Pg. 070 Main­tain­ing Wilder­ness in a Tame World

Chill Factor - - Introduction - By Watkin McLen­nan

Watkin and Os­car McLen­nan ex­plore dif­fer­ent lev­els within the Bri­tish Columbia bush

It’d been snow­ing for the past 12 hours and we were five hours into our skin. We were near Rogers Pass, where we’d been parked in our RV for the past three days. We knew about the snow con­di­tions – deep, sta­ble, and con­sis­tent. As each snowflake stacked on top of the other, the white blan­ket thick­ened and the three of us basked in the ju­bi­lant an­tic­i­pa­tion of pow­der.

We got to the top and took 15 min­utes to tran­si­tion and ad­mire our im­pend­ing de­light. We had over 1000m ver­ti­cal of knee-to-waist deep pow­der to ski. It was hard to know how to act. We were ex­hausted from the tour, but we knew that we were stand­ing above ut­terly per­fect ski­ing.

I asked Os­car and Al in an at­tempt to un­der­stand our luck, “Do you think we are the most for­tu­nately placed hu­man be­ings on Earth right now?” I couldn’t imag­ine a more ideal place to be. The sun was low, the snow had a pre-alpen­glow sparkle, and the clouds me­an­dered over moun­tains that seemed to of­fer a dozen life­times worth of ad­ven­ture.

This day was the last of our trip. My brother and I had been driv­ing around BC’s famed moun­tains in an RV for the pre­vi­ous four weeks. We had been ex­plor­ing what the fu­ture ski re­sort might look like and this had got me think­ing about wilder­ness and where it is and how it’s man­aged.

Wilder­ness is a cul­tural con­struct unique to civilised so­ci­ety. Rod­er­ick Nash in Wilder­ness and the Amer­i­can Mind com­mented that for pre-agrar­ian cul­tures “wilder­ness was a mean­ing­less con­cept, ev­ery­thing nat­u­ral was sim­ply habi­tat”. As soon as hu­mans built fences they di­vided the land be­tween do­mes­tic and wild, and wilder­ness was born. So wilder­ness is less a place, but rather a state of mind.

BC is well-en­dowed with the in­gre­di­ents for wilder­ness. Many of the moun­tains are thrashed with fierce weather. They have an­cient forests of cedar and hem­lock with sal­mon-filled rivers, bears, cats, wolves, and wolver­ines. When we ski, we flirt with this un-hu­man place that de­spite our cap­i­tal­ist ef­forts is still stand­ing up alive.

BC has been cut up. Roads punch into the dense tem­per­ate rain­for­est. He­li­copters scoot over peaks. Snow­mo­biles bub­ble up deep val­leys to alpine bowls. And ski tour­ers frolic around the moun­tain passes. Th­ese recre­ational uses far out­weigh log­ging and min­ing and con­trib­ute to a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of BC’s econ­omy. Wilder­ness is big busi­ness and our ap­petite for wild is tak­ing us deeper and fur­ther, not for tim­ber or gold, but for fun.

So, it is not just log­ging trucks and min­ing ex­ca­va­tors that need to pro­ceed with care, it is also the recre­ation­al­ists. I won­der then, what are peo­ple do­ing to man­age this ab­stract as­set? The wilder­ness is un­der pres­sure in BC and they know that the qual­ity of their prod­uct is in­dexed to wild. On our trip, Os­car and I met peo­ple whose liveli­hoods were re­lated to th­ese moun­tains. In a way, they were the war­dens of wilder­ness.

