Photos by Mark Gallup

Every snowboarder has a place they dream about. One day I’m gonna … A spot that, no matter how much it seems you’ve traveled, still eludes you. It’s where the pros who can ride anywhere choose to ride. The only reason you’ve even heard of it is because of the pictures in magazines: Jason Ford, Craig Kelly–they probably hang out there, fly in when the snow’s good.

And it must always be good–at least, judging from the photos. Powder every turn, all season. But powder alone doesn’t make a story. We all know what powder feels like and why it drives our pitiful, self-serving lives in circles. How many different ways can you say it, anyhow?

My board sank, stomach following after it. A deep, singular swath lay quiet in my wake. Drifts of floury smoke settling after the fact with an angular thud, one outside of every turn. A spattering of thuds …

During a good year, that could be anywhere–a little drier in some places, a bit steeper or more stable in others, but powder just the same. It’s an honest pursuit, but the difference between powder days and how you remember them isn’t the snow so much as who you ride with: the late-night ponderings that never leave the room, the little quirks, and all the follies of the last trip together.

“Paul, what does ‘prudent’ mean?”

We swing wide around a Montana corner as I feign control of the rented Taurus. A hundred and ten mph seems like a good way to get to Canada. We twist our necks to check on Jane still asleep in the backseat. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.

By the following afternoon, north of the clear-cuts I thought were ski resorts from the plane, our group is four-fifths assembled on a pock-marked, puddled road; Shannon Melhuse joined Paul Elkins, Jane Mauser, and me in Fernie, B.C. We’re only waiting on locally grown photographer Mark Gallup and the snowcat that’ll take us the nine kilometers up to Island Lake Lodge–miss the scheduled pickup and you’ll be kicking down an extra 150 Canadian to have the cat make a special trip.

Rain-like snow seeps into our clothes as we commune with other will-be catboarders in the staging area–the perfect chance to assess the talent pool for our single friends. Cars filled with skiers begin to file by on their way out, signaling the snowcat’s arrival at the end of the line. Each one slows or stops as it passes, rolls down the window, and tells us how good the riding is: “The best. It’s been snowing for days up there.”

By the third or fourth car, we conclude that the road must loop around–hired help, a marketing scheme–but it doesn’t. There’s not much reason to market a place that already sells out for most of the season; even if you have the money for North America’s priciest snowcat outfit, you’re lucky to get a spot. And if any marketing does exist, it’s certainly not aimed at those of us already waiting in the parking lot, committed and chomping at the bit.

Without a moment to spare, Gallup rolls up in his Suburban. He sports a blue mesh Canadian Police baseball hat that’s supposed to win him favor with the ociffers and carries in his truck everything the rogue snowboarder could need: a six-pack of something cheap and a bed.

It’s hard to distinguish one lodge from another. Cedar logs, stripped and notched, the cracks filled in. The lodge at Island Lake (there really is a lake with an island) isn’t huge–full capacity is only 36 people–but its charm is in its simple function and in knowing that, by staying there, you’re almost guaranteed to be riding powder, eating like a king, and wishing you could stay longer.

Our room is just big enough to be comfortable; we squale quickly over the beds–a bunk and a full–and crack the window an inch per person. Jane and Mark are across the hall.

Early on our first morning, the snowcat climbs through trees layered in thick dreadlocks of moss. The Alpine is hidden from view under blankets of fog. Only here and there do we get a glimpse of the horizon, of the huge rock outcroppings that shape the terrain.

Our morning runs are blower, nothing like the slop of lower elevations. You can’t move through the knee-deep snow without getting a face shot. Face shots without even turning. We ride in trademark non-collision spacing, foraging for our own speed lines and slashes, doing our damnedest to use up every pillowy inch of snow because there won’t be anyone coming after us–it’s the final session of the season at Island Lake. There won’t likely be any more snowstorms either; it’s the graybird’s last yellow-lensed gasp, drowning us in true Canadian form.

Paul and Shannon are big on doing this one move–the “heelside cover-up,” as the pair officially call it. You go into a heelside turn, punch your board sideways into a skid, and throw up as much snow as you can. Then you tuck the board back under your body and make a quick toeside, cutting right through the spray. We’ve all done it, but we don’t all go down the run trying to do just that. Run after run, it’s “heelside cover-up, dude.” Point it to get speed, get covered, point it again.

Whenever I ride with Paul, I always think about his wife. Or rather, I think about what his wife always tells me during our last-minute, pretrip conversations: “Don’t let Paul do anything stupid just because there’s a camera.” She knows him too well, except for the camera thing. Paul is always doing something stupid, camera or not.

