Twelve feet of snow can make a big difference. Take the spot on the shoreline of Lake Helen McKenzie where I stood gasping for breath. I'd hiked past it on a trail near Mount Washington Alpine Resort at least 10 times during the summer. At least, I thought I had. Nothing looked the same now in midwinter. Luckily, the groomer had left a perfect track of corduroy to follow.
I pushed off and slowly skated in pursuit of my guide who had barely slowed to check out the lake, forest and mountain view before gliding down the track again. Paul LaPerriere had spent several years working at Raven Lodge, the Nordic Center at Mount Washington, running snowshoe tours, maintaining trails, instructing and skate skiing in the name of a pay check. So, I didn't feel too sorry bringing up the distant rear. We both live in the Comox Valley, an eclectic and recreation-oriented collection of rural farmland towns on the east coast of Vancouver Island. A backbone of mountains runs through the Comox Valley's backyard, including the lonely hump known as Mount Washington Alpine Resort. It's an ideal location where you can ski in the morning and in less than an hour dust the snow off for a round of golf, a rip on local mountain bike trails or an afternoon sail or kayak in the Strait of Georgia, the chunk of Pacific that makes Vancouver Island an island. But whom am I kidding? On a cool, clear day in March, skate skiing was on my mind and Mount Washington's 55 kilometers of maintained trails and 12 feet of snow base was my destination.
We left 40 degree weather in the valley and turned up the 10-mile dead end access road to Mount Washington. The mountain does a great job of keeping the road clear even during stormy weather, and so three days after the last precipitation, it was a bone-dry drive to the sub-alpine.
Like most of the east side of Vancouver Island, the land around Mount Washington is working forest. Logging companies left extensive clear cuts but very pretty open views the whole drive up. On one switch back, the distinct rock face of Mount Waddington, the highest peak entirely in BC, poked up in the distance north. On really clear days, even Mount Baker's sugar lump is visible more than 70 miles to the south. Whenever it's not snowing or cloudy, the drive lights up with the peaks of the Island Ranges, the Coast Range on the mainland, the blue waters of the strait and the green hues of the valley below.
Just before getting to the main base area, a road leads west to the Raven Lodge. When the ski hill built their new timber frame cross country base lodge in 2001, they set it aside from the alpine area. It has its own parking lot, groomer and staff. Alpine skiers and boarders can ski to it, but they have to walk to get back to the lifts, which leaves it pretty quiet most days. As we pulled in on a Thursday, Paul and I weren't surprised to see less than a dozen cars in the parking lot.
Paul wasn't along so much as a guide as inspiration. Last winter, I chalked up 20 skate skiing days at Mount Washington, so I knew where I was going. Paul was here to help me push through the hardest trail at Mount Washington. All winter I had wanted to ski it, but this was the first time I felt fit enough and the weather had cooperated.
At 3,300 feet on the moist coast, Mount Washington receives a lot of snow—30 feet most winters and far more in big winters. In April last year, a cat driver dug a trench to the ground at the base of the downhill ski area. He parked the cat in the pit, stood on the roof and he still couldn't touch the lip of the pit. Now all that snow isn't great for cross country skiing, but once the clouds part the high moisture content of the snow settles quickly into a firm and fast surface. Mild temperatures, which rarely drop below 20 degrees, keep winters comfortable. And there are enough trails to keep things interesting, and challenging ones, too.
The Canadian National Cross Country Ski Team, National Disabled Ski Team, National Nordic Combined team and National Training Centre teams have used Mount Washington's snowy facilities for spring training camps on the abundant snow. Members of the Strathcona Nordics, the local ski club, join them for a late season burn around their favorite trails. Pictures of some of these racers adorn the entrance wall to the Raven Lodge. With several club races and a stop on the NORAM circuit, the racing tradition will only get bigger and better with the coming Vancouver 2010 Olympics.
As part of the Games, Mount Washington received money to upgrade its Nordic facility so international teams can train here prior to upcoming World Cup and Olympic events. Mount Washington is at the same elevation with the same climate and snow conditions as Whistler's Olympic Nordic venue at Callaghan Valley. Part of the upgrade includes the Vancouver Island Mountain Sports Centre opening in 2008 with training and testing facilities, physio and a 40-bed hostel for visiting athletes.
