I asked the pilot where we were bound.
“Boulder Hut” he said. “Where’s that?” I queried. “Twelve minutes that way,” he said pointing west over Northstar Mountain.
There are no baths or showers at Boulder Hut. Clean-up after a day of strenuous backcountry skiing involves soaping up in a wood-fired sauna, then dumping a bucket of water over one’s head. To my surprise a fellow guest, fit naked – and female – offered to do the pouring. I reluctantly acquiesced. Thereafter, the absence of a proper shower seemed trivial and I decided to forego my complaint to management.
Management at this remote backcountry lodge consists of owners Mark and Sarah Yancey, whose infectious love of Boulder Hut – and the remote lifestyle it entails – is evident from the moment they greet you on the snow-packed heli-pad.
Over the years I’ve acquired all the accoutrements for ski-touring – and on occasion I’ve skinned up from our condo on the Kimberley, BC ski hill – but I had never before toured in the backcountry.
So I was curious when a helicopter touched down at the base of the ski hill on a sunny morning in January. A group of people, ski paraphernalia in tow, was preparing to board. I put down my coffee, stepped off the deck and wandered over. I asked the pilot where they were bound.
“Boulder Hut” he said.
“Where’s that?” I queried.
“Twelve minutes that way,” he said pointing west over Northstar Mountain.
As I ain’t gettin’ no younger, I determined to be on that chopper before the season ended. And so in mid-March I was soaring over our place, watching my wife Florence waving goodbye from our deck. I hoped it was not a permanent farewell.
Moments later we were up and over the Black Forest on the ski hill’s back side.
Then we were into the rugged roadless world of the Purcell Range. We hugged a ridge of wintry peaks, summited Boulder Pass and descended into a broad forested valley. A tiny dot far below soon resolved into Boulder Hut.
After a welcoming lunch and safety briefing we strapped on skins and started our first ascent through the thick forest of old-growth spruce that provides Boulder’s gorgeous back-drop. The conditions were fabulous; a storm had just blown through. Fresh powder and sunny, bluebird conditions greeted us.
Drinking water is drawn directly from a small creek that flows year-round.
Every winter the media warns of avalanche danger in the backcountry. At Boulder Hut safety is paramount. With Mark and alpine guide Brent Peters constantly checking conditions – and leading the way through dicey areas – we felt safe and comfortable. When there was any hint of risk they dug a snow profile to check for stability and to ensure some rogue slab wouldn’t ruin our day.
Boulder Hut is remote, quaint and rustic – guests share an open sleeping cabin. If you forget earplugs (and sleeping pills), your repose may be ruined; exhausted snoring skiers make a hell of a racket.
In the evening guests are responsible for stoking the wood-burning stove. Failure to maintain the fire means for a long cold shivering night. As the only rookie, I was utterly exhausted at the end of each day and slept like a baby – with an assist from earplugs (and a little blue friend).
Drinking water is drawn directly from a small creek that flows year-round. The same stream supplies power via a small hydroelectric plant.
Boulder has no laundry facilities. By the fourth night my ski socks, hanging over the bunk to dry, had taken on a crisp flavourful bouquet – or so my fellow guests noted (I was obliviously comatose).
Boulder’s bathrooms are located al fresco; open A-frame jobbies where one can enjoy a panoramic view of the Purcell Mountains whilst engaging in one’s morning constitutional. A sign planted in the snow announces whether the privy is occupied or available.
At Boulder Hut there is no cellphone coverage or internet. And guests are (gasp) expected to help with the dishes after dinner.
I’ve been to five-star ski lodges where a cat whisks you to the top of the mountain for each run. At Boulder Hut every turn is earned. Mark calculated that we climbed 14,000 feet (4300 meters) during our stay.
Sound like a miserable experience?
I had the time of my life. Mark, Sarah, their kids Grace and Alden, mascot Rosie the Great Pyrenees and my seven fascinating fellow guests made for a fabulous, unique experience.
I’m going back to Boulder this winter – and taking along a few buddies – all rookies.
Now if only I can arrange for a reprise of that fit lady with the water bucket.
Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.
THANKS to these great partners for making this series possible.
Read more of Gerry’s travel stories here.
‘Adventures in Pandemica’ or ‘What I did on my Isolation Vacation’
‘Adventures in Pandemica’ or ‘What I did on my Isolation Vacation’
Our trip to Pandemica was unplanned. It began March 17, 2020, on a sunny St Patrick’s Day. The voyage was short, comfortable and hassle-free. No packing, no suitcases, no plane tickets – and no jetlag. We simply got out of bed and we were there. I wasn’t sure what to expect in this strange land or how long we’d be here, so I acquired a couple of travel books. Fodors Guide to the Living Room has come in handy and Lonely Toilet has been indispensable.
The climate in Pandemica is quite lovely. The weather hovers around room temperature year-round and there’s very little precipitation – with the exception of an occasional morning shower. The sights and sounds are unique, wondrous, spectacular. I never get tired of staring into the refrigerator. There’s something raw and primal about gazing vacantly into an appliance, the barefoot uncombed silence broken only by the perpetual tick of a kitchen clock. Pandemica is a fun, exciting place. Every day brings new adventure, challenges and occasionally, life-defining choices. Should I brush my teeth before or after checking the mailbox? Is that stale-dated yogurt edible or shall I just heave it?