But stupid is relative to how good you are. It’s easy to weigh someone else’s action on our own scale, to limit another person because of our own limitations. But Paul has his own ruler to measure by. He never fails to get himself into the most hairball situations, perched here or there, calling us over the radio to come find him.

It’s always exactly the same. What others see as an unmakeable drop, Paul sees as a fun little excursion: for him, getting to the top is usually as much of a problem to solve as where to land.

By the time we find him, he’s bent at the waist, peering over the edge of a cliff while hanging onto a tree branch. His board rests tenuously on exposed roots and rock, a little snow.

Paul and Gallup should work well together, either that or really badly. They both have–well, not a short circuit–more of a built-in scrambler. Say to Paul, “How’s it going?” and you’ll always get back, “Not much.” Ask him, “What’s up?” and it’ll be, “Pretty good.” All the while, Gallup is rattling off these pirate jokes. He asks a question and answers himself talking like a pirate. Imagine these guys on the radios trying to set up a shot.

But it’s gray, and even though the riding’s insane, there’s not much of a hurry to shoot. One black-and-white powder turn looks pretty much the same as the next. And it’s not like the snow is going anywhere.

Whooosh. Maybe it is. Jane sweeps by in a toeside, sending the powder flying against a black-rock backdrop. While Paul was situating himself for his bone-daddy drop, Jane made her way up the bootpack to where the action is.

Jane is at a curious, poetic sort of crossroads in her life, one that her friends can sit back, watch, and learn from. Since the last time we rode, Jane took a job and moved to the (swallow really hard) city. With every turn, she reclaims her legs and her former self from cubicle life. She’s always been a good rider–still is–but probably doesn’t feel like she did when she rode every day.

I suppose we’ve all done it in one way or another– compromised, that is. Only a few of us will make ends meet solely as a pro or sponsored rider. As being free-but-poor loses its luster, we take the best jobs we can, the ones that keep us closest to snowboarding. But it seems we just end up riding less while the reasons we took the job in the first place still escape us. Either way, Jane is here and that’s what counts. Whatever it takes to ride.

As one of the snowcats heads for the hot tub, ours turns up for a final run. It plods methodically above the treeline and into the Alpine terrain–open fields and faces of powder. Sucker holes come and go, occasionally adding contrast to an otherwise definition-free zone; we’re glued to the windows. The sun opens the mountains like a storybook: that’s where so-and-so ducked under an avalanche; that little tree stopped so-and-so from falling; over there is where we’re going.

We hike along the windward side of a ridge on a run called Tua Time; all the names have a story behind them if you ask the guides, but most of them aren’t printable. To our right, a growling cornice is formed over a cliff too big to survive. On the left, the open face falls away at around 40 degrees for 500 or 600 feet. As we make our way across the top of the run, a shallow-but-fast few inches let go, zippering below our feet. The top layer peels off the entire face and settles in a gentle terrain trap at the bottom. With that out of the way, there are two lines to choose from: one to either side of a spine of trees.

Shannon readies to drop, ski-cuts the top of the line to see if anything else will go, and stakes his claim to the rider’s left-hand side of the face.

Shannon’s turns scream a steady arc down the stable under-layer as you’d expect from a rider with his experience. They have the usual symmetrical flow, but something’s subtly different. It’s like when someone has a beard or goatee for a long time and then they shave it; you know something’s changed, but it’s hard to pinpoint what.

As long as I’ve known him, Shannon has worn hard boots. When we’d travel somewhere, I’d ask, “Are you going to bring your freeriding stuff?” implying soft boots.

He’d always just answer, “I’m going to bring my boots,” meaning his hard boots were his only boots–freeriding, racing, whatever. Freeriding is not a boot.

But now Shannon’s in softies. Well, step-ins. How soft they are, I’m not sure. It’s not such a big deal, and the change obviously doesn’t have too much effect on his riding. I see it more as a shift in priorities: no more gate-training. His next race will be one against friends for fresh tracks.

At the bottom of the face, we regroup for the ride down to the lodge, still a couple-thousand vertical feet away. It’s powder-riding abandon, and sometimes we violate the rules of non-collision spacing just to send up a spray. We roll into the lodge at 5:30. It’s still only the first of three days.

Dinner comes and goes, and we’re too tired to jot our names in the ever-tempting red book–the massage registry. After three days of riding this much, and riding this much powder, it’s easier to accept the idea of the graybird giving way to bluer skies.

Day two holds much of the same: again, how many ways can you say it? It’s still snowing up high in the Alpine. On the lower slopes, wet slides curl up into snowballs like giant Flintstone cinnamon rolls, and every now and then Gallup yells out something about having your babies when you hit the right spot or rip a line.

