In early February, 2011, Catskiingdirectory.com was invited to Selkirk Wilderness Skiing, located above Meadow Creek, British Columbia, to sample some of the finest champagne powder cat skiing and warm hospitality this side of, well, everything else. Here’s what we found…
I’m perched above a perfect pillow line as the photographer digs into position. Behind, the guide smiles knowingly. If I pin it straight I can air over the second pillow, he says, to the steep – albeit completely blind – landing below. The snow is deep. Real deep. Proverbial superhero snow. I’m feeling a bit more Robin than Batman at the moment.
I watch as Doo Ming Yee, a 56-year-old from Michigan, drops in and launches a smaller drop to my left, hooting as he carves pristine arcs over the roll and out of sight. Doo Ming Yee is quiet, cheerful and has an apparent affinity for powder snow. He exemplifies many clients at Selkirk Wilderness Skiing – he’s been coming here 20 of the past 22 years and intends to return as long as his body will permit.
“After 20 years there are still lines I’ve not seen,” Doo Ming Yee tells me over post-ski appetizers in Selkirk’s expansive lodge. “There’s a lot of great terrain. Everything from open bowls to steep stuff here – you’re catching air and everything in between.”
Selkirk Wilderness is one of the most famed cat ski operation anywhere – and as it happens the world’s first. Their motto is “your powder holiday is our priority,” which suits me just fine. I was almost as excited to meet the people behind this unique operation as I was to savor the burn of Kootenay cold smoke in my nostrils.
“It doesn’t get much better,” says Doo Ming Yee. “Beyond the incredible skiing, you get to know the guests coming back every year, form bonds and relationships, and with the staff obviously…the staff is like family.”
Selkirk Wilderness features a welcoming lodge at 1280 metres, accessed by a 30-minute cat ride from Meadow Creek below. Once there, guests are greeted by a genuinely enthusiastic staff whose goal is to ensure you have the most comfortable and relaxing powder ski vacations of your life.
Brenda Drury co-founded Selkirk Wilderness with her late husband, Allan Drury, in 1975. While Allan’s magnetic personality and prowess on skis is the stuff of legend, Brenda was the enigmatic businesswoman, helping develop a cat skiing business model to which many strive.
“It starts with, first of all, service to the guests,” says Brenda. “Service is provided by having very talented, very dedicated and very professional staff. That has always been critical to Selkirk Wilderness…Providing the best possible powder skiing holiday in the best possible way.”
The first thing I notice with Selkirk Wilderness was how remarkably smooth our visit went. From the first greeting at Brenda’s ranch house in Meadow Creek to the accommodating lodge hosts, cat drivers, and guides – 35 years of perfecting the experience is evident.
“Many of our guests say how well they’re cared for,” says Brenda. “If they had any worries before they came they’re usually gone in the first day. I think that’s atmosphere of all the staff truly wanting to make this a memorable experience. That’s their goal, and if that’s the goal, it’s going to work.”
The lodge is spacious and, while not necessarily luxurious, certainly on the finer side of what could be considered a “backcountry” lodge. It has everything you could want: a spacious dining area overlooking the Purcell mountains, a quiet “reading room,” an open lounge area with ping pong, pool table, bar, etc, a rental shop outfitted with the latest and greatest fat rockered skis (a testimony to the modus operandi of “the powder priority”), hot tub, sauna, boot drying room, gift shop and adjacent guest room wing.
Like many backcountry operations, Selkirk Wilderness has taken great steps to limit their environmental footprint, including a hydro-electric plan to power the lodge, an extensive recycling program, banning paper towels and utilizing as much local produce and ingredients as possible.
And that’s another place Selkirk Wilderness shines – the dining experience. Head chefs Kate and Melissa strive to provide exciting and nutritious food while maintaining a variety that keeps the many repeat guests satisfied. Main dinner courses range from beef tenderloin to roast duck and breakfasts include an array of cold and hot options, all prepared daily with evident attention to detail. Lunches are served in the cat to maximize powder time.
“We try extremely hard to provide fare that is not only nutritious but really exciting,” says Brenda. “We try to change it a lot, especially with our guests coming back year after year.”
I know what you’re thinking – this all sounds very nice, but what about the skiing? The answer is, in a word, unbelievable. Packed in to a 40-square-mile tenure, Selkirk Wilderness Skiing offers the most diverse powder skiing imaginable, from wide-open alpine bowls to steep, nicely gladed trees to hair-raising chutes. The snowcat road system is perfected to the point that the cat is almost always purring at the bottom of every 2,000-foot plus vertical run. And at the end of the day, a beautifully gladed 4,200-foot run right to the lodge doorstep is truly unique.
