Past present: Thrill of the hill
I realized it was a mistake as soon as I looked down: the slope transformed suddenly into a vertical field of moguls. I slid a glance at my daughter standing next to me, and her brave face and wobbly stance nearly did me in. She was on downhill skis for the first time in her nine years on the planet. I had made a mistake—many mistakes, in fact—and the bumps in front of us were just one.
My first mistake was ever bothering to ski anywhere but northern BC. I grew up in Fort St. James, a short drive from Murray Ridge Ski area, and I realized, one miserable, slushy, wet day on Blackcomb, how lucky I’d been. No glacier in the Austrian Alps, no world-class tourist bonanza like Whistler or Blackcomb, no northern Washington, Southern Rockies, or New-Zealand-volcano ski hill compares to the world’s longest T-bar and the steeps that waited for me back home. Give me Shames or Powder King! Give me easy, breezy Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers!
I learned to ski when I was about five, in the early ’80s, back when children were allowed to roam free. Early in the morning on Sundays in February my parents let us loose at the lift, saying “See you at four!” Come the end of the day we’d straggle back to the van, exhausted and wet and totally satisfied. My little brother and I were kamikaze rockets, hellions in the gullies. He was so fast at age four! We were pole-less, snowplowing demons, never bothering with the top half of the mountain, hopping off the lift no higher than tower 8, bee-lining for the jumps and the trees beyond that. I landed upside down in a tree well once that took us 45 minutes to dig me out of. There were plenty of things we didn’t tell my parents, but what they did know was that for $10 per child in lift tickets they were offering us our own private wilderness, the equipment to explore it, and the freedom to test our limits.
When my kids were four and six, I was amazed that my parents had been so confident in us (were they crazy?) There was no way I would let my baby hooligans loose on even a half-acre of snowy wilderness. I feared adult predators, accidents, snowsuits caught on ski lifts hauling them to their deaths—all things that never occurred to me as a child. Also, there was no way we could afford lift tickets and equipment when the kids were small. Skiing and snowboarding seemed a thing of the past, accessible only to the childless or the wealthy.
Instead, we learned to cross-country ski. I was amazed at how the children took to it and was always a little tender-hearted toward what I perceived to be their naivety; they had no idea what they were missing on the slopes. And look at the little buggers, with their heels free, trying out that little dip in the trail!
We have roamed farther in winter landscapes than I ever imagined possible since the December we shelled out for cross-country ski equipment. We ski to remote lakes and ice-fish; we follow logging roads; we head off onto frozen lakes to see the winter versions of what our summery canoe-faring selves see. My kids have a wider winter world than I did, and lots of experience on cross-country gear with difficult terrain and weather. But still I felt we were denying them a basic childhood right: we needed to teach them to really ski.
We bought day passes to the Ridge last December. We rented gear and suited up. We stood at the bottom of the bunny hill and explained the finer points of the rope tow. The kids clomped about awkwardly in their stiff boots and fixed bindings, but they were willing. We navigated one run on the bunny hill successfully and then another, but I could feel those gullies calling. I kept glancing up at the slopes; it was a bluebird day, with no one in the lift line at all.
“Let’s try the T-bar,” I said. My husband looked at me doubtfully, but the kids were game.
It was awkward, but we made it up to the top. We waved goodbye to the boys as they skied off on a different run, and my daughter and I made our way to my old favourite run. That was a mistake—it turns out the run that was your childhood favourite may not actually be the best first run for a newbie!
But despite the tumbles, and strenuously wrenching herself upright every few minutes, my daughter soldiered on. An hour later, still on our first run, she expressed her first doubts at the top of the moguls.
Me: “Well, yeah, I guess it’s a bit steep.”
Both of us stared at the hill. Her knees actually shook from fatigue.
Her: “I guess we can’t go back up, so we’ll have to go down.”
That’s my girl! It was painful and slow, and not a great way to encourage love of a sport in a child—by letting my six-year-old self take the reins of choice—but we gingerly made our way to the bottom of the hill, arriving at the top of the bunny hill just as her brother hopped off the lift.
“We thought you were dead!” he shouted, grinning at us.
“Where were you?” my husband asked.
Memory lane, I could have answered. But instead I just shook my head, thrilled, as my kids zoomed off together down the bunny hill, my daughter no worse for wear, the two of them shades of me and my brother in our ski-demon days, free in the wilds of a northern BC ski hill.