At Mt. Baker, lodge skiing and boarding cozy up
Lodge skiing: there’s no sport like it. As long as snow lovers have strapped on planks or snowshoes, there have been warming huts, places where winter’s nip is tempered by a wood-burning fireplace or stove. As all memory of frostbite fades, the flush of nose-to-toes well-being is hard to beat.
Since the 1920s, welcoming hearths on the North Shore, such as in West Vancouver at Cypress Provincial Park, grew from mill-yard bunkhouses to double-wide trailers to more glamorous post-and-beam affairs. Two such built-to-last examples—the Cypress Creek day lodge, opened in 2008, and its more modest North Vancouver counterpart, Mt. Seymour Resort’s Enquist Lodge, which debuted in 2010—conform with a long tradition founded wherever winter enthusiasts gather to carve turns, make snowshoe tracks, or ride toboggans.
Think about that next time you hike the Grouse Grind, a section of which was blazed by skiers who, almost a century ago, hauled planks for a cabin on Grouse Mountain.
Just south of the border, in Washington state’s Whatcom County, Mt. Baker Ski Area boasts as lengthy a ski pedigree as North Shore haunts. That’s why long-time general manager Duncan Howat took such pride in the construction of Mt. Baker’s new Raven Hut Lodge.
As the rich smell of wood smoke spiced the mountain air, the Georgia Straight toured the two-storey, arch-windowed chalet with Howat last winter prior to the running of the annual Legendary Banked Slalom, one of snowboarding’s most storied contests.
“This was a monumental project,” Howat related. “We’d sometimes have a hundred workers going. Among the features I admire most are the beams from Vancouver Island that were kiln-dried in Kelowna, where they took 4,000 gallons of water out of them.”
Much like the North Shore, Mt. Baker Ski Area is a day-use-only destination. The nearest large communities lie an hour’s drive away in either Bellingham or Abbotsford. All count heavily on local snow sliders for business. Mt Baker’s new lodge cost $3.5 million, a substantial sum in any market.
Howat painted an encouraging picture. “With the population growth over the last decade from south of Mount Vernon to Abbotsford, our numbers are holding strong. We’re debt-free. I know that, overall, the lodge cost a lot, but I’d been holding back some monies. Now we’re reinvesting the dividends back into the area for the people who are paying for it.”
Judging from the rows of steaming mittens and gloves in front of the double-sided fireplace—fashioned with basalt rocks sourced from a nearby scree slope—the Raven Hut Lodge, a replica of ones built in U.S. national parks in the 1920s and ’30s, has been a big hit. It will be the place to rub shoulders with the all-stars of the snowboard world at the 28th running of the Legendary Banked Slalom (February 8 to 10). No destination shy of Blackcomb Mountain ranks higher in esteem among snowboarders than Mt. Baker, the place where Howat welcomed riders at a time when the brash newcomers almost universally shared pariah status with skateboarders.
In 1985, Howat took advantage of the Super Bowl lull to stage the inaugural running of a unique snowboard slalom race on a gated course that follows a snow-packed gully cut by White Salmon Creek down the dormant volcanic peak’s north face. (To the local First Nations, Mt. Baker is called Komo Kulshan.) Howat’s daughter, Amy, shared the podium with legendary snowboard pioneer Craig Kelly of Mount Vernon, who died in an avalanche near Revelstoke in 2003. Metal plaques with the winning riders’ names are traditionally affixed to the top deck of a prized wood-grained snowboard, including that of 37-year-old Norwegian Terje Haakonsen, who considers Kelly the greatest snowboarder of all time.
Haakonsen is as famous for boycotting the 1998 Nagano Olympic Winter Games as is B.C.’s Ross Rebagliati for his controversial gold-medal win there at snowboarding’s Olympic debut. Haakonsen has signed up again for this year’s race, as has 33-year-old snowboard cross Olympic gold medallist Maëlle Ricker of Squamish. The duo has had a lock on the race for the past three years.
Their presence, along with a who’s who of the snowboarding world, guarantees a rarefied atmosphere on race day found nowhere else. Wind-tousled North Cascades peaks encircle the Mt. Baker Ski Area—principally Baker’s cloud-raking companion, Mount Shuksan. So different in geological appearance are these ranges in comparison with the nearby Coast Mountains that this might just as easily be the Alps. The difference? Mt. Baker is a one-tank trip away.
Care to give the lodge-skiing concept a try—with a twist? Install yourself in a loge seat at North Vancouver’s Centennial Theatre (February 14) or at East Vancouver’s Rio Theatre (February 16) for the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festivals’ Ski Shows. Each screening features a potpourri of short and feature films shot both locally, such as in Pemberton, and as far afield as Chamonix and beyond—wherever the universal language of lodge skiing is spoken.
ACCESS: Mt. Baker Ski Area lies 140 kilometres southeast of Vancouver via the Sumas-Abbotsford (Huntingdon) border crossing. For information, visit www.mtbaker.us/. For a complete list of presentations at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, visit www.vimff.org/. In a bid to replicate the spirit of Mt. Baker’s snowboard event, Sun Peaks Resort near Kamloops hosts its second annual Bluebird Banked Slalom race on February 17. Details are posted at www.SunPeaksResort.com/events-and-festivals/events-calendar.