Hitting the road and slopes on Canada's Powder Highway

Chicago Tribune

Deep in Canada's Kootenay Rockies, a helicopter dropped off me and nine other eager skiers on what seemed like the top of the world.

A 360-degree vista of icy slopes dazzled my eyes, with blankets of pristine snow spilling from the mountain summit where I stood, skis in hand. Jagged cliffs ran to every horizon, descending into the vast Columbia River valley in southeastern British Columbia.

I arrived at my high-altitude perch during a trip to the north end of the so-called Powder Highway, a massive loop of roads running about 800 miles through the Kootenays.

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The highway delivers snow-seeking visitors to myriad ski operators in Canada north of the Washington-Idaho border. It serves over 75 different skiing operations, including eight downhill ski resorts, 14 cross-country centers, 23 backcountry lodges, 18 heli-ski outfits and 14 "cat ski" companies that use motorized snow cats to transport schussers to deep powder.

This may be the world's single greatest concentration of ski-related attractions — and right now they're a relative bargain for Americans, thanks to the strength of the U.S. dollar. (At press time, one greenback was worth 1.3 Canadian dollars.)

I recently spent a week exploring the northern segment of the Powder Highway, discovering the benefits of a midwinter road trip through Canada, both on and off the slopes.

Cabin in the woods

The temperature had dipped to 20 below. It seemed like madness to leave my cozy cabin at Emerald Lake Lodge deep in Yoho National Park to snowshoe through the woods. But the sun was shining, and the outdoors beckoned, so I put on every piece of winter clothing I'd packed and ventured outside.

The historic lodge was built in 1902 by the Canadian Pacific Railway and remains popular even in the depths of winter. I could only imagine the emerald lake colors as I clomped along its frozen surface, gazing in wonder at the ice-encased trees, towering mountains and steaming rivers.

Some visitors glided by on cross-country skis, others "skinned" up nearby hills on backcountry skis, and still more simply strolled along the shores. Nobody seemed to mind the cold amid the stunning scenery.

I returned to the lodge for a well-deserved hot toddy and a hearty bison filet dinner before retiring to the billiards room for a scotch by the roaring fire. I felt like a retired Viking at my Arctic estate and slept beneath piled blankets in front of glowing coals, dreaming of northern treasures.

Mountain soul food

Macaroni and cheese is big along the Powder Highway. Not the Kraft boxed version. I'm talking about delicious, rib-sticking, creative hot pots of cheesy goodness offered with surprising regularity along the roads.

At Truffle Pigs Bistro in the town of Field, on an outer spoke of the highway, customers drive for hours from Calgary for the mac and cheese. Mine was baked with pork, Gruyere and aged cheddar in bechamel sauce, topped with chicken apple sausage and delivered in an iron caldron. Other roadside meals included massive buffalo steaks, tenderly braised elk medallions, duck and venison pasta and fresh B.C. salmon.

I washed it all down with locally brewed beer, Canadian whiskey infused with maple syrup, and the popular Caesar cocktail — a Canadian Bloody Mary — made with Clamato juice.

Roadside attractions

A highlight of any good road trip are the oddball discoveries along the way. I stopped at Rogers Pass to check out the copper-colored Breeches of Miss Conduct sculpture, a tribute to female mountaineer Georgia Engelhard, who summited countless area peaks in the early 20th century wearing — gasp — pants instead of the "proper" heavy skirts. Also impressive was the World's Largest Paddle near Golden. At 61 feet long, the oversize oar seems appropriately scaled for a row through the surrounding scenery.

Every visitor should take a dip in one of the half-dozen hot springs near the Powder Highway. The most famous of them, Radium Hot Springs in Kootenay National Park, has been a popular destination since the 1920s. It has the added bonus of being near an endearingly kitschy town of the same name.

There's a nominal fee to soak in the Radium pools, but because of Canada's sesquicentennial this year, access to Kootenay — and all of the country's national parks — is free with a Discovery Pass. Order one online at www.commandesparcs-parksorders.ca.

Going downhill

Good food, scenery and road-tripping fun aside, the real reason most people venture this far north in the winter is to ski.

My route took me to two of the larger resorts along the highway: Revelstoke and Kicking Horse. They don't get the publicity of their fellow B.C. ski resort, Whistler, but they also don't get Whistler's crowds, high prices and jet-setter attitude.

They're both world-class resorts capable of challenging the most advanced skiers and snowboarders. Kicking Horse's 4,133 vertical feet and 2,800 skiable acres rival those of Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Revelstoke boasts an amazing 5,620 vertical feet, the longest drop of any North American ski resort. It took me a good 30 minutes of straight thigh-burning downhill to get from top to bottom.

Both offer a huge assortment of bowls, chutes, bumps, hike-able terrain and tree skiing. Intermediate skiers will find enough friendly slopes to fill multiple days. Beginners might find both areas challenging, but some gentle slopes and lessons make it manageable. I saw plenty of families with small children taking their first-ever runs.

Kicking Horse and Revelstoke typically stay open until early to mid-April, making them popular spots for spring skiing.

Skiing above and beyond the resorts is where the Powder Highway really stands out as a unique destination. The two-dozen-plus snow cat and helicopter ski operators along the route enable intermediate and advanced skiers to tap into some of the greatest terrain and snow in the world.

On my heli-ski day, I followed my guide from the summit into a wide bowl filled with fresh, waist-deep snow. The vast field absorbed sound so completely that it felt as if we were inside a sealed snow globe. Even our whoops of joy disappeared like mist into the clouds.

We glided down the run, descending through gladed trees with increasing speed like a herd of Gore-Tex-clad mountain goats sliding along a snowy conveyor belt.

We stopped at a pine-dotted alpine meadow after a heart-pumping, fist-bumping journey to find our helicopter waiting, ready to take us up for another run.

It was a highway commute I never wanted to end.

Bill Fink is a freelance writer.

If you go

Revelstoke Mountain Resort: Revelstoke is a nearly five-hour drive from Calgary, seven from Vancouver. New nonstop flights from Vancouver to Revelstoke run Thursday and Sunday through March 19. Sutton Place Hotel is a ski-in, ski-out luxury property featuring 205 condominium hotel units and four restaurants. Studios start around $266, and two-bedroom units go for roughly $486; www.suttonplace.com/revelstoke. Lift tickets generally cost $60; 866-373-4754, www.revelstokemountainresort.com.

Kicking Horse Mountain Resort: Located in Golden, the resort is a 2.5-hour drive from Calgary International Airport along the Trans-Canada Highway. Kicking Horse has numerous resort-side lodges on its website, including Glacier Mountaineer Lodge at the hill's base. Rooms start at about $144. Lift tickets, about $76; 866-754-5425, www.kickinghorseresort.com.

Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing: Operates out of Revelstoke. At least four runs are guaranteed with the day package, starting around $795; 800-663-7080, www.selkirk-tangiers.com.

Emerald Lake Lodge: Good for backcountry skiing, snowshoeing and hiking, about a 45-minute drive to Kicking Horse and Lake Louise ski resorts. Rooms from $188; 403-410-7417, www.crmr.com/emerald.

Tip: When driving the Powder Highway, make sure your car has winter tires. Keep tabs on road conditions with the Drive B.C. hotline at 800-550-4997. For more info, go to www.kootenayrockies.com, www.hellobc.com.

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