Inside Island Lake Lodge – Riding the Lines of Legends
Nestled deep in the Kootenays, between two pristine valley lies one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the privilege of visiting. Just outside the picturesque town of Fernie, B.C. is the mecca called Island Lake Lodge.
Snowboard Canada Visits Island Lake Lodge
Years ago, as a teenager living in Cranbrook, B.C. and growing up shredding the resort in Fernie, there was always talk of this place called “Island Lake” and who had been there, who was there, and sightings of our favorite pro riders of the time passing through one of the Cranbrook’s fine fast-food establishments. My First “pro” encounter happened as a young teenager recovering shopping carts in minus 30 degree weather from the frozen parking lot of the local K-Mart where I worked as a stock boy. A small hatchback, packed to the guts, and a roof full of boards pulled alongside me asking for directions- nowadays a car like this would not be an unusual sight, but back in the 1990 there were only a handful of shredders in the area, and I knew they weren’t local. Looking the part in my oversized mint-and-purple Burton coat, I managed some small talk to realize these guys were on their way to Fernie – and more specifically, Island Lake Lodge. At the time I already knew of this place and the legends – Craig Kelly, Johan Olafsson, Jason Ford, Jake Blattner, Bryan Iguchi, Terje – who made pilgrimages there, but it wouldn’t be for many years that I actually laid eyes on the terrain it held.
Sure enough, as would happen in almost all “sightings,” a few months later the features and images showed up in almost every international magazine, proving that most of the stories were indeed correct. It seemed like each year, for many years in a row, there would be growing photo credit lines labeled, Lizard Range, B.C. Island Lake, Fernie backcountry, etc, and all of them shot in one location – Island Lake Lodge. But somehow, after years of trying to find a way to bring some of my friends back to the mountains of the Lizard Range and ride the peaks I only saw from magazines in my childhood, I’m gifted the opportunity to finally see it on my own when I get a call from an old friend, Island Lake Lodge’s marketing director Mike McPhee, who suggested Snowboard Canada do a story. I instantly agree and start putting together a crew who would appreciate all the offerings of the area, be able to shred anything put in front of them, and fun to be around 24/7 for four or five days. This is usually no easy task, but after a few days and a few phone calls everyone’s in place – Jonaven Moore, Scott Shaw, Banff’s Murray Hodgson, Golden B.C.’s Ryan Johannessen and the token old-dog Peter Navin. (Many readers won’t remember the great, old Canadian shred flicks Mountain Man, or Mountain Jim from RPG productions but they feature the “Navinator” and I suggest you look them up).
Showing up to the parking lot to meet our pick-up time, everyone rolls in from various parts of the west. Loaded up and ready for adventure, we jump in the warm snowcat, and start to catch up on the latest during our trip up to the lodge. Here’s where you may ask: “How do a bunch of dirtbags manage to get a trip to Island Lake Lodge?” Well, years ago Mike McPhee lived in Lake Louise, and shot snowboarding in the earlier days, snapping images of Moore, Navin, and many others. He went on to work for Kicking Horse Resort in Golden, where he met Johannessen, before moving on to work for Island Lake.
Contacts and connections seem to keep happening though the first day of our arrival. I’m happy to see a few old faces still around the lodge from years back when I was involved building a spring camp at Island Lake with legend Jake Blattner. Our guides Nick and Brenda also hold some ties there. Nick, an 18-year vet at Island Lake, has shredded almost every line the place offers, and is quick to share his stories of history witnessed. Brenda, having spent some time living in Lake Louise, knew some of our past friends, and beamed with joy when she saw my Noboard come out to the snowcat on Day 1. “Oh, you have a Noboard? I’m so stoked you are going to ride that here!” Brenda spoke with excitement. The “Geets” (late Greg Todds, and inventor of the Noboard) was a connection to a big part of this crew from back in the early days of Lake Louise, and everyone would ride the Noboard by the time the trip ended.
Our first two days in the powder heaven go something like this: wake up to fresh coffee, gourmet breakfast, and a quick chat with the guides about snowpack and our plan for the day. Throw on the boots, head out the door and jump in the snowcat. Shred powder under the beautiful blue skies, search for anything to jump off, and otherwise enjoy the atmosphere. End the last run of the day by arriving to the snowcat waiting for us with cold adult beverages and take the short trip back to the lodge to enjoy après with fresh breads, amazing soup cooking, and more cold thin barley soup. Gear down, and hang up all the wet gear in the drying room, wax the boards, and head for the hot tub, while others hit the massage table. It’s absolutely the most epic way to end a big day of shredding.
Throw in the mix that after Day 1, we all sit relaxing outside the lodge basking in the sunshine and watching the guides heli-bomb the upper alpine peaks to help us get up to the goods for Day 2, and you can pretty much say we are all feeling like kings. A few hours later we sit down to a gourmet three-course dinner. We find it hard to pull ourselves away from the great people and hospitality each night, but so much excitement takes its toll. Tired bodies win the night’s battles and sleep comes easily in the comfy beds just upstairs. Last view of the evening is a panoramic moonlit view of Island Lake Lodge’s terrain, which is beautiful.
Waxing up for Day 2, we find it’s a good thing we didn’t stay up all night socializing because once again, we’re blessed with epic blue sky and great snow. Shaw and Hodgson manage to find a nice launch over some rocks up in the alpine. Shaw busts a big Backside Air, tweaking it out vintage-style and Hodgson is quick to follow with a huge Frontside 3. While these guys are looking for air, Moore and Johannessen are looking elsewhere for some steep, sketchy chuters to scare us with.
Near the end of our second day the snow starts to get a bit crusty with the heat of the sun, but Mother Nature has plans for us: Powder, and not just a light dusting of snow – it’s puking on us, with flakes as big as quarters. This isn’t wet coastal snow; it’s light dry Kootenay blower pow and it doesn’t stop all night. By morning, almost two feet of fresh has fallen in the peaks around us, ready to greet our smiling faces on the first run.
Apparentely, Mother Nature really wants to show us who the boss is. My camera gear gets so wet being outside my bag trying to capture images that both of my cameras shut down before half of our day is done. With a heavy bag off my back, it just means I’m able to enjoy the Nobaord runs that much more. With two full, long sunny days behind us, the deep powder day of the third is almost too much to take for a full day. Being the professionals they are, the crew still manages to pull through and be the last off the mountain, and back to the snowcat…again, with cold beers greeting the end of our day. The perfect storm is upon us, and the massage room sign-up sheet is full for the final evening we’ll spend at the beautiful log mansion in the mountains. The stories fly about the day’s happenings, who jumped what..you know, typical crew camaraderie.
Our last day couldn’t have been a better ending to and otherwise perfect trip. While it’s still dumping, and the accessible terrain is slowly being shut down around us due to the worsening avalanche conditions, our guides still proudly let us charge through some of the longest fall-line tree runs without letting us down. It just keeps getting better and deeper as the day continues.
One of my best memories of Island Lake Lodge from the past was a shot of Jason Ford doing a huge tuck-knee while gapping over a snowcat years ago. All week we’ve been speaking of re-creating an image like that one. In the find hour of our last day, we find a spot and build a jump. Our guide, Nick decides as snow “safety” he would have to be the guinea pig...and sends it with a little mid-air “whoop”! Shaw and Hodgson soon threw down, giving everyone a show and the trip’s sadly over.
Written by Jeff Patterson of Snowboard Canada