I’m told that ski writers have it all. We travel to wondrous places, meet fascinating people and get paid big bucks to ski! I dare say most of that’s true except the part about the big bucks.
Thus I confidently approached my boss at SkiTrax: “Wouldn’t our readers love to read more about the interior of British Columbia and what’s happening in the Cariboo region?” His affirmative answer soon saw me being shipped off to visit The Hills Health Ranch in the Cariboo, and Sun Peaks next door in the Shuswap Highlands (love that name!).
And with a certain amount persuasion (aka verbal bludgeoning), he convinced me that it would be a terrific idea to ski the Cariboo Marathon, which turned out to be the most fun I’ve ever had racing. It was a fantastic event, immediately followed by hydrotherapy and a massage at The Hills. Miraculously, I was up and skiing at 7:00am the next morning with nary a twinge in my aging body.
There’s one other comment about this the trip that speaks volumes: Canadians are great hosts; warm, smiling and helpful. Yanks notice it, but I’m not sure Canadians do as much because they’re surrounded by it all the time. Skiing is a wonderful thing, but the whole “people context” takes a vacation to another dimension.
Pat and Juanita Corbett are soft-spoken Nordic innovators and pioneers. They’ve created one of the outstanding cross-country destinations in North America, no exaggeration. I believe they don’t toot their own horns loudly enough, so I’m volunteering to blow a blast or two.
The Hills is a spa, a health ranch and a winter resort (including a small lift-served downhill skiing and snowboarding slope), and it’s unsung in the U.S. outside the Northwest.
That’s ridiculous! We’re talking up to 150 kilometres of skiing spread over more than 20,000 acres/8,000 hectares and as much as 1,000 feet/300 metres of vertical change. This is one of the largest contiguous groomed trail systems in Canada, with 100 kilometres groomed regularly.
Approximately 24 kilometres are on ranch property; the rest runs through the surrounding community and on Crown land, including the tunnels under Highway 97. Many of the routes were laid out before skating boomed (The Hills opened operations at Christmas 1983), so a number of trails are tracked without skate lanes. Approximately 80 kilometres are single-tracked with a skate lane.
One of the advantages of coming here from sea level is the altitude (only 3,400 feet/1,033 metres). Much like Washington’s Methow Valley, there’s virtually no acclimation time. Also evocative of the Methow, there’s not a huge amount of snow (approximately 53 inches/131 centimetres annually); but when it comes, it stays. You can pretty much depend on good snow cover from early December through to the end of March.
The terrain is a little reminiscent of the Midwest. It’s been heavily glaciated, resulting in a wonderful mix of marshlands, meadows, lakes and hills (many of them glacial deposits). Douglas fir is the dominant forest cover. There’s a combination of great skiing and a wilderness feel.
Pat and Juanita are fascinating and delightful people. She’s been a country singer with the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, a cosmetologist and a cattle rancher in B.C. He was general manager during the development of 1,500-lot 108 Resort (just across Highway 97 from The Hills). Together, they founded the first commercial cross-country operation in the province, from the beginning designing it as a destination.
Pat says that he kept seeing cross-country mentioned in magazines in the 1970s, and “. . . knew that was what I wanted to do.” He flew to Switzerland around 1976 to see the Engadine Marathon ( river of 8,000 skiers), which served as inspiration for the Cariboo Marathon).
They based the ranch on a trails-based environment, where the award-winning spa, fitness and health ”not just weight loss” meld together.
Next thing on the agenda is a real-estate “health village” based on trails and fitness, with sales beginning as early as next year.
Tons to Do
Winter visitors won’t be bored, and there’s no sense of austerity here. The place is fun, and typically there’s a lot of interaction between guests and staff. Some spa guests even stay for months, achieving physical, emotional, mental and spiritual balance — with plenty of skiing thrown in Lodging is simple, comfortable and virtually ski-in/ski-out.
There’s a fitness room, pool, an array of spa treatments (I’d never tried hydrotherapy before — it works wonders for sore muscles) and what I call “recreational eating” (that’s a compliment!) in two restaurants. Outdoors, there’s dog sledding, lift-served night-lit tubing, sleigh rides and ice skating.
