This article, and distribution, was paid for by the Canadian Ski Council and produced in conjunction with POWDER.
Words by Mike Berard.
Before 1997, the only ski resort in southeastern B.C.'s Lizard Range was named Fernie Snow Valley. It was an apt name for a place buried in powder for almost six months of the year. When I first arrived in October of that season, lazy legs had already zigzagged long, slow skin trails across water bars and barely concealed grass to the top of the tree line. I followed them.
Fresh out of high school, with unrestrained joy and a sweaty brow, I believed I had discovered Utopia. Impossibly light snow seemed to part before my tips, blown wistfully aside with each impatient teenage turn, or by the hand of Ullr. Indeed, that first November we gathered around a bonfire to sacrifice P-Tex and weed to the god of snow during the annual Mogulsmoker, once one of Fernie's most sacred ceremonies. The fires we light die to embers as we grow older, but embers can still ignite. For me, this town's coals still glow.
Fernie in the '90s was a burgeoning ski community. Hardly known outside of British Columbia and Alberta, this tiny coal powerhouse in the Elk Valley was beginning a decade-long transition from resource town to ski destination. It was a time of change. Sometimes it was fearsome, sometimes fascinating. The snow fell constantly. The people were friendly. It was a place a powder skier could grow with. Less than a month later, the ski resort opened with a new owner and new name. I began a job at the newly-christened Fernie Alpine Resort that would change my life. I became a liftie.
The Bear T-Bar was the only permanent lift to take skiers to the resort's high point. It was a treacherous and often icy zipper placed in the middle of an apron of protected powder. Informally, it is called The Triangle. From the plateaued off-ramp of the T-bar, most skiers went left towards Arrow and Bow, two alphabetical undulating pitches that meandered through trees and over cat tracks. But perhaps the most sought after first run off the Bear was Sunnyside, a steep, short, and joyous pitch on the side of the T-bar track. It was a classic Hollywood line with generous room for big air and bigger mistakes. These few runs were the first to open on a big powder day, and they were accessed exclusively by the Bear T-Bar. I was one of four lifties that pulled tees on that lift. Every day, when our coffee break arrived, I swapped out boots and skied as hard as possible, lapping Sunnyside quickly in hopes of impressing my supervisor enough that he would let me take another. And another. While others smoked cigarettes shamefully behind the lift hut, I inhaled face shot after face shot of pure Kootenay powder.
Change is a constant, and I left Fernie after one season, lured away by summer employment and companionship after a long winter of lonely, lovely skiing. But I would soon return. Fired from a job on Alberta's oil fields, I gravitated back to the only place that felt like home. I was hired as a liftie again, this time as a supervisor. I gave ski breaks to those who skied hardest. Smokers continued to suffer.
Like Utah or Hokkaido, Fernie was and is all about powder. Long traverses weed out the lazy, impatient, and snowboarders. Only dedicated skiers are left to access the steep, fresh fall lines on Snake Ridge, in Easter Bowl, and off Stag Leap. It is the patient and the quick who benefit most. While the peaks that provide the backdrop above show up most in photos, this is a ski resort defined by open bowls and the ridges that divide them.
Collectively, I spent a decade exploring these aesthetic contours. Reveling in them. Losing friends in them. Making mistakes in their many hidden corners and learning how to handle the subsequent consequences as I grew alongside both the town and the mountain.
And then I left, yet again. To become a writer. To attend school. To chase a career. To foster relationships. To find a social scene outside the sometimes-suffocating ski-town sphere. But I always return to steal Fernie's riches away from her steep slopes, and to tell her story. Over almost two decades—in bars, photos, and magazines alike—I've told the tale of Fernie as both long-time local and giddy tourist, as blind supporter and well-meaning critic, as an old partner who misses his muse, and as a relieved lover who finds her pure adventurous spirit untainted after all these years. She is beautiful. She is timeless.
In 2016, I moved to America. Blinded by the halcyon promise of southern California's polished dream, I surfed poorly and ate too many fish tacos and wrote about other people skiing in exciting places. Far from snow, my ski roots became brittle. I did not last long before conceding defeat, beaten by building debt and boredom. I decided to return to Canada.
"Where to?" was not a question that required answering.
With no job and nowhere to go, I did what every lost child does—I returned home. I pointed the truck north in November, through Northern California's dense maritime snowpack and Oregon's torrential rains, and the Canadian border welcomed me home as only a homeland can. The welcome in Fernie was even kinder.
The Bear T-Bar no longer leads to the high point of Fernie Alpine Resort. It's been replaced by a high-speed quad and a host of better lifts to sicker terrain, and one that even rises to Polar Peak, high above.
I arrived to a classic Fernie storm. Sixteen inches fell over three days, and no one but locals were around to ski the early season bounty. I unloaded the chairlift and, instead of turning left, as I always did during cold-smoke breaks so many years ago, I went right, into Cedar Bowl. With weak legs and temperature-sensitive skin, I let gravity pull me back into Fernie Alpine Resort's deep, frigid embrace. Overcome by both inertia and emotion, my voice was unleashed, reverberating through those widely-placed trees, an exhalation of all that had buried me. An invitation to become acquainted again with an old friend.
The next summer, my wife and I watched our former neighborhood burn to the ground on television, as Southern California experienced the worst wildfires in their history. As the Santa Ana winds whipped flames into a frenzy that tore hot and fearsome through Ventura and Ojai, we gave thanks for the northern wind that carried us home, and for the charming ski resort that welcomed us back with alabaster grace and the allure of infinite turns in the white room of the Lizard Range.
I was lucky enough to find my fire early. Like many of you, skiing has played the role of guiding star, even when I ignored her nudges. In the end, though, it was the special iridescence of this place that flickered and flamed, and Fernie was the light that guided me home.
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