Greetings from Happy Valley! - Ski Mag

Greetings from Happy Valley!

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Happy Valley Snowglobe

There's a bench on Victoria Street where the hippies get high under a tree.

Gnarled and scraggly in winter, the tree stands in front of the Oso Negro coffee shop. Most days, the hippies are there, smoking dope and drinking joe. Today, a sunny mid-winter day, skiers in beat-up trucks park by the hippies, say hi, and stride through the glass doors with shell pants swishing. Inside, a woman looks at a magazine picture of people holding hands in a healing circle. A few artsy types in black sweaters sip double soy lattes or Canadianos. That's like an Americano, but 45 miles north of the border is as close as anyone wants to get to the U.S.A.

You may have heard of Nelson, British Columbia. So many Vietnam draft dodgers flocked here in the '60s that there's talk of building a monument in their honor. Steve Martin came to Nelson to woo Daryl Hannah in the 1987 film

Roxanne

. Though no one really likes to talk about it, Nelson is also one of the epicenters of the BC marijuana trade—a $4-billion-a-year industry.

But skiers know Nelson for its skiing. Here, on the West Arm of Kootenay Lake, about three hours north of Spokane, an annual average of 40 feet of snow can flog the Selkirk Mountains. A dozen or so cat-skiing and heli outfits operate within two hours of town. Together, they have dibs on more than 222,000 acres—that's 42 Vails. Red Mountain is about an hour south, near Rossland, but Whitewater, just 20 minutes down a winding two-lane road, is the local hill. Two lifts rise into a wilderness so toothy and vast that you can still find P.M. pow after weeks of no snow.

It's a ski town, but Nelson is no faux-cutesy mountain hub where transient ski bums work lifts for the fur and the fabulous. It's a gritty collage of 10,000 buskers and hockey fans and cooks and filmmakers and mountain bikers and spiritual seekers who live for fresh tracks.

A man with a red beard in Oso tells me about a postcard from a friend. The note ended: "Have fun in the bubble. And such Nelson is, far more so than Boulder, Telluride, Park City, Santa Fe. It has evolved into a Darwinian pod of powder-maddened misfits, swaddled in the mountains, ready to bounce out offending superstores, megaresorts, and dogs that shit downtown.

["Just Ski"]

Rules are different inside the Bubble. Don't play Hacky Sack. Go ahead and spark a dube in front of a cop—he won't care. Forget about upward mobility—just have a garden. Even Nelson's athletes play by different rules. They could move eight hours west to Whistler, find the spotlight, the sponsors, shine. But the Bubble says, Why work to ski when you can just ski?

Semipro freeskier Peter Velisek arrived here when he was two years old. On weekends, the family piled into the Le Car and drove past farms to run laps at Whitewater. Thanks to a blown-out knee, he's not feeling great now, but his house—a gray one on Observatory Street—makes him happy. He's 27, has blue eyes, and says "rad a lot. I'm living for three weeks in his basement, which has a 5-foot, 7-inch-high ceiling. I am 6-foot-7 and say "ouch a lot.

Peter lives with Joe, a professional freeride mountain biker who was one of the first to launch huge gap jumps. Joe skis, too, but he's not around. He quit his job cat-skiing with clients to spend a month in Chamonix.

Pictures dot the walls. In them, Peter looks like a test pilot, knees tucked up to helmet, smoky contrails swirling from his tails back to the cliff he left behind. Another shot shows a skier rocketing off a boulder. That's his girlfriend, Karla.

People like Peter, Joe, and Karla are in no short supply in Nelson. And neither is art: Local filmmaker Bill Heath shot Sinners, a Banff Mountain Film Festival award winner, at Whitewater using Nelsonians like Ross "Rosco White, the area's operations manager (who throws sick daffies). Writer Mitchell Scott publishes Kootenay Mountain Culture, a magazine dedicated to the area's colorful landscas and people. Two film companies are based here. At least three adventure-sports photographers live in town. Young hotshot hopefuls routinely corner the shooters over Pacificos at Mike's Place, an après-ski joint, to try to land a session.

Peter, who counts Lange/Dynastar among his sponsors, is an up and comer. "This was supposed to be my year, he says. He recently won a freeskiing contest at Red Mountain, and came in first at Lake Louise the year before.

But now? Now comes a story.

