driver's. The skis and boards load up front. Everyone else piles on the back. If it's chilly, you get a big 'ol blanket -- and a reasonable excuse to cozy up to that hottie sitting beside you.
"We're breaking the mold," says Selkirk owner Ken Barrett.
The Sherpa-Cat eliminates the occasionally nauseating motion and diesel aroma that goes with regular snowcat skiing, while ensuring smaller crowds and more freshies for you and the crew.
"People love it," says Barrett. "It's like jumping into a convertible."
With slick morning lift access guaranteed, customers are ripping it up before 9:30 am, with at least six runs in the deal -- and 10,000 feet of vertical in whatever sort of terrain you can handle.
The lift access makes for some righteous guided snowmobiling, too. Selkirk can handle groups as big as 12 saddled up on six machines, with a system of snowy logging roads and groomed tracks heading every which way. The snowmobile guides are smart dudes, too, with an eye for forestry interpretation, animal habitat and general knowledge of the local country, making for a fun and educational getaway opportunity that's ideal for families.
The sleds, all user-friendly, quiet and comfortable, are easy to operate, and kids as young as 5 can jump on as passengers. All you need is a valid driver's license -- and a penchant for easy-access powder pleasure.
Selkirk Powder Company -- www.skithegoodstuff.com, (208) 263-6959
Schweitzer Resort -- www.schweitzer.com, (800) 831-8810
Four for The Core
For those jonesing for an extended wicked weekend, those looking to live large, this getaway is a given.
We're headed back to the Kootenays -- the biggest mountain playground north of the Cascades and Tetons. The region is a quiet legend worldwide, thanks to the fact that it's ensconced by three major mountain ranges -- the Valhallas, Selkirks and Purcells. You can ski 'em, sled 'em, fly 'em and eye 'em. Translation: Backcountry tour, snowmobile, heli-ski and aerial sight-see.
Of all the bad-ass backcountry operations clustered around Nelson, Snowwater Lodge is one of the very few that offers day-rate heli-skiing. Boasting a groovy high-country mini-resort and 85,000-plus acres of terrain, Snowwater's zone was once a rarely visited nirvana for hardcore ski tourers and sledders. But three seasons ago, local yokel Patric Maloney built himself a 10-guest lodge, hired Canadian mountaineering legend Tim Rippel as head guide and now boasts a sprawling collection of mid-to-big peaks, bowls and chutes with runs ranging between 2,000 and 3,000 vertical feet. In all, a perfect mix of extreme and tame.
If you're looking to go a little bit sled-head, motor 20 minutes south of Nelson on Highway 6 to Ymir's Kootenay Mountain Adventures, a great place to get your ya-yas out. Owner Dave Cushway, a veteran snowmobile explorer, has 135,000 acres of prime 'biling terrain all to himself -- in the heart of some seriously large mountainscape. And with the great trail network that services the remote region, it caters to anybody -- beginners, kids and seniors.
"It's lots of fun," says Cushway. "It's endless -- the fun doesn't stop."
The snowmobile tour -- either a half day or full -- includes a barbecue at the Grassy Lake sledders' cabin and lots of local lore. You wouldn't want to leave Ymir without downing a pint at the infamous Ymir Hotel. A night at the Palace -- an immaculately refurbished former brothel -- would round out the Ultimate Ymir Experience.
For those who are truly experienced in big winter adventure, the West Kootenay region is unbeatable for backcountry touring. There are well-mapped touring zones on the Salmo-Creston Pass, 45 minutes south of Nelson. The lift-accessed touring outside of Whitewater Resort is as good as anywhere in North America, with zones like Five Mile and White Queen becoming household names among touring disciples. Ditto for the out-of-bounds runs at Rossland's Red Mountain.
Off-piste favorites include Record Ridge, Mount Gray and Mount Roberts, the latter being the competition venue for Red's North American Freeskiing Tour stop. But be warned -- these are places you do not go unless you're well-experienced and well-equipped with avalanche gear and know-how.
If the heli-skiing, sledding and skinning has you too pooped to party, no problem. You can round out your hard-core exodus with a high-flying reconnaissance trip for your next big adventure, sans sweat.
For $80 Canadian, Castlegar's High Alpine Air will fly you and a buddy for an hour over the top of some of Canada's most revered mountain terrain. With sights including Kokanee Glacier Park, the Lake of the Hanging Glacier in the Purcells or even the world-famous Bugaboos, you'll be ready to rip by the time you're back on terra firma.
Kootenay Mountain Adventures -- www.Kmatours.bc.ca
High Alpine Air -- (250) 365-0977, www.highalpineair.com
Snowwater Lodge -- www.snowwaterheliskiing.com
Alpine Club of Canada in Canmore, Alberta -- (403) 678-3200
Whitewater -- (250) 354-4944
Red Mountain -- (250) 362-7384
Publication date: 1/13/04