Pg. 070 Maintaining Wilderness in a Tame World
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