Peter is in Utah for a comp. The drop into the narrow chute is simple: Hop down five feet, hit soft snow. Peter finds ice instead. The chute narrows; air is the only option. Knees up, legs brace for impact—but the test pilot crashes. Bone bangs on bone. It's a dull knock that rattles through his skull. He can hear it. He will always hear it. A mallet rapping on wood.

That was two weeks ago. "It's getting better, he says.

Peter stands up and drops his drawers. He attaches a blue hose from a blue water cooler to a blue ice pack. The swelling is so bad it makes the hair on his leg look like hair plugs. ACL: gone. MCL: mostly gone. Bruised femur. Bruised tibia. His calf is a grotesque collage of puke-green skin splattered with thick pools of purple blood.

Everyone in Nelson wrecks. Evan skied switch into a tree and bruised his tailbone. Leo has a stiff neck from hucking off a 100-foot cliff, but the pictures came out blurry. Karla blew her ACL. Leif doesn't have an ACL. Keith knocked off three turns and heard clicking noises as ligaments snapped like peas. (The absinthe helps.) Moss is just broken—after several knee surgeries and a funky back. He over-rotated a back flip off a 70-foot cliff and hit so hard his down vest exploded. In the summer, everyone hops on long-travel mountain bikes and cracks collarbones.

"You learn a lot about yourself with an injury like this, Peter says. Skiing helps his spirit. But now he must cling to life in town, not above it. When summer comes Peter will play the fiddle and Karla will sing opera. In the fall they'll pick pears from the trees in the yard and can them.

["Bill's Plan"]

Bill Sproul works in a small office next to a shop that engraves tombstones. When I visit, he's wearing a Canadian Mountain Holidays sweatshirt, perhaps a keepsake from his days as a heli-ski guide. Now Bill maps roads cutting through forests, which makes the environmentalists mad. Bill shows me pictures he took from his last project—hippies, armed only with love, holding hands near a bulldozer.

Bill, 54, loves to ride his snowmobile on Toad Mountain, a craggy summit visible from town, and plot how to open the Bubble up for business. His plan is called Silver Basin Resort, and he spreads a map of it across a table. The proposed area is massive: 200-plus trails, 6,000 skiable acres, restaurants, lodges, 5,480 feet of vert, 12 lifts, and a three-mile-long gondola. If you peer into Bill's Bubble, you see sleekly dressed jet-setters sipping pinot noir in the new Nelson Lodge, riding the gondola from downtown, and posing for photos atop 6,220 foot Morning Mountain. The plan is very green—"35 percent reality and just three years old, says Bill—with numerous permits and feasibility studies and, of course, hundreds of millions of dollars to secure.

When I mention the plan to random people in town, responses range from "It'll never happen to "What's he thinking? to "Fuck. Bill knows it'll be a tough road. "We have to be very politically correct about it, he says. "There are a lot of people who eat granola here.

All around the Bubble, places are bursting. To the north, Revelstoke has a plan for 25 lifts. To the east you'll find the boombergs of Invermere and Canmore near Jumbo Pass, home to a proposed $376 million Whistler-size resort. To the south, Red Mountain was just bought by a San Diego developer who plans to build some $750 million worth of townhouses. Rich Americans are buying them sight-unseen.

"In small towns like this, Bill says, "you have to create your own economy.

["A Psychedelic Economy"]

Downtown there's a business in a white house with green trim and a large picture of Peter Tosh outside. A sign with rainbow swirls says it's the Holy Smoke culture shop and "psyche-deli café. Inside are trippy paintings by Wayne King, Nelson's iconic hippie philosopher, who often sits under Oso's tree. There are stickers proclaiming BC's economy has gone to pot.

Mary Jane contributes at least $4 billion a year to the provincial economy, more than cattle or even timber. A grower with a network of smugglers can make as much as $80,000 in 10 weeks, the time it takes to grow plants under metal-halide lights. Groups like Stop the Drug War estimate there are between 15,000 and 25,000 growing operations in the province. Together they produce some two million tons of buds so potent they'd knock Fez from That '70s Show into the present. The cash keeps restaurants open, car dealers rolling, barmaids pulling pints—and people skiing.

Though grow ops are illegal, they're everywhere. Houses reek of that citrus-pine scent that growers try desperately to conceal with expensive air filters. Cops enforce marijuana laws only when they have to, and jail time is rare. Homeboys toke. Skiers take safety breaks. Mom makes brownies.

