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Fernie: it all started in a bear cave

// Robbin Siggers
// Robbin Siggers

As legend has it, Fernie’s unique gift for snow begins in 1879, with a young boy born in a bear cave high in the mountains above town.

The story goes that when the bears awoke, the boy overpowered them in a thunderous battle heard through town, before donning their coats and making off into the wilderness. To this day, the monstrous man dubbed The Griz is said to stand on the peaks firing his powder musket into the sky, raining heavy snow upon the mountains when forecasts call for none.

For a place renowned for its plentiful and often unexpected powder, it’s no surprise that lore and tradition are at the core of Fernie Alpine Resort’s allure. According to Matt Mosteller, ski blogger and Resorts of the Canadian Rockies spokesperson, Fernie’s sense of adventure and tradition of snow play began to develop in the ’60s, when experienced mountain guides discovered the wealth of snow beyond the reach of the mountain’s early tow ropes.

“The tradition was carried forward by these local legends like The Griz,” Mosteller says. “When you get so much snow in a community and you mix that with long, enjoyable days, mountain inspiration and certainly the après-ski antics that happen in the community, you really cook up some crazy legends.”

I experienced The Griz’s power first-hand on a recent trip to Fernie. The forecast looked grim in the days leading up to the trip, and I anticipated a weekend of little snow, a lot of sun and mostly ice on the slopes. By my evening arrival on the mountain, the snow had begun to fall lightly and by bedtime it had come with force.

Nothing beats waking up to a thick blanket of fresh snow, and Fernie rarely disappoints in this regard. According to Mosteller, the mountain can see upwards of 43 feet of snow throughout a ski season, putting it in the top ranks of snow-covered resorts worldwide and making it a magnet for skiers and boarders.

Even better is that the fine powder is spread over more than 2500 acres of skiable terrain across five bowls and 142 runs. With so many runs carved into only 2500 acres, Fernie offers visitors of all skill levels plenty of variety to their experience. Whether you’re a beginner sticking to the groomed runs, an average skier taking on the wide-open and steep vistas or an expert dropping in to the trees, there’s a challenge to be had in every bowl and off of every lift. After three full days of skiing on as much different terrain as possible, I was left exhausted but no less curious, with an impression that I had barely scratched half of the mountain. It feels like a mountain that you can’t ever fully know.

“That’s definitely on that checklist of why people come back,” Mosteller says. “People like to whet their appetite to uncover the next special moment, the next run that you couldn’t quite get to but you’re wondering what it’s going to be like. You hear a lot of that when people leave, and some people never leave for that reason.”

But while most come to Fernie for the powder, many stay for the community, the traditions and the laid-back atmosphere that permeates the area. There are ample places to kick back and relax throughout the mountain face, from top to bottom. The most convenient of these locales is the Lost Boys Cafe, which sits atop the Timber Bowl Express quad chair and anticipates some of Fernie’s more challenging runs. Drop in for delicious soups and sandwiches or an Irish coffee to quell the nerves and warm the body before the next big run.

But nothing beats the atmosphere of base camp, the mountain’s retro hub of activity. Perhaps it’s enhanced by the simultaneous exhilaration and fatigue, but reaching the bottom of a run and skiing through base camp feels like travelling through a community caught in a time. From the ’80s music and colourful snowsuits to the small vintage lodges, it seems like not much has changed in Fernie in 25 years. According to Mosteller, this is no accident.

“You really can’t get more ’80s,” he laughs. “There’s no place that goes more ’80s crazy than Fernie, and part of that is because people really started coming during that time, but also a lot of events flourished during that time and continue to this day.”

Fernie’s charm ultimately comes down to feeling less like a commercial ski area and more like a hidden secret unknown to outsiders. The same sense of adventure present at its founding has lasted for more than 50 years and continues to thrive, thanks to a finely crafted atmosphere of community.

I consider myself lucky that The Griz gifted me with ample snow, but even if he hadn’t, I would be no less excited to experience Fernie again.

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