“It’s a magical piece of terrain…it’s meant for cat skiing,” says Lead Guide Jason Remple, who started at Selkirk Wilderness in 1988 washing dishes and moved into guiding 17 years ago. “You’ve got peaks with pretty rounded tops that allow you to access a variety of terrain.”
Upon our Sunday arrival the area received 15cms of fresh snow over the weekend (no one skis there Saturday and Sunday), and the first night it snowed an additional 30cms. This is the norm at Selkirk Wilderness, with an average 15 metre (50 feet) of snow per year and consistently cool temperatures. The average ski run is situated between 8,000 and 6,000 feet in elevation.
The cats are comfortable with front-facing seats that look through large windows to take it all in. They accommodate 12 guests (2 cats operate per day) with the lead and tail guides. Here, as in the lodge, service and comfort are key. Rides to the top averaged 20 minutes.
“If you’re going to compare (Selkirk Wilderness) to some of the other operations locally, we have more alpine for sure,” adds Jason, who is also the owner and guide for Stellar Heliskiing. “We have broad ridges that take us to some really beautiful features.”
It’s these features that have attracted some of today’s best talent, including the likes of Tanner Hall, Seth Morrison and Ingrid Backstrom, to name a few. Recently, the famed movie production company Matchstick Productions spent a two weeks at Selkirk Wilderenss, their third visit. Commented Ingrid: “(Selkirk Wilderness) has some magic terrain – it’s almost like the mountains there were engineered perfectly for cat skiing.”
Jason and the management at Selkirk Wilderness realize showcasing their terrain with companies such as Matchstick is what will attract the next generation of guests to their operation. For decades, they have had a loyal following, booking solid year after year with repeat clients, some who have come every year since their start up 35 years ago. However, this more affluent generation is getting older, and Selkirk Wilderness needs to appeal, and adjust, to the changing times.
While Selkirk Wilderness has stepped up marketing, web promotion and hosting movie production companies, they are also toying with different formats. One of the most distinct aspects is their 5-day ski package catering to a maximum 24 guests. Not only does the smaller group mean endless untracked powder skiing opportunity, it also allows for guests to get to know each other and staff, and almost always form life-long bonds through the love of mountains.
However, a recent rise in vacancies due to various factors such as the economic downturn and guests getting beyond their powder skiing years means they are starting to open up occasional one- to three-day opportunities. But at the heart of it, Selkirk wilderness believes in its proven 5-day model and wants to keep it going as long as possible.
“That’s why so many of our guests have become good friends – because they spend enough time that they really get to know each other and we can really get to know them,” says General Manager Irene Brinkman. “We want to woo them, we want them to miss us when they go.”
A big part of the Selkirk Wilderness experience was founder Allan Drury. While he passed away in 2008, he left a legacy and passion that survives in all the employees, family, friends and guests at Selkirk Wilderness. Allan was one of the first skiers to venture into mountains with the iconic Hans Gmoser and his upstart Canadian Mountain Holidays heli-ski operation. This experience led Allan, a famous “hot dog” skier, to ponder setting up his own operation. Through dogged determination, he secured the Selkirk Wilderness tenure (pick of the lot), had the first snow-cat custom built, and started leading people into the Selkirk backcountry.
“Allan added an ingredient from the beginning, which was wanting to introduce people into the backcountry and wanting people to enjoy every aspect of it he did,” says Brenda. “He was amazingly inclusive…it was critical to him to have people on the mountain and having an experience…an experience of nature that they might never had before or have again.”
Allan also encouraged people to challenge themselves, getting them to go beyond their comfort zones and do something they never thought they’d do. He’d often lead by example, spending as much time – if not more – in the air than in the powder.
In conversations with staff and friends of Allan, I heard them mention he wanted to come back as a raven or an eagle and soar over the Meadow Mountain area as he did parasailing and skiing.
“If I’m presented with a challenge that I’m hesitating about,” says Irene, “I think, oh Allan would just tell me to go for it. We all have a little ‘go for it’ mantra in our minds.”
Back on Midnight Ridge overlooking the yawning pillow line below, I see ravens soaring on the ridge above. Coincidence, I wonder? Regardless, all the ingredients are here and hesitation isn’t an option. “Go for it,” I say to myself, and drop in.