For Nordic day skiers, the airy, yet cozy 10,000-square-foot Raven Lodge has a restaurant, tons of seating, a store, rental facilities, locker room with showers and a waxing area. But what makes it super nice is the view from the huge fireplace or, on sunny days, the expansive deck. Outside, a perfect picnic of skier delights sprawl in rolling meadows, forested hills and high alpine mountains.
On one side of the lodge, to the north and east, are trails that follow old logging roads through the forest. The skiing is moderate with the odd big hill. The classic rookie trail is the gentle Jutland, but speed demons love taking the Hawk six-person high-speed chair lift up to a ridgeline high on Mount Washington. From here it's all downhill back to the Raven Lodge on fast and scenic Upper West Meadows, The Grind, Lower West Meadows and other trails. This is where national team members hit high speeds in the extreme cross country ski movie Unlimited. A steep descent also starts the only trail where Rover is allowed to tread: Raven's Revenge is a four-mile out and back dog slog that starts with a long downhill and ends with an equally long uphill. What goes down must come back up, at least if they want to go home.
Right behind the Raven Lodge is the 2.5 kilometer racecourse, which features a couple lung-sucking climbs and stomach dropping descents. Close to the lodge are the easiest trails, which are also the most scenic. They circle an open meadow not far from the Raven Lodge with views of the ski hill and snowy crags in the distance. Local favorite Far East is always a good bet for a nice five-mile-loop with great views of everything worth seeing, fun downhills and challenging climbs.
The really fun skiing is into Strathcona Provincial Park. Mount Washington has access to the forests of BC's oldest provincial park, right on its doorstep. Groomed and track set trails wind through old growth stands of yellow cedar and mountain hemlock to frozen lakes and view points deeper into the park.
But the trail with bragging rights is Lake Trail. It ventures the furthest into the park, is the most challenging and the most scenic. I had wanted to test myself against the punishing nine-mile-loop of hill after hill all season, but I was scared. Now with Paul leading the way I figured I could make it.
After a few minutes getting ready in the Raven Lodge, we hoist ourselves out of the comfy fireside couches and hit the snow. Even with a less than alpine start to our day--it was almost 10:30 by the time we were actually skating--we were cutting first tracks on the approach to Lake Trail. It wasn't long before the trail's reputation proved itself. The track kicked back into a steady climb to the shore of Lake Helen McKenzie.
In my mind I had imagined this climb as the crux, so when I managed to glide up it without resorting to herring boning, my chest expanded a little larger than normal. I soon needed the extra breathing room as the trail took a turn and climbed again. It didn't stop there either. Physically, I knew it impossible, but Lake Trail seemed like one of those eye puzzles that only have stairs that go up. Sure there is the odd flat and downhill, but around every corner there was a climb.
Weak legged, I finally slid out onto the main trail network to find Paul leaning over his poles with a smile on his face. "Fast snow today, eh?" he said, as I snowplowed to a stop. I nod, unable to speak. It was meant to be a no, but he took it as a yes. "Want to do a lap of Far East or something?" I nodded a little more emphatically. "Great, let's go."
I watched him disappear around the corner and then bee-lined back to the Raven Lodge to my seat on the couch in front of the fire.
For More Skinny...
What To Bring
Mount Washington is subject to periodic rain, spring-like weather and blizzards—sometimes all in the same day. Plan for it all. Bring a mild weather wax; it rarely dips below 20 degrees during the winter. Bring chains and good winter tires. When it snows, it snows hard at Mount Washington and the road down is no place for summer tires.
Where To Go
Vancouver Island is accessible by car ferry (www.bcferries.com) from Vancouver. Take a ferry to Nanaimo, 80 minutes by car south of Mount Washington. Airlines fly from Seattle and Vancouver to Campbell River (www.campbellrivertourism.com) and Comox. Air Canada and WestJet fly to Comox (www.comoxairport.com).
By car from areas south or north, take Highway 19, the Inland Island Highway, to the Strathcona Parkway, just north of the Comox Valley and south of Campbell River, and drive 10 miles. Turn left just before the alpine base area to access the Raven Lodge. Trail passes can be bought at the Raven Lodge.
When To Go
Mount Washington is open from early December to mid-April officially. Because early season conditions are hit and miss, you'll find more consistent snows after the beginning of January.
Mount Washington 888/231-1499,www.mountwashington.ca
Comox Valley Tourism
Campbell River www.northcentralisland.com