PISTE OFF – ISLAND LAKE LODGE
It’s cold and dark at 6:45 a.m. in December at Island Lake Lodge as I head out with our lead guide, Greg...
I squint my eyes as my Toyota Tacoma’s headlights make an effort to illuminate the road in this early December blizzard. Breaking trail in the evening darkness, on what should be a well- travelled highway, is clear indication of how much snow is quickly accumulating.
I am following the quiet and meandering Highway 6, less than an hour drive from the Kelowna airport, though it feels like the middle of nowhere. I guess that’s part of the allure of the British Columbia Interior. As I focus on the road, the sounds from within the truck bleed into the foreground.
Mike Henitiuk scrolls through his phone and selects “Hard Nose The Highway,” from Van Morrison’s lesser-known 1973 album of the same name. As Morrison’s piano picks up over the stereo, it dulls the roar of Joe Schuster and Matt Margetts arguing in the back seat over who had the best performance in The Last Waltz. I catch the headlights of Josh Bibby, photographer Bryan Ralph and filmer Jamie Tanner in my rearview. The others in the truck, too, notice the rate of snowfall. It’s the kind of dump that warrants calling into work sick, skipping class, or ditching a date. Our excitement builds knowing we are only 45 minutes from Keefer Lake Lodge.
The house on the hill.
Where the winding road dotted with Keefer Lake mile markers ends, myself and my Seeking Nirvana brethren arrive at the lodge to check out the new family-run operation in the heart of gold that is the Monashee Mountains. Stepping into the freshly built and towering timber-frame lodge, we drop our bags and saddle up to the massive rough-milled bar as Jeff Gostlin, owner and guide, pours us each a pint.
After a warm welcome and brief run down of the next day’s plans, we finish our beers and make our way up to our rooms with the assistance of the lodge’s glass elevator—a great amenity for people with disabilities, or those who have had one too many at the bar.
In the morning, as we step into the most impressive snowcat passenger cab I’ve ever seen, Bibby is already inside, queuing up Wheeler Walker Jr., the offensively inappropriate country singer who will serve as the soundtrack for the trip.
After a short bump from the lodge, we hop off the cat tracks into knee-deep fresh snow for our first run. The communal smiles beaming on the faces of the group foreshadow that we’re in for an incredible day.
Our first lap is down one the many newly gladed tree runs that opened 400 per cent more terrain this winter, their second year of operation. Being early in the season, the run skis like a terrain park, as the 14 metres of annual snowfall has yet to fill in every nook and cranny, leaving playful undulations aplenty. Snow-covered stumps and pillows pepper the perfectly spaced pine and fir as we chase each other down the run, gathering the perfect Interior B.C. cold smoke powder shots we’d set out to capture.
Joe Schuster hard noses his own highway.
The rest of the morning plays out in similar fashion. In classic Monashee style, the terrain is littered with drops and benches amongst the glades, making for playful skiing and providing ample opportunity to slash a face shot at will. The ridges that run east to west off Yeoward Peak, the tallest in the tenure, create a horseshoe of valleys and drainages facing back towards the lodge. Between, the valleys hold flawless ridge line skiing through large old-growth cedar, in which we happily spend the remainder of our day.
Riley Leboe finds the secret garden.
Back at the lodge, shit-talking ensues around several beer-fuelled rounds of ping-pong in the games room. We soon make our way up to the dining area, where Keefer’s chef, and a longtime neighbour of mine while growing up in nearby Vernon, Lenny Cloutier, is cooking up a mouth-watering meal using local ingredients sourced from the Okanagan Valley, including morel mushrooms he personally picked in the fall. After dinner, the food coma descends, and we prepare for another day.
We awake to see the clouds have lifted slightly; about as much as you can hope for in the snow globe that is the Monashees. In the cat, we peer out the window to view the newly revealed lines of Keefer’s north-facing terrain. Steep, long, technical chutes run top to bottom on the face. But it’s apparent that with the recent snowfall and visible avalanche activity, we would not be stepping into the big lines we were drooling over. We are however able to sneak into to some of the tamer but still chest-deep lines to the sides.
Josh Bibby gets that sinking feeling.
Towards the end of the day, we can’t help but finish things off with one more run through the old growth cedars. Smoke trails kick up from our tails and cake the “old man’s beard” hanging from the large snow-covered branches looming overhead. The sustained, perfectly spaced trees warranted one more set of tracks before we were on our way.
Mike Henitiuk timber cruising.
We set out on this adventure down a dark logging road off Highway 6, hard nosing with Van Morrison, in search of some Monashee gold, and in the short and stormy two days at Keefer Lake Lodge, we struck it rich.
Foxes in the hen house.