Although not a big place (as vacation spots goes), Pandemica has lots of interesting, undiscovered regions to explore. Don’t be afraid to wander off the beaten path. Move that fridge. Open the hide-a-bed. Look behind the stove. Venture outside your comfort zone. Here you will discover strange sights, ancient artifacts, long-forgotten foodstuffs. And before vacuuming up the primordial grime and decades-old grit, reminisce and enjoy the moment. Take the time to really examine that plastic letter ‘K’ you found under the oven. Time will fly. Before you know it, it’ll be time to stand naked in front of the fridge again.
The view from my armchair is comforting but yesterday, throwing caution to the wind, I snuck out the back door to dump the garbage. I scanned the perimeter for Covid-19 police, then made a dash for the alley. The fresh air on my face was intense and exhilarating – but also unfamiliar and a little unnerving. I looked up at the clear blue sky. There were no contrails. I shuddered involuntarily and scurried back inside to seek comfort from the daily White House briefing.
Often, we sleep in. But one day, it was a Tuesday, maybe a Wednesday, I got up early… and sat on the couch.
Time in sequestration can pass slowly if one doesn’t keep mind honed and body occupied. And since I’m a ‘get things done’ kind of guy, early on I created a to-do list:
- look longingly out window
- observe woman at other end of sofa knitting something
- check corona virus stats
- wander aimlessly from room to room wondering what it was you went in there for
- descend into YouTube wormhole/re-watch Groundhog Month
- stare vacuously into refrigerator
- (repeat above steps as necessary until mind is comfortably numb)
Before you know it the day will be over and it’ll be time for bed. And you can look forward to tomorrow – and another pathetic day executing the same monotonous rituals. But remember, a steadfast routine is what makes life worthwhile, consequential, meaningful.
We borrowed a 1000-piece puzzle from the neighbours. It took forever. Cleaning each chunk before assembly was enormously gratifying and a real time killer.
For moi, self-isolation has ratcheted up the agoraphobia factor a couple of notches. The more I’m confined, the less I’m socially inclined. Humans are an adaptive species – but also remarkably sheep-like. The new awkward requires that, on those rare occasions where we dare step outside to seek provisions, we keep our heads down, move quickly to the other side of the vegetable aisle and, at all costs, avoid eye contact. I’m really enjoying it.
And it’s interesting how quickly we have evolved to accept and adopt strange new mores, such as physical distancing. On the thirteenth straight night of Netflix, I began talking to the television, quietly berating the stars of a ‘90s sitcom. The actors were co-mingled around a coffee table, unabashedly unmasked. I really lost it when they hugged, high-fived and then broke bread together. Disgusted, I switched over to watch Gravity, not my favourite flic, but at least the cast had the decency to wear space suits.
From the heights of my step ladder in the dining room, the vista is stunning. I have an unobstructed look at the neighbour’s garage and a bird’s-eye-view of our entire ceiling. Overcome by this stippled splendor I nearly forgot my purpose atop the ladder. But I was quickly brought back down from my lofty reverie when my wife hollered, ‘Are you or are you not going to remove the dead flies from that light fixture.’
We so enjoyed our trip to Pandemica that we decided to exercise the full two-month extension. And I’m proud to say I’ve now checked off some lifetime bucket-list items: taking down the Christmas lights before June, vacuuming the wood pile, discarding a pair of mis-matched socks, sharpening a drawer full of dull pencils. There’s more but I don’t want to boast about my less sensational achievements.
At the end of week nine we finally caved and invited a couple of friends over for a social-distancing dinner. What with catching up, toasts to the ‘new normal’, etc., it went rather too well and, since no taxis were operating, our friends and their car had an impromptu sleep-over. After breakfast, unwilling to don her previous evening’s formal attire, our lady-friend exited the house barefoot, clad only in a pair of borrowed pajamas. Fortunately, no nosy neighbours were extant. But a murder of crows, blissfully ignorant of their obligation to self-isolate after a winter abroad, were on hand to raucously caw Barb’s ‘walk of shame’ down the driveway.
When this mess is finally over, I’m not sure I want to go back to work. Come to think of it, since I didn’t have a vocation before this compulsory vacation, I’m pretty sure I’m not going back.
“Can you tell me if there’s a good spot to fish around here?”
Fly Fishing Alberta
I remember the first time I played golf. It was a beautiful summer evening. That first shot flew out over the blue Edmonton sky and settled in the middle of the fairway. I was 12 years old and, from that moment on, addicted to golf. My appetite for fly fishing began many years later, but was also sparked by a single, memorable event – when, in a classic example of beginner’s luck, I landed a big brown trout on the Bow River.