For a couple hundred bucks you can buy a grow light. Or you can sink $20,000 into an operation that includes carbon dioxide—enriching tanks and precious botanical clones bred like horses. Team up with a distributor in the States, stuff a backpack with some Skunk No. 1, ski or kayak or sled it over the border, and you could quadruple your cash.

Or you can forget all of that and just go to Holy Smoke, the town's worst-kept secret. I slink in when no one's looking, only to find a bright and cheery space with green and orange paint and a bearded man behind the counter.

"Do you know where one can get anything to…

He recoils. I've clearly breached some Canadian cultural barrier. I think of apologizing, but he leans back in.

"I can't sell you anything, he says. "Talk to some of the folks around back.

I turn to walk out the door and go around back.

"Not that way, he says and points around his back to a room just 10 feet farther into the shop.

I sit at a small table near the deli kitchen. A woman who looks like a schoolmarm sits next to me. She's wearing a black dress and round spectacles. Some Americans walk in—you can tell by the baseball caps turned backward. Canadians don't watch baseball. Then in walks this guy with a kid strapped to his chest. The tot's wearing a pink bunny suit with big ears that flop in the haze. Dad leaves with a bag.

A man in a black T-shirt stands at the counter. He's holding a demonstration, like the kind you see with knives in the supermarket. He's showing fellow shoppers a $700 device that burns pot without fire. In go the goods. A plastic bag swirls with silky fog and out comes pot that looks pretty much the same.

"Here, try it, says Mr. Weed.

A guy with a beard as red as his eyes likes it. "Smooth. You have to be really into your smoking to buy something like that, he says.

"Or really into your health, says another.

"Or really into your smoking and your health, adds a third helpfully.

Everyone nods in agreement.

["Untracked Out"]

The Bubble makes you forget: That it hasn't snowed in weeks. That you should be at work. That you once had a blown knee and could barely walk.

Stranger things than memory loss can happen if you stay too long. You get strung out, reclusive—or too helpful. Take the time when a man walked into a liquor store last Halloween wearing a bag over his head. He demanded cash from the register. The shopkeeper attacked him. Passersby outside saw only one man beating up another, so as fervent peaceniks, they jumped in the melee and helped extricate the n small towns like this, Bill says, "you have to create your own economy.

["A Psychedelic Economy"]

Downtown there's a business in a white house with green trim and a large picture of Peter Tosh outside. A sign with rainbow swirls says it's the Holy Smoke culture shop and "psyche-deli café. Inside are trippy paintings by Wayne King, Nelson's iconic hippie philosopher, who often sits under Oso's tree. There are stickers proclaiming BC's economy has gone to pot.

Mary Jane contributes at least $4 billion a year to the provincial economy, more than cattle or even timber. A grower with a network of smugglers can make as much as $80,000 in 10 weeks, the time it takes to grow plants under metal-halide lights. Groups like Stop the Drug War estimate there are between 15,000 and 25,000 growing operations in the province. Together they produce some two million tons of buds so potent they'd knock Fez from That '70s Show into the present. The cash keeps restaurants open, car dealers rolling, barmaids pulling pints—and people skiing.

Though grow ops are illegal, they're everywhere. Houses reek of that citrus-pine scent that growers try desperately to conceal with expensive air filters. Cops enforce marijuana laws only when they have to, and jail time is rare. Homeboys toke. Skiers take safety breaks. Mom makes brownies.

For a couple hundred bucks you can buy a grow light. Or you can sink $20,000 into an operation that includes carbon dioxide—enriching tanks and precious botanical clones bred like horses. Team up with a distributor in the States, stuff a backpack with some Skunk No. 1, ski or kayak or sled it over the border, and you could quadruple your cash.

Or you can forget all of that and just go to Holy Smoke, the town's worst-kept secret. I slink in when no one's looking, only to find a bright and cheery space with green and orange paint and a bearded man behind the counter.

"Do you know where one can get anything to…

He recoils. I've clearly breached some Canadian cultural barrier. I think of apologizing, but he leans back in.

"I can't sell you anything, he says. "Talk to some of the folks around back.

I turn to walk out the door and go around back.

"Not that way, he says and points around his back to a room just 10 feet farther into the shop.

