“The usual, Mike?” Gary the Scottish barman says as I enter the bar.
“Please, mate,” I reply as I slump my weary body down on the barstool. “What a day.”
The bar is still quiet. The only other people there are a couple of locals – hard men with worn hands, silently nursing their beers.
I had arrived in Fernie, British Columbia, just as the mountains and trees were glowing in the autumn sun, just as the cedars and Douglas-firs were turning a radiant shade of yellow. At the time, it was difficult to imagine that just a few weeks later, heavy snow and plunging temperatures would sweep through the area, but the snow had started falling on a Sunday night and didn’t stop until Wednesday. Ever since, the ski bums of Fernie have been sporting broad smiles and I feel at peace with my adopted mountain home.
The arrival feeling I got as my bus rolled into Fernie was the the same as always – the excitement of entering a new ski town was as strong as ever, as was the feeling of apprehension. Where would I live? What work would I find? Would I make any friends? How would the locals take to me? All these questions raced through my mind. Yet, the moment I stepped off the bus, I knew I had made the right choice in moving to Canada for the winter.
In fact, the pent-up apprehension has always dissipated once I finally reach a new ski town, whether it’s been the French Alpine town of Alpe d’Huez, the Colorado Rocky Mountain resort of Keystone, or Wanaka in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. At the bus station, I always take a good look around and instantly feel at home. Every time.
Ski bums are fine practitioners of slow travel. We are neither the tourists who pass through for weekend getaways, nor the weathered locals who have seen a lifetime of winters. Somewhere in between, ski bums stop and stay long enough to make temporary lives for themselves in a town.
Ski bums spend a season in a town when the weather is at its most severe. We suffer through the cold winter, sleep four to a room, work for minimum wage, eat noodles every night and survive on the lowest-grade beer we can find. Why do we do it? For one simple reason: we love life in the mountains.
“How was the hill today, Mike?” Gary asks.
“Ah it was epic, mate. Just epic,” I reply. Gary nods. He already knows. He could tell what a great day people had experienced just by the smiles on their faces as he wandered around town.
Storm warnings are celebrated in mountain towns. The local community comes together at the prospect of fresh snow. New flurries attract tourists and hard-core skiers from other mountain towns.
And, well, Fernie had just received an extraordinary 160 centimetres of new snow over four special days. Minus-25-degree temperatures (centigrade) and an extremely wet precipitation front combined to provide what every ski bum dreams of – a perfect powder day.
That means more than you might think. Slow travelling in a mountain town as a ski bum, you become adept at identifying the different types of snow and weather. You know what graupel is (soft snow pellets – almost hail-like in appearance) and you get used to the biting cold. You laugh with your fellow ski bums when people complain about the weather back home. We wonder together about the notions of ‘home’ and ‘travelling.’ Which are we?
I had stayed long enough in Fernie to learn its human past and fear its wild forces. An old mining town that reinvented itself as a winter sports destination is not a new tale. Yet the location of the hill is different. Five south-facing bowls capture the powder and provide expert terrain.
However, the huge headwalls looming ominously over the town and ski hill are a constant reminder of the dangers skiers and snowboarders face. Cornice-clearing booms that reverberate around many mountain towns are a sign of just how seriously the local authorities take the dangers of avalanches.
Even with the risks, this place is, for now, my home. Until next winter, that is.