A Hidden Treasure in the West Kootenays: Great Northern Cat Skiing

Great Northern Cat Skiing is proud to be the second oldest Cat skiing operation in BC and one with particular notions about what makes a great operation. The CatSkiingDirectory.com Crew was invited up to enjoy some of BC’s finest powder at a time when other operations were cancelling cats due to sparse conditions and dwindling fresh terrain.  It had been a couple weeks without snow here in the West Kootenays and I was a little apprehensive about hitting Great Northern with a paucity of fresh snow. What had turned to schmoo, crust and ghost tracks elsewhere was well preserved and boot top fresh at Great Northern.

Great Northern Cat Skiing

Owner/Operator/Founder/Lead Guide and Cat Driver Brent McCorquodale first came to this area in the late 70’s. He was looking for the perfect terrain to set up an operation that would allow skiers to enjoy nothing but backcountry powder lines all day long—a pretty new concept at the time. Actually, as he described it, he was looking for a great place to ski and had to build the Snowcat operation to finance his ability to ski every day. Located near the top end of Upper Arrow Lakes off the Balfour-Kaslo-Galena Bay Hwy, he found what other operators everywhere have been looking for: massive amounts of fresh pow. It may not always be the easiest location to access, but the extra effort is paid off in the available terrain.

I was chatting to one of the guests Dr. John, from Toronto who was there with his wife and daughter. He recalled first meeting Brent randomly in Rogers Pass in the seventies while he was interning in Calgary. They toured together and a friendship and bond was created that remains strong to this day.  John recalled first coming to the Great Northern Terrain in the late 70’s. “There was 20 feet of snow piled up along the side of the highway”. Located near an old mining community, there were snow records leading back a hundred years and Brent was able to confirm that he was standing in the midst of a new natural resource that needed to be powder mined.

Dr. John is typical of many of Great Northern’s guests; they having been coming for 20+ years and are devoted and loyal patrons of operation.  Pictures of guests throughout the years line the hallways and it feels like portraits of family.

A man of few words, with a dry and sharp sense of humour, I asked Brent what first drew him to this remote area of BC. “Snow” he said, and snow they have—in Spades.

Great Northern Cat Skiing

Brent and Head Guide Dan Nelson switch off as either Lead Guide or cat driver. It was comforting to know that the driver knew the terrain as well as the guides (because he is one) and that there was an extra guide to back up and assist if an emergency arose. After about a 45 minutes ride up from the lodge in the velour interior cat cabin, we reached our starting point at about 2200m. The guides, including tail guide Brett, helped the guests with their skis off the cat and everybody got strapped in and buckled down for the first run. “What’s this one called?” I asked Brent.  “It’s called OK follow me” he said drolly and skied away.

Woody and Sarah from Texas, rookies for only coming to Great Northern for the last 15 years in a row, informed me that Brent was a Guide of few words, but when he did give terrain instructions you needed to pay attention. I soon learnt that I should have paid attention when Brent said, “there’s a couple compressions” in this run.

We got some good video of what it looks like when a tele skier comes in contact with an unexpected compression. In tele speak it’s an atomic door hinge; everything is going along great and then in an instant it’s all tail over tea kettle and the door slams shut. Good thing the pow was deep and the only thing that got injured was my ego. It provided good entertainment to the rest of the crew and at the end of the day what’s telemark skiing if not good wholesome entertainment for the whole family?

The One Cat Philosophy

Family entertainment is what Great Northern is all about. Brent has developed an interesting and relatively unique philosophy regarding cat skiing not shared by many operations that I’m aware of. He’s committed to running only one cat.

In an era of expanding operations and maximizing profits and guest days, Great Northern restricts the number of guests that can come to their operation. They have a large lodge that could easily handle two cats worth of guests, and they certainly have enough terrain to be able to support multiple cats, but being bigger and going faster would take away from the camaraderie and sense of family that is engendered among the guests in a smaller operation.

Great Northern Cat Skiing

Guests generally come for the week at great Northern and often bring their ski age children. Everyone (guides and staff included) all sit down together to enjoy the excellent food at one table; family style. You get to know all the people that are on your cat and develop much more of a bond than you normally would in a larger operation.

The philosophy extends to more than just one cat; there is a different speed at Great Northern. They actually break for lunch and hot tea and take a minute chat and relax as a group versus wolfing down a half frozen sandwich in the cat between runs. The lodge is well appointed and has a pool table, dart board and shuffleboard table (which was actually a lot of fun), but most people chose to just relax on the comfy couches in front of the fire and read a good book, or powder magazine. There’s no cell service and a sequestered TV room with movies. It is the perfect location to just get away from the digital world and truly relax in the midst of some of BC’s most beautiful mountains.

Brent is very committed to the service philosophy, and it’s the little things that make the difference. Things like personalized water bottles for the all the guests and cleaning the snow off the windshields of the cars before they leave. The kitchen is also very accommodating of dietary needs and is happy to substitute meals for guests with dietary restrictions. He is looking to create a great family like experience for his guests, and his guests ultimately become his friends and family. He even traveled to the wedding of the son of one of his guests (in the summer of course) that had been coming since he was a teenager.

Great Northern Cat Skiing

The philosophy also extends to Guides. In an era where many Guides do a week at one operation and a week at another, traveling and putting together a patchwork quilt of work at different operations, Brent hires his Guides for the entire season. Besides himself Brent hires only one other Lead Guide, Dan (who’s been there 8 years and met his wife working at the lodge), as well as two tail guides that switch off. They stay at the lodge all winter working, as Dan put it, 6 and-a-half days a week. The lodge staff are also there for the season.

The result is that the guides really know the terrain and the snowpack on an intimate level that’s not possible even for the best guides bouncing around from operation to operation. The guides and staff also get to know the guests really well, their abilities and strengths, and are better able to tailor the terrain choice based upon the crew on board, because they see them every year.

The end result was a truly enjoyable experience with a great crew of people. We really enjoyed our time there and thank Brent, Dan, Brett, Chelsea and Leila all the guests for their hospitality and good times.

Give Great Northern a call today toll-free 1-800-889-0765 or 1- 403-239-4133

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