Story by Gina Begin
The rest of the world may tuck itself indoors as temperatures fall, but not the people of the Kootenays.
This region of British Columbia, belted by a thoroughfare nicknamed “The Powder Highway”, embraces winter weather. The mountains powder themselves in crystalline white while inhabitants — both people and wildlife — bundle up with thicker coats.
But unlike the mammals that burrow as daylight hours wane, Kootenay folks find ways to maximize shorter days and light up the longer nights.
In towns across the Kootenays, you’ll find hardy outdoorsmen and women (and their children) stepping willingly into chilled air with their neighbours. Cheeks red, hands mittened, the season is welcomed with winter carnivals, festivals, and the general shenanigans the Kootenay culture is known for.
Fairmont Hot Springs - Christmas Celebrations - December 24-25
Santa might be busy getting presents to children around the world, but he makes two special appearances in Fairmont on Christmas Eve: at a pancake breakfast with all invited, and at the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort’s torchlight parade and fireworks that evening.
Nearly a thousand people gather in the night to see Santa don his skis and, with dozens of others, carry his torch down a winter slope for the torchlight parade. This event has been taking place for over 30 years, says Rachel Dick, the resort’s marketing coordinator. “It was started by our Ski Area Manager in 1985 — he hasn’t missed one since.”
Those who celebrated through the winter night on Christmas Eve can take the chill off on Christmas day in the town’s hot spring waters; all that’s on the Christmas list for entrance that day is a donation to the local food bank.
Fernie - Griz Days Winter Festival - March 2-4, 2018
Photo Credit: Photographer - Jeff Topham/Tourism Fernie at Fernie's Griz Days
At this festival, you might end up in jail—but that’s a good thing. Each winter, Fernie celebrates mountain town culture, legendary Powder Highway snow, and The Griz who locals say is responsible for their share of snow in the region. “It is a great celebration because it’s very community oriented,” says Jikke Gyorki, executive officer for Tourism Fernie. “Just be sure to pick up a ‘Griz Days’ pin before the Sheriff finds you!”
The pins — and the bail set to get pin-less attendees out of jail — raises money for a local charity each year. Those obediently displaying the Griz pin will find diverse activities to give a try: there’s mountain man-style competitions including sawing, shooting, axe throwing, fire starting, leg wrestling, hockey shoot out, and a pancake eating contest, along with fireworks, rail jams, and plenty more.
“The whole town comes out to celebrate … it’s a great way for visitors to get to know Fernie mountain culture,” says Gyorki. “And the kids love it!”
Golden’s Snow King’s MasqueParade - February 17, 2018
Photo Credit: Photographer - Andy Brown in Golden
Fire moves from ground to sky in this celebration of local creativity and winter. A bonfire is lit as the Snow King and Lady Spring—both giant-sized puppets come to life—move into the town’s ‘Spirit Square’. Fire dancers perform along with other larger-than-life characters who perform skits for the townspeople surrounding the hub. Drumming and music fuels dancing for both performers and spectators, building momentum until a finale of fireworks litters the sky.
If you’re looking for the essence of Golden’s locals, this event is where to find it. “The Snow King’s MasqueParade isn’t an event that was put together for visitors,” says Andy Brown, part of the tourism team for Golden. “It’s put together by people who know what it is like to live in a mountain town and love the lifestyle … this is Golden’s way of celebrating our piece of the mountains and the culture that comes with it.”
Invermere - Snowflake Fest - January 19, 2018
Photo Credit: Photographer - Scott Rowed at Invermere's Whiteway
Need some inspiration to get into the cold? Perhaps cross-country skiing a Guinness World Record trail during Invermere’s winter fest will get you motivated.
“Our [34km groomed trail around Windermere Lake], was recently recognized by Guinness World Records as the longest skating trail,” says town spokesperson Ken Wilder, and many of the events during the Snowflake Festival are centred around this trail and the lake. If you’re needing more than skiing, Ken suggests jumping in a game of snow golf, taking part in the Pond Hockey Championships, or trying out bonspiel on the lake — all key happenings of the Snowflake Fest, part of the town’s 'Winter in Motion' season-long recognition of the season.
After all that action, festival-goers will need refuelling. Lucky for them, the “Taste of the Valley” culinary showcase is also a key part of the day’s festivities.
Nelson’s Winter Carnival & Snowball Aprés - January 20-21, 2018
Photo Credit: Photographer - Gina Begin at Whitewater Ski Resort near Nelson, BC
Hosted at Whitewater Ski Resort, in Nelson, this carnival is all things snow. There’s the local Francophone community that demonstrates making maple taffy in the snow and families roasting marshmallows from their snow seats next to a fire. Sculptors chisel giant blocks of snow into detailed figures of mountain wildlife and folklore characters. Come night, music spills out from the lodge for the Snowball Aprés. Inside, Whitewater’s chefs work up a feast of their famously from-scratch food as townspeople mill in and out, fascinated by a snowscape that’s been transformed with the addition of lanterns, torchlights, and fireworks.
“It’s pretty unique to be at the ski hill at night time with all your neighbours from town,” says local Brent Malysh. “It reminds you how community-focused Nelson is.”
Revelstoke - Alberta Family Day - February 2018 (date TBA)
Photo Credit: Photographer - Ian Houghton at Revelstoke Mountain Resort
British Columbia and Alberta come together to celebrate families at Revelstoke Mountain Resort’s winter celebration. The resort turns out family-friendly ways for visitors from our neighbouring province to enjoy the Powder Highway winter scene. In addition to a torchlight parade, there’s a chance at some friendly competition: showboaters can put their skills up against each other at a DJ-spinning rail jam (and yes, winners do get rewarded). The family festivities are capped with mountain-based fireworks that can be seen from downtown Revelstoke.
“Family Day weekend typically has great snow,” says Dana Ferguson, Revelstoke Mountain Resort sales and marketing coordinator, “so there's no better way to spend the day than skiing with family, followed by … watching fireworks with Mt. Mackenzie as the backdrop.”
Rossland Winter Carnival - January 25-28, 2018
Photo Credit: Photographer - Tourism Rossland/Ryan Flett in Rossland
Started in 1897, this is Canada’s longest-running winter celebration—and, according to the carnival’s present-day organizers, how skiing got its start in Canada. "For nearly 120 years, Rossland’s citizens have gathered with the purpose of going downhill, says local Deanne Steven, “as fast as we can and in as many ways as we can.”
It’s a flurry of frozen H2O: There’s the homemade bobsled comp on a purposely iced-down (and steep) Spokane Street, dump trucks dropping loads of snow onto a second street for snow sliders and rail jams, and beverage bars made of solid ice for those who feel their participation is best lent as an onlooker.
“The vibe is a funky, 'anything goes' party to celebrate any and all ways to have fun on snow,” says Rossland’s Kristi Calder. “Visitors who experience it get pulled right into the full Canadian Ski Town winter experience.”
Cover/top shot by Dave Best.
Gina Begin - Although she’s a Florida girl, exploration called her away after the final bell of her high school career. On a quest to reach the distant adventures of North America, she lived in her car, traveling to ski the backcountry of Alaska, sleep under the northern lights in the Yukon Territory, ice climb Colorado's frozen canyons, photograph Nova Scotia’s coves, backpack in southern US wildernesses and munch on sugared tamarindo in the jungles of Mexico. But after three years living on the road and seeing the many wonders this continent had to offer, she chose the place she knew would fit an explorer looking for a lifetime of wild wonder: British Columbia. Dual citizenship in hand, she settled along the Powder Highway in the Selkirks and is making her home between four walls and deeply wooded mountains.