I chatted with groups of skiers and snowshoers on the trails every day, but my favourite memory of the visit last February was meeting a gentleman I’ll call William. He’s in his early seventies, glad to chat a little about himself and talk about skiing. He lives a few klicks south of the ranch in 100 Mile House. He moved here from Williams Lake (an hour north) to be near his 65-year-old girlfriend, who has skied the Cariboo Marathon for literally decades.
I saw William at least three times during my stay, moving at his own pace, invariably pleasant. We waved, smiled and went our separate ways, just enjoying winter, nature and good company.
Sun Peaks Resort
I also visited Sun Peaks. It’s approximately 220 kilometres southeast of The Hills and only 45 minutes north of Kamloops in the aforementioned Shuswap Highlands.
There’s major potential here as a cross-country destination — great terrain, some fantastic views, lots of lodging and restaurants, South Tyrolean architecture and it’s usually uncrowded. The question is whether the resort will choose to explore all of the possibilities. Currently, 28 kilometres are groomed, with 12 kilometres of backcountry routes. There’s acreage (or do I mean “hectare-age”) available to make it a really significant destination.
Outside of Washington State, I don’t believe many U.S. skiers have even heard of Sun Peaks. (Yep, that’s outrage in my voice.) There’s a nice mix of trails in meadows and forest, really reliable snow and, holy cow, one of the most glorious lift-served downhill runs I’ve ever seen. You take the Morrissey Express chairlift (included in your day pass and a pretty easy load and unload for skinny skiers), then lose approximately 350 metres/1,150 feet over 6.2 kilometres, ending up at the wonderful McGillivray Lake Outpost (cabin). I went in and found a guest book (along with an issue of SkiTrax) with an entry from a visitor from Olympia, Wash.: “This is a pristine gold mine. Wonderful!”
I’d suggest staying at Nancy Greene’s Cahilty Lodge, which also has a good restaurant. She’s a former Canadian Olympic champion downhill skier, and her husband, Al Raine, used to be a Canadian alpine ski coach. They’re delightful people who love cross-country and have even skied the Cariboo Marathon (See 2007 Cariboo Marathon).
And in the Vicinity –
Using 100 Mile House (just down Highway 97 from The Hills) as the region’s Nordic epicentre, here are some other places to ski:
– Bull Mountain Ski Trails, approximately 110 kilometres north â€” 28 kilometres groomed, 3.5 kilometres with lights.
– Wells Gray Country, roughly 140 kilometres east â€” up to 80 kilometres groomed around Clearwater and Wells Gray Provincial Park
– Big Bar Guest Ranch, approximately 130 kilometres south â€” with 30 kilometres groomed.
2007 Cariboo Marathon
The 100 Mile Nordic Ski Society hosts the Cariboo Marathon on the first Saturday each February. The club’s 99 Mile Ski Trail system (all these distances are measured from the town of Lillooet) is a rock-and-roll delight, with up to 50 kilometres groomed, including five kilometres lit.
The classic-only mass-start marathon gives adults the option of 30 or 50 kilometres. Since I only compete about once a decade, my survival sense said, â€œGo short!â€ â€” which turned out to be a wise decision! (I finished seventh out of eight in my age group, partly because I was dumb enough to use waxless skis, but also due to a lack of fitness, technique and other perennial excuses.)
The morning began bitter, but became sunny and warmed up wonderfully. The organization was phenomenal, the volunteers were cheerful and encouraging, the snow was terrific and there was a crowd impartially cheering for us all. I also remember scarfing down many cookies and muffins at the feeding stations.
The event has seen up to 1,400 participants; my race “hmm, I seem to be feeling a little proprietary” saw just a little more than 200. (There are a lot of events on the same day, all competing for a limited number of skiers in B.C.) This was my first Canadian-ski-club-run race. I’m ready for more!
The Hills Health Ranch, Box 26, 108
Mile Ranch, B.C., V0K 2Z0;
www.skithehills.com or www.spabc.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, 1-800-668-2233.
The ranch is located approximately 20 kilometres north of 100 Mile House.
Vancouver is a five-hour drive. Fly into
Kamloops and drive roughly 200 kilometres north or fly to Williams Lake and catch a shuttle to The Hills.
Sun Peaks Resort, Suite 50, 3150 Creekside Way, Sun Peaks, B.C., V0E 5N0; sunpeaksresort.com, email@example.com.
100 Mile Nordic Ski Society – 100milenordics.com.