By Don Portman
The Okanagan Valley in southern British Columbia has more days of sunshine than any other region in all of Canada. With over 23 feet of dry Okanagan powder snow dumped annually and ample blue sky, you know the skiing there has to be good.
Dominated by the stunning 60-mile long Okanagan Lake, the Okanagan Valley bisects huge, rounded mountains. Near the north end of the lake and just 30 minutes up from the city of Vernon sits Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre. Just above at 5,200 feet in elevation, Silver Star Mountain Resort attracts locals and travelers alike. Although Sovereign Lake and Silver Star could easily stand alone as a superb cross country ski areas, together the two are seamlessly joined to form one of the finest Nordic ski areas in North America.
Although their trails connect, each area is very different in terms of how they operate. One is a nonprofit club. One is a corporation. Operated by the Sovereign Lake Nordic Ski Club, the ski area maintains trails in Silver Star Provincial Park. Silver Star Mountain Resort is a mid-sized alpine ski area with Nordic trails included.
But to us lucky skiers the areas are very much alike. The terrain, the sub-alpine forest, the superb snow and the same high standards of grooming make it almost impossible to separate the two. Over the years the club and company have integrated well together to provide skiers with over 105 km of trails.
Skiing on and around Silver Star Mountain really started in the late ’30s with the formation of the Silver Star Ski Club. In the early days before the road to the mountain was built, hardy skiers would climb up to enjoy the great snow. In the late ’50s, installation of the first small rope tow at Sovereign Lake shifted the main focus of the club to downhill skiing.
By 1974, the rope tow moved up to Silver Star Mountain. The area around Sovereign Lake turned into Silver Star Provincial Park, and the Nordic faction of the club split off, forming the North Okanagan Nordic Club. For the next 15 years, the club built ski trails in the park, but the park staff groomed the trails and managed the ski area. Finally in the ’90s, the park turned over all the Nordic ski operations to the club. The club, now known as the Sovereign Lake Nordic Club, is one of the largest ski clubs in Canada with over 1,600 members.
Club members donate over 10,000 volunteer hours a year! Besides trail work, club members coach 240 kids in the Rabbit program, assist in teaching almost 700 children from local schools to ski, work to produce races and events and maintain club buildings and equipment. Rob Bernhardt, the club’s friendly and capable president, credits about 100 really active club members and another 400 semi-active members for doing all the work.
Bernhardt, along with Nordic director and superb skier Mike Edwards, are committed to making the skiing experience at Sovereign Lake the best possible. Today you will find an exceptional Nordic ski area with over 50 km of trails groomed daily and connected, of course, to the 55 km that Silver Star Mountain Resort maintains.
Built by club members in 1994, the large two-story day lodge and club house provides great waxing facilities, a complete ski rental shop and a friendly staff. Hot water and coffee are always available. The downstairs houses the Rabbits program, a part of the Cross Country British Columbia Ski League. Under the direction of June Hawkins, the ski school offers lessons while long time club members share their knowledge and joy of the trails through the ski host program.
On the resort side, Silver Star Nordic Director Glenn Bond is just as committed to a quality Nordic program. With the main street of Silver Star Village snow-covered, almost all lodging facilities have real ski-in/ski-out access to trails. The full-service resort lacks nothing with ski rentals, ski shop, ski school, four day lodges, food service, five lifts open to Nordic skiers, night skiing and a biathlon range.
Eliminating one of the hassles of point-to-point skiing, a shuttle between Sovereign Lake and Silver Star Village accommodates movement between the two areas. Although four ski routes link the two centers, all involving hills, an all-downhill loop exists by using the shuttle and buying an all area pass that includes use of Silver Star’s lifts. Simply begin by taking the shuttle from Sovereign to Silver Star, then catch the lift to the top of Silver Star and start the downhill ski back to Sovereign Lake.
A preferred loop for its ups and downs begins with a climb up Aberdeen to the top of Silver Star Mountain. This brutal trail climbs in a series of steps. Gentle sections follow the steeps providing plenty of opportunities to stop for the view. The town of Vernon with Kalamalka and Okanagan Lakes splays out in the valley below.
From the top, a rocket ride descends the first part of Lars Taylor Way to Paradise Trail. Paradise winds gently down and around the mountain to the Silver Star Village, perfect for a lunch stop. Pending the status of overeating versus remaining energy after lunch, alternate routes may be selected. Gold Mountain’s four and a half kilometers of up and down hill makes the easiest return to Sovereign Lake. However, for a more exciting downhill, take the lift to the top and ski back via Lars Taylor Way. Or, if lunch got the better of you, take the shuttle.
Skiers looking for easier terrain and shorter trails at Sovereign Lake will enjoy Woodland Bell and Sovereign, two trails following the natural bench holding the lake. On the resort side, trails like Meadow and Sidewinder are fun and easy. For those looking for racecourse trails, Montezuma’s Revenge at Sovereign Lake and Beetle Juice at Silver Star pack in quick, challenging hills and turns.
Known for its Month of Nordic, the area’s largest event, Silver Star and Sovereign Lake jump start the season with early snow. For over 17 years, ski camps, national team training and races dominate the calendar in November and early December.
When Canadian national team coach Marty Hall brought his Nordic team to train at Silver Star, he saw the potential of reliable early snow. With Silver Star’s former part owner and general manager Norm Crearar, Hall began the ski camps in the late eighties.
These days the village is filled almost entirely with Nordic skiers from mid-November to mid-December. Last fall the Month of Nordic included the Fischer/Swix ski camps run by Crearar, Sun on Snow ski camps, Canada Cup race weekend, Turkey Trot Loppet, The Wood Gundy Race Week featuring the Subaru Continental Cup and the Madshus Night Sprints, Demo days, Waximania and even a fund raising banquet for the Canadian National Team. College and school teams show up to train and serious Nordic skiers travel to Silver Star in November to soak up the Nordic energy emanating from the place.
The quality of skiing at Sovereign Lake has raised the bar in BC skiing. Further south in the Okanagan Valley, three clubs have taken on the challenge. Each has its own fine ski area with excellent grooming and increased skier services. Telemark Cross Country Ski Club grooms trails just minutes up in the mountains behind Westbank. The Kelowna Nordic Cross Country Ski Club maintains a trail system at McCulloch Lake about 30 kilometers east of Kelowna. West of Penticton, the Nickel Plate Cross Country Ski Club grooms trails on the high Thompson Plateau.
But it takes more than deep snow and clear skies to make great skiing. It takes people. There is no place where you can find two very different organizations cooperating on developing Nordic skiing. Surely, Silver Star Resort is an enlightened alpine ski area and Sovereign Lake Nordic an exceptional club.
- www.sovereignlake.com, www.skisilverstar.com
- For more information on the other BC clubs: