Boom Town, B.C.

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Ski Towns Fernie A

A train whistle wails through a broad valley in the Canadian Rockies. The valley, flanked on all sides by monumental mountain faces, cradles a 100-year-old town called Fernie, B.C. The town scatters its unpretentious, coal-mining self along one bank of the broad Elk River as it curves through a spacious Rocky Mountain basin. The train's mournful cry rolls past downtown Fernie's faded brick buildings and through its wide, uncrowded streets, past the wood-frame cottages and open meadows on the edges of town, then licks up the mountainsides to the roomy, powder-glutted slopes of Fernie Alpine Resort, three-and-a-half miles from the center of town. From most places on the mountain the black, snaky coal train is easy to see, glistening darkly as it streams through the valley with its full, fresh load.

But there's one place at the mountain from where the coal train can't be seen¿and the irony can't be beat: At Fernie Alpine's base area, an incongruously luxurious vacation village is spreading like wildfire. This is a place where for decades cafeteria dining was standard, lodging was no more elaborate than a bed and four walls, and hip bar décor meant tables made of halved timbers and wall plaques bearing sayings such as "No Credit to Skiers or Drunks." Suddenly the ski area's no-frills past is being overshadowed by a bloom of luxury condominiums and lavish full-service hotel rooms, upscale dining and even fancy boutiques.

The contagion has spread rapidly to town, where real estate prices have quadrupled over the past five years, the local motor inn has added a deluxe third story, and among the many new businesses are a coffeehouse that serves homemade soups against a soundtrack of Spanish guitar music and a sleek, postmodern dance club where martinis are de rigeur. Fernie's elected officials are meeting with their counterparts from post-growth resort towns to learn how to manage such a boom. And Fernie's Island Lake Lodge, the 7,000-acre, private catskiing area co-owned by Scot Schmidt, is booked to capacity a year in advance. It's all pretty odd for a place so removed. Tucked in the southeastern corner of British Columbia (due north of western Montana), Fernie's nearest significant population base is Calgary, a solid three-hour drive away. "Things were the same here for 20 years," marvels Richard Laughlin, a restaurateur who has lived in Fernie since the Seventies and skis every day the mountain is open. "The changes happened overnight."

Overnight is only a minor exaggeration. Fernie's makeover from the ski town that time forgot to a contemporary destination resort has happened in exactly three years. Since Charlie Locke, the owner of Ski Lake Louise, acquired the ski area and its adjacent properties for approximately $4.14 million in 1997 from longtime owner Heiko Socher, base-area beds have more than tripled, skier visits have risen 220 percent, and the resort's lift-accessed terrain has doubled. Now there are 2,504 acres of wide-open bowls, high-speed chairlifts, cool new bars and dozens of sparkling new timber, river-rock and picture-window buildings. Locke's vision, of course, is to transform Fernie into a year-round magnet for upscale outdoorsy visitors from around the world.

Despite the familiar themes, Fernie is not altogether a typical ski town undergoing growth. In large part, it has never stopped being a living, breathing mining community. In 1897, a prospector named William Fernie unearthed a major coal deposit in what was then called Crows Nest Pass; the town was born the same year. Fernie's population peaked in 1908 at 12,000 people, as Fernie became the central hub for mines that encircled the town within a 15-mile radius. Some of the mines closed but new ones opened, and Fernie never became a ghost town. Fernie hit its contemporary population peak in 1978, with 7,200 residents and three major mines in full swing. While mining remains vital, the timing of the new ski boom could not be better: AFernie Alpine Resort's skiable, lift-accessed acreage doubled, the mines responded to the shift in global coal markets by slashing their production in half.