Each morning in the boy’s room, we groggily share the dreams we had the night before, the;still is–but probably doesn’t feel like she did when she rode every day.

I suppose we’ve all done it in one way or another– compromised, that is. Only a few of us will make ends meet solely as a pro or sponsored rider. As being free-but-poor loses its luster, we take the best jobs we can, the ones that keep us closest to snowboarding. But it seems we just end up riding less while the reasons we took the job in the first place still escape us. Either way, Jane is here and that’s what counts. Whatever it takes to ride.

As one of the snowcats heads for the hot tub, ours turns up for a final run. It plods methodically above the treeline and into the Alpine terrain–open fields and faces of powder. Sucker holes come and go, occasionally adding contrast to an otherwise definition-free zone; we’re glued to the windows. The sun opens the mountains like a storybook: that’s where so-and-so ducked under an avalanche; that little tree stopped so-and-so from falling; over there is where we’re going.

We hike along the windward side of a ridge on a run called Tua Time; all the names have a story behind them if you ask the guides, but most of them aren’t printable. To our right, a growling cornice is formed over a cliff too big to survive. On the left, the open face falls away at around 40 degrees for 500 or 600 feet. As we make our way across the top of the run, a shallow-but-fast few inches let go, zippering below our feet. The top layer peels off the entire face and settles in a gentle terrain trap at the bottom. With that out of the way, there are two lines to choose from: one to either side of a spine of trees.

Shannon readies to drop, ski-cuts the top of the line to see if anything else will go, and stakes his claim to the rider’s left-hand side of the face.

Shannon’s turns scream a steady arc down the stable under-layer as you’d expect from a rider with his experience. They have the usual symmetrical flow, but something’s subtly different. It’s like when someone has a beard or goatee for a long time and then they shave it; you know something’s changed, but it’s hard to pinpoint what.

As long as I’ve known him, Shannon has worn hard boots. When we’d travel somewhere, I’d ask, “Are you going to bring your freeriding stuff?” implying soft boots.

He’d always just answer, “I’m going to bring my boots,” meaning his hard boots were his only boots–freeriding, racing, whatever. Freeriding is not a boot.

But now Shannon’s in softies. Well, step-ins. How soft they are, I’m not sure. It’s not such a big deal, and the change obviously doesn’t have too much effect on his riding. I see it more as a shift in priorities: no more gate-training. His next race will be one against friends for fresh tracks.

At the bottom of the face, we regroup for the ride down to the lodge, still a couple-thousand vertical feet away. It’s powder-riding abandon, and sometimes we violate the rules of non-collision spacing just to send up a spray. We roll into the lodge at 5:30. It’s still only the first of three days.

Dinner comes and goes, and we’re too tired to jot our names in the ever-tempting red book–the massage registry. After three days of riding this much, and riding this much powder, it’s easier to accept the idea of the graybird giving way to bluer skies.

Day two holds much of the same: again, how many ways can you say it? It’s still snowing up high in the Alpine. On the lower slopes, wet slides curl up into snowballs like giant Flintstone cinnamon rolls, and every now and then Gallup yells out something about having your babies when you hit the right spot or rip a line.

Each morning in the boy’s room, we groggily share the dreams we had the night before, the stuff stories are made of. And at night–Gallup’s guitar strumming through the cedar walls–we consciously try to embed dreams into our heads. We set up certain scenarios, hoping they’ll come to life when we fall asleep. Can you control your dreams?

In the morning, on the third day of riding powder with my friends, I realize you can.

Thanks to the favorable exchange rate, Canada’s a bargain for Americans, but Island Lake Lodge would be a value if the exchange rate was one-to-one. Unbeatable! You’ll definitely get your fill of riding, great food, and good times–if you can get a spot. Call early: (250) 423-3700. We flew into Kalispell, Montana and rented a car there. Make your trip a week-long stay by riding Big Mountain and Fernie, too.

the stuff stories are made of. And at night–Gallup’s guitar strumming through the cedar walls–we consciously try to embed dreams into our heads. We set up certain scenarios, hoping they’ll come to life when we fall asleep. Can you control your dreams?

In the morning, on the third day of riding powder with my friends, I realize you can.

Thanks to the favorable exchange rate, Canada’s a bargain for Americans, but Island Lake Lodge would be a value if the exchange rate was one-to-one. Unbeatable! You’ll definitely get your fill of riding, great food, and good times–if you can get a spot. Call early: (250) 423-3700. We flew into Kalispell, Montana and rented a car there. Make your trip a week-long stay by riding Big Mountain and Fernie, too.