We started our jour­ney in Whistler. North Amer­ica’s most ad­vanced ski re­sort and set­ting the trends in ski re­sort de­sign and moun­tain stew­ard­ship glob­ally. I was for­tu­nate enough to speak with Arthur De Jong while I was there. Arthur is in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised as a leader in moun­tain stew­ard­ship and has con­sulted in Aus­tralia. Arthur ex­plained to me that “the key is soil”. “I grew up on a dairy farm,” he said, “and it was all about main­tain­ing soil qual­ity there. And so that’s what we do here too.” I be­gan to think of Whistler as a farm. Skiers were the crop and it was all about cul­ti­vat­ing the moun­tain for the win­ter har­vest. But then Arthur went on, “I’ve stopped look­ing at mi­cro im­pacts and I now fo­cus on try­ing to get peo­ple off snow­mo­biles, ATVs, and cars to see and ex­pe­ri­ence na­ture. Wilder­ness is there; peo­ple just don’t know it when they’re crush­ing it with their tyres.”

Nat­u­rally, while Os­car and I were in Whistler we skied pow­der and long cruis­ing groomers. We found the sym­phony par­tic­u­larly en­chant­ing. Af­ter speak­ing with Arthur we found out why. “We build ex­pe­ri­ences within ecosys­tems rather than change the ecosys­tem… We used he­li­copters to se­lec­tively log the ter­rain. Ev­ery­thing we did was geared to­wards min­i­mal soil im­pact, we did most of the work in spring while the snow was still around, that way we could get the heavy ma­chin­ery in and around with­out com­pact­ing the ground. The snow pro­tected all the del­i­cate veg­e­ta­tion and soil.”

Whistler is not in the tra­di­tional sense a wilder­ness, but it is on the edge. I could see that many of the qual­i­ties of wilder­ness were present – old growth for­est, un­in­ter­rupted nat­u­ral views, and the oc­ca­sional fox. By speak­ing to Arthur I un­der­stood that this was no mis­take. In Whistler, the land­scape is man­aged to bring the sense of wilder­ness closer.

Fol­low­ing Whistler, we drove up val­ley to Pem­ber­ton where we jumped in a he­li­copter to the White­cap Lodge. The lodge is only ac­ces­si­ble by he­li­copter, but as we flew in I saw signs of old roads. I asked Ron, the pa­tri­arch of White­cap, if he would ever clear the log­ging road to en­able bet­ter ac­cess. He replied, “No! That’s the last thing I’d want to do.” For Ron a lot of the lodges value was in its re­mote­ness. Later he re­vealed it cost $2.35 per pound to fly ev­ery­thing in and out each way. I had a sense that that $2.35 was the price he pays for wilder­ness.

Lars, Ron’s son, trans­formed White­cap into what it is to­day and is also one of Canada’s most re­spected guides. “You form a re­la­tion­ship with the guide as you walk up the trail,” Lars told me. “They get to know you and where to take you. You feel the snow as you go up. It’s a much more in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship. Ul­ti­mately this leads to a bet­ter run down. Heli ski­ing is like cot­ton candy. Ski tour­ing is a blank can­vas to choose your own ad­ven­ture. When you are ski tour­ing and you tune into the si­lence, you be­come a part of the land­scape. You con­nect with your­self as you con­nect with the land­scape.”

Lars re­minded me of what Arthur had said about get­ting peo­ple out of cars. You have to open your­self up to your sur­round­ings if you re­ally want to ex­pe­ri­ence them. Maybe to ex­pe­ri­ence wilder­ness we don’t need vast­ness, we just need to slow down.

The ad­ven­ture con­tin­ued north to Ter­race. With­out the pop­u­la­tion of the south I imag­ined the sense of wilder­ness was go­ing to be par­tic­u­larly se­vere. The lo­cal ski hill (not re­sort) is Shames (My Moun­tain Co-op). In 2010 the com­mu­nity bought the ski hill and formed a not-for-profit co-op. I was cu­ri­ous to dis­cover what that meant for how the place was treated and ex­pe­ri­enced. I spoke to Chris­tian, the moun­tain man­ager. “Peo­ple re­spect the place more,” Chris­tian told me. “Those that do throw beer cans off the chair throw them in the py­lons where it’s easy for us to col­lect them.” I kept talk­ing to Chris­tian and he re­vealed that the ski hill saw the ski tour­ing bounty it ac­cessed as one of its great­est op­por­tu­ni­ties, but as a co-op they weren’t des­tined to ex­ploit it with lifts. Rather, the ter­rain sug­gested a bright fu­ture of count­less pos­si­bil­i­ties. Maybe that is why wilder­ness is so al­lur­ing. Wilder­ness might be a site of po­ten­tial where hu­man ac­tiv­ity is yet to limit its prospects.