Fernie began operating as Snow Valley in 1963 as a weekends-only diversion, with just a T-bar and ropetow. (Two earlier ski hills in Fernie had flopped.) Socher took over Snow Valley's management in 1973 and promptly opened for skiing seven days a week. He spurred the first rush of ski development by hiring passionate skiers (many of whom still work there) and using a hands-on approach. "People used to mistake Socher for the janitor," remembers one longtime local. "He was always bending over to pick things up off the ground." And he wasn't alone: When spring thaw came, ticket-office employees were sent out to scour the ground for discarded wire wickets that could be used again the next season. Nothing went to waste. Socher's approach kept the ski area in business. The phenomenal terrain and voluminous snow of the Lizard Range¿29 feet in an average winter¿did the rest.

Dave Wall, a solid, bearded skier in his late 40s, oversees trail crew in summer and manages Fernie Alpine's newest après bar in winter. He remembers driving into town in a Dodge Maxi Van on a ski trip through British Columbia in 1976. "Fernie had waist-deep powder," he says. "I could see the locals skiing it and I said, 'Doggone it, I'm gonna learn how to do that, too.'" He returned for a season of bumming in 1979. At year's end he approached Socher for a job. "Socher said, 'I've seen you here all season. You seem like a nice guy. You can start tomorrow.' He gave me a handshake and that was it. I've worked for the mountain ever since."

Today the ski and mining communities intermingle. "A lot of young mine workers had hill experience first," explains Terry Nelson, the town's survey and engineering technologist. Nelson himself moved to Fernie as a teen with his parents; his father ran an industrial supply outfit for the coal mines. Now his wife owns the local bookstore, and their two adolescent boys are up-and-coming racers. "Whatever it is people are into here, there's so much crossover," he says. Skiers, local business owners and mine staffers alike are "sledheads" and cross paths in their favorite backcountry haunts. "Flyfishing, mountain biking, whitewater rafting or kayaking, hunting, ski touring¿it's all connected. The recreation ties everyone together."

Even as tourism-oriented growth begins to dominate local life, Fernie's coal-smudged core gives it an authentic hardiness that trendier resorts often lack. With or without the skiing, this is one real deal of a town, with a depth of character as deep-rooted as its red cedar forests. Fernie exudes with a collective warmth as unpretentious and easygoing as the homemade potluck suppers locals favor when they entertain and a spirit as rugged as its notorious weather.

Or, for that matter, as rugged as its notorious skiing grannies. "We like challenge, speed and powder," explains Isabelle Wright, with a mischievous smile. Christa Van den Broek nods in agreement and gazes out the window at the afternoon sun playing across the Rockies. Both in their late 50s, the snow-crazed women with pixie haircuts and twinkling eyes are, along with four or five other women their age, famous around town for their exuberant embrace of the Fernie way of life. On powder days they ski from 9 to 1, then snowshoe or cross-country ski to "get some real exercise." Sometimes they hike to the top of Polar Peak, 1,100 vertical feet above Fernie Alpine's Lizard Bowl, for great views and a 3,300-vertical-foot powder run. In summer they bike, hike, mountain climb and even windsurf. In truth they're typical Fernie-ites¿who just happen to be grandmothers. The grannies' notoriety grew last year when Wright soared off a cat track in a whiteout and broke her back. Her son, a member of Fernie's pro patrol, towed her off the mountain. Now she sits up in bed, well on the mend, with a steady stream of visitors, including Van den Broek, who is by her side, talking, as do most Fernie-ites, of the transformation consuming their town.

"We've been spoiled," Van den Broek says. "Catskiing at Island Lake Lodge was really cheap until a few years ago."

"It is getting a bit hectic," Wright concedes, "but you can't change it. You just have to make the best of it." She smiles from her pillows. "I'll still have a bottle of wine on top of Polar Peak when I'm 75." Outside a train whistle wails through town.p in bed, well on the mend, with a steady stream of visitors, including Van den Broek, who is by her side, talking, as do most Fernie-ites, of the transformation consuming their town.

"We've been spoiled," Van den Broek says. "Catskiing at Island Lake Lodge was really cheap until a few years ago."

"It is getting a bit hectic," Wright concedes, "but you can't change it. You just have to make the best of it." She smiles from her pillows. "I'll still have a bottle of wine on top of Polar Peak when I'm 75." Outside a train whistle wails through town.


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