Over the last decade I’ve wasted a glorious allotment of life’s brief flicker engaged in this new, perplexing pastime. Fly-fishing, like golf, is a pursuit that involves a litany of painful moments on the steep road toward competency. Unlike golf however, fishing does not entail the agony of a triple-bogey or the humiliation of a whiff. But, like the errant swing of a driver, casting a fly can result in plenty of frustration and some unintended consequences. There are missed fish, tangled lines – even an occasional need for the apologetic retrieval of a barbed hook from the derrière of a fellow fisherman.
There are a few different ways to wet a line. If you have a boat, you can drift a river or float a lake. If not, you can stand on a dock or cast from shore. But best of all is to walk and wade a shallow river. Nothing beats the solitary experience of crisscrossing a remote meandering creek, searching for elusive, rising fish. Plus I get to spend long peaceful hours alone with my favourite person. Haha.
Fly fishermen are notoriously secretive about their favourite fishing spots. One fall evening, at a secluded spot on the Oldman River in southern Alberta, I arrived late and, in the near-dark, set up camp. I wandered over to chat with a couple of well-fed fellows who were sitting contentedly by a campfire, cooking smokies and enjoying a few brews. A pair of hip-waders drying in the setting sun identified them as fly-fishermen.
‘Hi there,’ I said. ‘Can you tell me if there’s a good spot to fish around here?’ ‘
Yup,’ said the more portly of the two, taking a pull from his beer and looking downstream. ‘Just that way a bit. It’s called Zippermouth Creek.’
‘Where?’ I asked excitedly.
He looked at his buddy knowingly, then turning my way, pulled a thumb and index finger across his lips. Then he laughed, took another sip and returned his attention to the roaring fire. I slunk away – rebuffed but undeterred. And in the morning I did indeed hunt down a nice fishing hole. And since then I’ve discovered a few Zippermouth Creeks of my own.
Like every other endeavour, people who are skilled at fly-fishing make it look easy. A lot of time can be saved – and aggravation averted – by watching and imitating the pros. Turns out there are just three parts to the program. First, one must learn to operate a fly rod. Then, you need to figure out where the fish are hiding. Last is to determine what our pesce little friends are eating that day. My buddy Tony has patiently – and somewhat effectively – educated me in these three basic principles. But on occasion, even the master gets fish-schooled. We were drifting the Red Deer River on May 15th, opening day.
Tony was at the oars, scanning the surface, vigilant for signs of rising trout. Suddenly he pointed quietly toward a sunken log: ‘There, a big brown!’ He eased the boat toward shore and silently dropped anchor. Soon the telltale signs of a slurping snout re-emerged. Tony ambled onto the bank, tied on a green drake and, with precision, dropped the fly a few feet upstream of the log. The drift was textbook, directly over where the trout had been feeding. Nothing. Puzzled, he tied on a stonefly pattern and made another perfect cast. Nada. Finally he tried a caddis. Sure enough, the fish struck. But it was foul hooked and easily busted off. Tony, frustrated, gave up and, muttering about ‘dumb fish’, wandered up toward another hole.
I looked in my fly box, pulled out something that looked like a beetle, and tied it on. First cast the monster attacked. I set the hook and, to my utter amazement, the fly was firmly attached to the maw of an enormous brown. I reeled in the line but when the fish saw me – and I it – we both panicked. It set course for the middle of the river and the safety of strong current while I stumbled and fell on the slippery rocks. I regained my footing and after five minutes fighting the brute I called for help: ‘Tony, bring the net!’ But the cascading river drowned out my wails. I’d have to land the beast solo. Which, amazingly, I did, although the fish’s mouth and tail were spilling out the edges of my cheap net. Tony arrived in time to snap a picture, verifying what otherwise would have gone down in history as just another of Gerry’s fictional fish stories.
Do I tie my own flies? Certainly not. I get everything from my dealer, Tony. It starts with a phone call:
G: ‘Hey, Tony, I’m outa green drakes and I need some, real bad.’
T: ‘I ain’t got no green drakes, I can get ya some browns. Maybe.’
G: ‘No, Tony, please I really need the greens.’
T: ‘Ok, ok, calm down. I’ll leave a packet in the rear mailbox. Leave cash. Use the back gate and don’t let nobody see ya.’
G: ‘Thanks Tony, you’re a life saver.’
Then the conversation changes:
G: ‘Oh, Tony, did I mention the big cutthroat I landed at Prairie Creek last week.’
T: ‘No, Gerry. Tell me more. Was it male, female? Any colour?’
G: ‘Golden red. A fat male. 18 inches. Maybe more. With a huge kype.’
T: ‘Oh, Gerry, that is so-o-o exciting! Tell me more.’
I call this 1 (900) FISH TALK. It’s kinda weird. But then, fly fishermen really are fanatical.
These days I spend about as much time casting about as I do strolling fairways – and if I have the choice between fishing and golfing, more and more I’m leaning toward avoiding those nasty three-putts and instead trying to land that big one.
By the way, did I mention that, after hitting that first big drive all those years ago, I duffed three shots in a row?
contact Gerry at [email protected]
Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. We hope you enjoyed his Irish adventure. He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, AB and Kimberley, BC.
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