GREAT CANADIAN SNOWDOWN: Fernie vs Mont-Sainte-Anne
Story by Dave Fonda.
Last winter I set out on a mission improbable: compare Fernie, B.C., with Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec. I know: Pitting a premier Western powder haven against the Grande Dame of the East is like equating Coldsmoke powder with prime Eastern corduroy. Yet that’s what skiers do every time we ski. Should we go to Hill A or Mount B? Take a green, blue or black run? Head out west, east, to Europe, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand or Japan?
Undaunted, I packed my trusty roller bags and ventured forth. Like a snow-addled Don Quixote, I wanted to transcend the requisite numbers of trails, lifts, vertical metres and centimetres of snow. I wanted to unravel each resort’s DNA through the people who live, work and ski there.
FERNIE: THE CURSE, THE GHOST, THE MYTH AND THE LEGEND
In the late 1800s, William Fernie came to southeastern B.C. seeking fame and fortune. He met an Indigenous princess whom he promised to marry, but only if she revealed the provenance of the black stones in her necklace. She did. He fled, abandoning her unwed. When coal miners came exploring, followed by lumbermen lured by the area’s magnificent cedars, the princess’s father placed a curse on all things Fernie.
Then disaster struck. Repeatedly. Back-to-back fires in 1904 and ’08 levelled the bourgeoning town. Henceforth, all buildings within the municipal boundary were built of stone, brick or mortar – which is why downtown Fernie today is resplendent with early 20th-century architecture.
Though the curse was eventually rescinded, the princess’s ghost often appears at dusk on nearby Mount Hosmer in the form of the Ghostrider – a shadowy rider leading a young girl.
Fernie rebuilt itself, prospered and grew. By 1910, it had 6,000 people. “Back then, Fernie was (one of) the most important cities in British Columbia, second only to Vancouver,” says T. Keith Liggett, a local author, ski instructor and casual historian,
Unfortunately, population growth ceased and Fernie settled into a rough-and-ready redneck existence. “It had an Italian section, an English section and a Slovak section,” says Craig Blair, supervisor of grooming, who came here to ski in 1977 and never left. “If you were looking for a fight, you didn’t have to go that far. Just start talking.”
Alpine skiing began here in the ‘50s, first at Mount Proctor, then at Liverwurst Bowl (now Island Lake Lodge) before settling five kilometres from town at its current Snow Bowl location. Enter Heiko Socher.
The German-born forester and his wife, Linda, transformed the once-modest community hill into a world-class powder haven. Linda ran Fernie’s ski school. They began its first ski shop and ski-in/ski-out motel. Heiko opened up Lizard Bowl, cut trails on Cedar Bowl and laid the groundwork for Curry, Timber and Siberia bowls. They also kept skiing affordable. “A family season pass would cost my mom a few hundred bucks,” says Fernie native and S-Magazine editor Gordie Bowles. “It was a blessing, as she could leave us at the hill all day.”
To promote Fernie’s epic powder skiing, Heiko invented a mythical half-man, half-Sasquatch named the Griz. Using his trusty musket, the Griz would shoot passing clouds, releasing the nine-plus metres of snow that fall here annually. Fernie still celebrates Griz Days with beer guzzling, axe throwing and beard growing contests for adults, and milk guzzling and tall tale competitions for kids. “Fernie was Heiko’s hill,” Craig says, “and it developed a cult following. The word among skiers was, ‘Fernie is fantastic! Don’t tell anyone.’”
All that changed in 1997, when Heiko sold Fernie to Charlie.
UN-LOCKE-ING FERNIE’S POTENTIAL
In the 1990s, Charlie Locke, who owned the Lake Louise ski resort, added Fernie, Fortress, Kimberly, Nakiska, Wintergreen, Stoneham and Mont-Saint-Anne to his Resorts of the Canadian Rockies (RCR) portfolio.
Like Heiko, Charlie recognized Fernie’s dependence on drive-through traffic, so he created the RCR Super Pass. “It gave holders unlimited access to ski all RCR resorts,” Craig says. “Calgarians, who’d always skied Lake Louise, discovered Fernie was just a three-and-a-half-hour drive away. And unlike in Banff, they could afford to buy or build second homes here.”
Thus began the Califernian Gold Rush as well-heeled skiers and outdoors people flocked here seeking powder-white gold. But they discovered much, much more. Every Califernian I meet repeats their golden mantra: “We came here for the skiing, but we stayed for the summer.”
Even though mining still drives the economy here, this influx has transformed the town. Local merchants have opened smart bookstores, tasty cheese shops, scrumptious chocolate factories, bakeries, furniture stores, swish restaurants and cool bars. It’s the only ski town I’ve been to where art galleries and studios outnumber ski and snowboard shops. And only one shop actually sells Fernie tees and swag. There’s also a terrific museum, a gorgeous library, public schools and an 18-hole golf course where, come August, anyone on the fairways is fair game for migrating grizzlies.
My last day here, Keith shows me the town. Everyone we meet has at least two jobs. Bubba, who serves to protect the rights and wages of the United Steel Workers of America Local 9346 in nearby Sparwood, is a professional musician and the world’s leading exponent of “Hoss Zombie” music. Ace ski shooter Henry Georgi also works at the mine. The young woman who just opened the kiddies’ clothing store also serves with the RCMP. The dude manning the bike shop is a ski coach and golf pro. Given that a basic, three-bedroom family home here now costs about $450,000, I guess that’s the price of success.
Last year, 200 babies were born at Elk Valley Hospital, and Fernie’s population finally surpassed 6,000. When I ask Craig if Fernie has become a ski town, he shakes his shaggy head, pauses thoughtfully and says, “No. I’d say it’s a real town.”
