At the top of Red Mountain, British Columbia, 2,900 feet above us, wind-driven snow sculpted trees into pure white creatures out of Dr. Seuss. Down at the base lodge, gentler flakes drifted in front of my goggles.
The four of us had spent the morning carving silent tracks on Granite Peak, the higher of Red's two lift-served summits in the West Kootenay region just over the border from eastern Washington and Idaho. I say silent, because ski edges make sounds on snow depending on the texture of the surface: clattering sounds on ice, whooshing and slicing sounds on packed snow, zipper sounds on hard corduroy. This snow -- a dusting of powder as fine as talc -- made no sound at all. Skiing through it was like frosting a huge cake with your feet.
A cold, gray sky kept the snow perfect hour after hour. (Warm temperatures are the enemy of silent snow.) By midday, we needed a break and took one at the Paradise Lodge, high on the mountain's backside. We had the bacon/mushroom burgers from the outdoor grill (thick slabs of maple-cured bacon) and then, before heading back out, some coffee.
I volunteered to fetch the joe, and I was doing fine at the coffee Thermoses until I tried to pick up and carry all four at once. The lady behind the cash register hurried over, saying, ''Can I get you a tray for that? Would that make it easier?'' It was as if we were protected by a magic spell of niceness that generated in us a warmth beyond the wonderful skiing.
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I'd known about Red Mountain, through the ski press, for decades. The hill, while not exceptionally high (6,800 feet) or dramatically alpine (softwoods drape most of the steeply folded shapes), had nevertheless acquired a potent mythology. I knew it was the home mountain of Nancy Greene Raine, Canada's vibrant gold and silver ski racer at the Grenoble Olympics in 1968.
Before that, it had been the first lift-served ski area in western Canada (1947). And before that, way back in 1896, it was the site of Canada's first recorded downhill race. In recent years, Red has hosted the annual Molson Canadian Freeskiing Championships.
The terrain and snow, not to mention the serious-skier fraternity, were obviously world class. But Red had somehow, in an unassuming Canadian kind of way, escaped the vagaries of celebrity and overdevelopment.
So, after years of promises, my wife and I -- from Denver -- together with old friends from Telluride, made the trip in January, flying to Spokane via Salt Lake City, and renting a car there.
We knew the mountain by reputation, but we didn't know anything about Rossland, the hilly Victorian-era mining town at its base. Scandinavian gold miners built the place overnight in 1890 with the requisite brick storefronts along Columbia Avenue and steep-roofed, pastel-colored houses up and down the precipitous side streets. For a few years, with a population of more than 7,000, Rossland was the biggest city in British Columbia.
Today, with a population half that, the only remnants of the mining era are a wonderful museum on the edge of town and a still-operating smelter in Trail, six miles away on the Columbia River.
As happened in Aspen and Telluride, the miners brought their Norse-country passion for skiing with them. And, when the ore played out, snow (and off-season recreations like golf and mountain biking) became the precious commodity. But the transition to a tourist economy came late to British Columbia.
Part of it was the isolation: Rossland is an eight-hour drive from Vancouver, even farther from Calgary.
Part of it was the fact that B.C.'s extractive industries -- mining, timbering and salmon fishing -- seemed until recently to be inexhaustible. That myth, thankfully, has died, and the people and provincial government are beginning the shift to softer, more sustainable paths.
It took the success of Whistler/Blackcomb, on the coast north of Vancouver, to wake up interior B.C. to the promise of resort development. Now Whistler, which annually rates as the top winter destination in North America, will host the alpine events at the 2010 Olympics, and sleepy, '60s-style ski areas like Red are coming into their own.
We happen to like `60s style. The slow-speed triple chairs allowed us just the right amount of rest between forays into Red's Hobbit bowers of powder. And we felt the warm, dark, low-ceiling day lodge -- unchanged from 1947, hung with wooden skis and vintage racing bibs -- was the perfect place for an apres-ski beer.
Change is coming. Red Resort was purchased a couple of years ago by a California businessman, and things are happening. New slope-side condos are going in. Real estate values in town have shot up. And a new quad chair is promised next month.
Let's hope it doesn't change too much. In small-town Rossland we walked everywhere. Mornings, we shuffled from our motel down the main street to Grind Coffee House. (More niceness; a wood carver we met there opened his gallery just for us.) Evenings, we sauntered up Second Avenue to a 1902-era bakery now called Idgie's Restaurante for almond-crusted halibut and excellent wines from B.C.'s Okanagan Valley. For a dollar, we rode the town trolley to the ski area base.
We did take the car one day to check out Nelson, 30-some miles to the north. Nelson is a timber town, three times Rossland's size, its lumber mills sprawled along the dammed Columbia River. It was the bucolic location for Steve Martin's Cyrano movie, Roxanne. It was also, I had heard, a prime destination for Vietnam-era draft resisters. And we did meet some American ex-pats in the food co-op and in one of the ski shops.
Nelson's ski area, Whitewater, is 12 miles up the road and noticeably more primitive than Red Mountain. (The price is right for aficionados of the Kootenay's 40-foot annual snowfall: about $52 U.S. for a day ticket; about $579 for the early bird season pass.) It has a small day lodge and just two double chairs.
But that is all it needs, the locals say. From the top of either lift, you can traverse the ridgelines for miles. As we drove the access road, dreadlocked skiers who appeared to have been dipped in powdered sugar dropped out of the trees and thrust out their thumbs for a ride back to the lifts.
On our list for next time: the slightly longer drive over to Fernie, another Kootenay mining town turned ski destination that is experiencing a phoenix-like resurrection.
All three serve a largely local clientele -- so far -- though more visitors from the States are finding their way north for the superb snow and nonexistent lift lines. And for the pleasure of a society where people say ''Excuse me,'' hold doors for one another, and children look you right in the eye.
A postscript: Forty-eight hours after arriving in Rossland, our friends bought a little green house with three feet of snow on the roof. They couldn't resist. While they were signing papers, another real estate agent in the office, Paula Gaul, who owns the Red Shutter Inn at the mountain, offered, out of the blue, a couple of seats the next day on her husband's snow cat for some backcountry powder skiing.
Maybe it's the long winters, the vast empty spaces, the nationalized health care. Whatever, it sure is nice.