I sit at a small table near the deli kitchen. A woman who looks like a schoolmarm sits next to me. She's wearing a black dress and round spectacles. Some Americans walk in—you can tell by the baseball caps turned backward. Canadians don't watch baseball. Then in walks this guy with a kid strapped to his chest. The tot's wearing a pink bunny suit with big ears that flop in the haze. Dad leaves with a bag.

A man in a black T-shirt stands at the counter. He's holding a demonstration, like the kind you see with knives in the supermarket. He's showing fellow shoppers a $700 device that burns pot without fire. In go the goods. A plastic bag swirls with silky fog and out comes pot that looks pretty much the same.

"Here, try it, says Mr. Weed.

A guy with a beard as red as his eyes likes it. "Smooth. You have to be really into your smoking to buy something like that, he says.

"Or really into your health, says another.

"Or really into your smoking and your health, adds a third helpfully.

Everyone nods in agreement.

["Untracked Out"]

The Bubble makes you forget: That it hasn't snowed in weeks. That you should be at work. That you once had a blown knee and could barely walk.

Stranger things than memory loss can happen if you stay too long. You get strung out, reclusive—or too helpful. Take the time when a man walked into a liquor store last Halloween wearing a bag over his head. He demanded cash from the register. The shopkeeper attacked him. Passersby outside saw only one man beating up another, so as fervent peaceniks, they jumped in the melee and helped extricate the would-be robber—who then promptly ran off.

"Nelson can recharge you, but once you're recharged you've got to get out of town, Farley O'Brien, a mouth trumpeter, tells me one day after skiing with Baldface, a cat-skiing outfit in town. "That's why the mountains here are so important. They let us get up and breathe and reassess. Otherwise your mind starts collapsing.

The whole time I've been here, it's only snowed once, nine inches, two weeks ago. Bodies are collapsing with minds. People in Nelson are literally falling ill with coughs and a general malaise for a winter gone horribly wrong. Even the hippies, oozing love and rainbows, got into some sort of argument in front of Oso one day. "The energy is a little off, Jon Meyer, Oso's owner, tells me.

Matt Scholl, a photographer who's lived in Nelson for the past 10 years, feels twitchy, too. We decide one afternoon near the end of my stay to ride up to Whitewater for a short tour above the lifts.

We ride up the Summit Chair, slap skins on our skis, and start working our way up through towering pines. Shadows are growing long by the time we stop at a vantage point overlooking a backcountry area called Five Mile.

Matt grows quiet.

"Five years ago, you would have never seen this, he says, and scowls. I look over the ridge into the bowl. Tracks braid most of the obvious fall lines, but there are still plenty of shots. If you found a spread like this at Vail two weeks after a so-so storm, you'd be pumped.

"What, you mean it would have been all tracked out?

"This is tracked out, says Matt, and then, "It'll snow again, before pushing off through the trees. A thin cloud of smoke flutters around his back as he disappears over a rise. For now, he's alone in his bubble.


JANUARY 2006the would-be robber—who then promptly ran off.

"Nelson can recharge you, but once you're recharged you've got to get out of town, Farley O'Brien, a mouth trumpeter, tells me one day after skiing with Baldface, a cat-skiing outfit in town. "That's why the mountains here are so important. They let us get up and breathe and reassess. Otherwise your mind starts collapsing.

The whole time I've been here, it's only snowed once, nine inches, two weeks ago. Bodies are collapsing with minds. People in Nelson are literally falling ill with coughs and a general malaise for a winter gone horribly wrong. Even the hippies, oozing love and rainbows, got into some sort of argument in front of Oso one day. "The energy is a little off, Jon Meyer, Oso's owner, tells me.

Matt Scholl, a photographer who's lived in Nelson for the past 10 years, feels twitchy, too. We decide one afternoon near the end of my stay to ride up to Whitewater for a short tour above the lifts.

We ride up the Summit Chair, slap skins on our skis, and start working our way up through towering pines. Shadows are growing long by the time we stop at a vantage point overlooking a backcountry area called Five Mile.

Matt grows quiet.

"Five years ago, you would have never seen this, he says, and scowls. I look over the ridge into the bowl. Tracks braid most of the obvious fall lines, but there are still plenty of shots. If you found a spread like this at Vail two weeks after a so-so storm, you'd be pumped.

"What, you mean it would have been all tracked out?

"This is tracked out, says Matt, and then, "It'll snow again, before pushing off through the trees. A thin cloud of smoke flutters around his back as he disappears over a rise. For now, he's alone in his bubble.


JANUARY 2006

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