BIENVENUE À MONT-SAINTE-ANNE: THE PERFECT SUBURBAN SKI AREA?
With its endless traffic lights, garages, repair shops and shopping centres, Highway 138 between Quebec City and Mont-Sainte-Anne looks and feels like suburbia. It isn’t until I crest Boulevard du Beau-Pré and pull into Mont-Sainte-Anne’s parking lot that it registers: I’m only 30 minutes from downtown.
To ease the transition, I recommend using Avenue Royale instead. Though it takes a bit longer, it also takes you back in time to exquisite French habitant villages, farms, homes and seigneuries dating back to the 17th century.
Mont-Sainte-Anne and Quebec City are bookends of a beautiful plain or beau pré that was once the breadbasket of New France. The Saint Lawrence River abounded with fish then. The rich, arable farmland grew anything that could withstand the climate. The forests yielded seemingly endless supplies of wood and game, and the escarpment surrendered the limestone that built North America’s oldest walled city and most vibrant UNESCO World Heritage site.
If Fernie was rough, tumble and redneck, Beaupré was pious and devoutly Roman Catholic. The mountain, the village and the Basilica are all named after Saint Anne, mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus.
In 1658, Monseigneur François de Laval ceded some land for the first Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. During its construction, a crippled stonemason named Louis Guimont was miraculously healed by Sainte Anne. It was her first of many miracles here.
Today, the third and newest Basilica draws between 850,000 and 1,000,000 pilgrims a year, depending on whom you believe. Entering its stupendous nave, my eyes are drawn to two massive stone pillars adorned with hundreds of canes and crutches discarded by the grateful faithful who came, prayed and were healed. One left a solitary white ski bearing the numerals 3 26 01.
SAINTE-ANNE: LE SKI
Skiing was already popular in Quebec City at the turn of the 20th century. In the ‘40s, some enterprising skiers cut a ski trail down Mont-Sainte-Anne and staged an inferno downhill race. (You can see photos and footage in the Ski Museum.) The first lift and lodge were erected in 1966. The community hill was then taken over by Sépaq (the Société des établissements de plein air du Québec), a provincial body that governs parks and recreation in Quebec. Private investors held it briefly from 1994 until 1997, when it was sold to the inimitable Charlie Locke and RCR.
Despite the mountain’s massive (by eastern standards) size, it feels surprisingly close knit and intimate. Perhaps that’s because many of its trails are named after the pioneers (la Pichard, la Bélanger) who developed the mountain and the legends (la Mélanie Turgeon, la P-A Rousseau) who still ski here. Maybe it’s because most of the skiers I meet are locals.
They live in nearby villages like Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Beaupré, Château-Richer and Saint-Tite-des-Caps. Their numbers are growing because they can enjoy the best of both worlds here. They’re minutes from Quebec City, with all its big city perks, comforts, requisites and amenities. And they’re next door to world-class alpine and nordic skiing, and cycling, hunting and fishing. The kicker is that it’s still surprisingly affordable. “There are big chalets that cost half-a-million dollars here, but you can buy a nice, family home for $250,000,” says Canadian Olympic XC skier and cyclist Pierre Harvey, who lives in Saint-Ferréol.
The area has become so popular that the landmark Château Mont-Sainte-Anne is becoming a condo hotel. Its owner and GM, Sébastien Roy, and his Swiss-born wife, Nadja (who met while working out west), settled here to be close to their families and raise their own. “Over the past 12 years, we’ve watched our tiny bedroom community grow into the ideal place to live for active, sports-minded Quebec City natives,” Sébastien says. Not to mention Canadians, Americans and Europeans, notably Belgians and Brits.
Despite this growth, the area’s character and charm remain fundamentally unchanged. Take Dominic “Dom” Smith. A working-class lad from Cardiff, Wales, he’d taught snowboarding for 20 years from Scotland to Australia before coming here to teach, have fun and party. “At first,” he explains, “I thought I’d made a huge mistake. It was too quiet – not at all what I expected in a ski town.” A broken ankle prolonged his stay. “By the end of my first year, I’d fallen in love with the place because it was so different,” he says. “So safe.” People he’d once found cold, distant and cliquish welcomed him. He’d proven to them he could “feel the local love.” Dom still doesn’t lock his doors at home.
THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD
Quebec City’s close proximity is both a blessing and a curse for Mont-Sainte-Anne. A blessing because it’s just 30 minutes away. And a curse because few people are willing to invest in making a slopeside village that can rival Fernie’s.
But there are believers. One is former Canadian national snowboard team head coach and restaurateur David Ruel. He and his partner, Elizabeth Barclay, own the Les Trois Becs and Le Petit Bec restaurants. “You have to invest in your business, be competitive and give as good as you get,” David says. It also helps to serve tasty casual French cuisine and take-out both in Beaupré and on the mountain.
WHICH BEGS THE QUESTION: FERNIE OR MONT-SAINTE-ANNE?
Sitting in the airport lounge in Cranbrook waiting to board my flight home, I wonder if I’m not going about this backwards. My week at Fernie made me wish I were 20-something again, footloose, fancy-free and arriving here to look for work and cheap accommodations to live my ski dream. From what I’ve seen, it would take me years to explore and master Fernie’s “five bowls, one hundred trails and one thousand lines.” Who knows, I might even start a business or two here, providing Fernie keeps booming.
But I’m 64 and happily married to an avid non-skier. Being close to great skiing is important, but so is proximity to everything a big city has to offer, starting with an international airport, a great university and major hospitals. Mont-Sainte-Anne delivers the best of both worlds, in spades. Of course, living here means learning to live in French. But the way I see it, if Dom Smith can do it, anyone can.
So, who wins the Great Canadian Snowdown: Fernie or Mont-Sainte-Anne? It’s your call.