Our next in­sight into BC wilder­ness came from a lux­u­ri­ous fish­ing lodge on the Skeena River. We had been in­vited to ex­pe­ri­ence the del­i­ca­cies, culi­nary and moun­tain­ous, of heli-ski­ing in North­ern BC. We were treated to a feast cooked by the in house chef, Klaus. The place was owned by a cou­ple of Swiss guys. One loved to ski, the other loved to fish. So the place had been set up to do both in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion. We fin­ished the night drink­ing lo­cally brewed beers with Tom, the lo­cal avalanche fore­caster and guide. “What’s on the other side?” Tom said to us in a flut­ter of drunken open­ness. “I think that’s been the big­gest ques­tion of my life. You know, the back of beyond.” I knew ex­actly what Tom was talk­ing about. Each moun­tain peak hides a val­ley that rouses a ro­man­tic vi­sion – wilder­ness.

Af­ter our lux­u­ri­ous hia­tus we met a guy named Brad. He was friendly and ea­ger to show us a few of his favourite spots around Shames. But when we men­tioned we were writ­ing this story it sparked up a pro­tec­tive streak. He didn’t want to see his beloved spot thronged by ski tour­ers like other des­ti­na­tions in BC. How­ever, I don’t think it was just tracked pow­der Brad was wor­ried about. He was wor­ried about los­ing the ad­ven­ture fan­tasy he got from travers­ing re­mote ridge­lines and ski­ing bowls that are only skied once a year – by him. Brad was afraid to lose his wilder­ness.

Os­car and I packed up and set off south, this time to the in­te­rior – Rogers Pass. The pass lies be­tween Golden and Revel­stoke. Three years ago, Os­car and I had vis­ited this area, I wrote about the ad­ven­ture in this magazine. On this trip we would find our­selves in the most for­tu­nate lo­ca­tion of any hu­man be­ing. Stand­ing on top of 1000m ver­ti­cal of deep, sta­ble, cham­pagne pow­der. It sim­mered through our bod­ies as we con­tem­plated the run ahead.

We dropped in to our lit­tle piece of wilder­ness. What do you do? Turn? Do you work on your tech­nique? What size turns? It was hero snow. It made ski­ing easy. On re­flec­tion, Lars was right. The process we had gone through to ar­rive at the top was key to our en­joy­ment. Fur­ther­more, Ron was right. Our re­mote­ness only added to the thrill. Brad was right too. We felt like the only ones on that moun­tain that day and that made it feel spe­cial. The mo­ment was ours.

The peo­ple Os­car and I had met on our trip were all deeply con­nected to the moun­tains of BC. They had skied dozens of runs like the one we en­joyed. They knew that th­ese runs need scale and re­mote­ness – un­cul­ti­vated moun­tains. The in­spir­ing work of peo­ple like Arthur and Chris­tian to man­age wilder­ness is ad­mirable, but there’s noth­ing quite like the real thing.

OPEN­ING SPREAD: Os­car deep in a cy­press wilder­ness...or just off the side of a cat track in Whistler. Pho­tog­ra­pher Richard Glass. THIS PAGE: Pil­low and Watkin get­ting ac­quainted. Photo: Richard Glass. OP­PO­SITE PAGE: TOP: Os­car en­joy­ing a clas­sic line off Black­comb’s peak with Whistler in the back­ground. Photo:

An­drew Bradley. BOT­TOM: We had a spec­tac­u­lar morn­ing shoot­ing with Richard Glass, Whistler lo­cal... as you can see. Photo: Richard Glass.

Watkin “verks zi turn”. Photo Richard Glass

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