Classic skiing at Canada’s SilverStar Mountain Resort
written by Kevin Max
Cross the Canadian border in Eastern Washington at Oroville and head north up the Okanagan Highway and, after 125 miles, you’ll reach SilverStar Mountain Resort, a ski village in British Columbia’s Monashee Mountains with the feel of a European getaway in the Alps.
It’s here that I’ve spent a relaxing week of work and play each of the past two winters. Though it’s a ten-hour drive from Bend, I would consider making the trip even if there were no snow and no skiing—just for the change of pace.
With 3,282 skiable acres, SilverStar is billed as B.C.’s third largest ski resort, following nearby Sun Peaks resort (4,270 skiable acres) and Whistler (4,757 skiable acres). For measure in the lower Pacific Northwest, Mt. Baker registers 1,000 skiable acres, Stevens Pass 1,125 acres and Mt. Bachelor comes in at 4,318.
The skiable acres at SilverStar that I’m most interested in are those that comprise the 105-plus kilometers of the Nordic trail network. For the past two years, we’ve shared a condo just above the village so we can drop down daily and along one of the Nordic arteries. Our Nordic-skiing, fat-tire biking friends found this place—a three-floor, three-bedroom space with a good kitchen, a soft living room and a hot tub—and asked us to join two years ago.
On the first morning and after a long drive, I tried to shock my system with a long ski and sustained climbing. The starting elevation in the village is 5,280 feet. Those who are used to living and skiing at sea level will feel the effects of altitude immediately. Though I live at 3,500 feet and ski at 6,000 feet, I could feel the lightness of breath from exhilaration, from height and from excitement as I kicked up Paradise trail toward the summit of SilverStar on a 1,000-foot climb. From there, I dropped down over the back on a loop of Comin’ Round the Mountain. On a spur from this loop is Lars Taylor Way, which ties into the Nordic mecca of Sovereign Lake. I thought I’d wait ‘til tomorrow to hit Sovereign Lake.
Since the early 1980s, when Vermonter and first and only U.S. men’s Nordic Olympic medalist Bill Koch popularized the new style of skate skiing, cross-country skiing has taken on two forms—the new form that resembles duck-footed ice skating where the skis are turned outward at an angle, and the traditional form of kick-and-glide classic skiing in which you glide along set parallel tracks. I warn you in advance, I’m a huge proponent of the classic technique, so much so that friends long stopped asking me to skate ski with them.
Hockey players, I’m told, make good golfers but maybe not skate skiers. Having grown up playing hockey, I equate skate skiing with the power-building drill of pushing your teammate across the ice while he faces you and resists. It seemed like too much work then. While it offers the appearance of skating on snow, skate skiing doesn’t have the same release valve as smashing your padded opponent into a retaining wall. My fellow lean Lycra-clads pursue a more passive form of aggression measured in kilometers.
Classic skiing, on the other hand, is zen on snow. The motion is as smooth and as natural as Usain Bolt dashing down the track. The hips, legs and arms are in tacit agreement of co-efficiency, creating a state that drives equal and opposite reaction. While others are skating off in perverse angles, I’m connecting the shortest distance between two points on a narrow, straight path.
There must be something about symmetry that appeals to me. Leonardo da Vinci put his image of the perfect human body inside a circle and a square, casting symmetry as beauty and perfection in his homage to ancient Greek architect Marcus Vitruvius. (“I’m talking about classical proportions, perfect symmetry and ideal conditioning,” Vitruvius may have said.) Though no sober mind, nor that of my elite-skiing, analytical and critical wife, would conflate my form with perfection, symmetry and its companions—zen and happiness—are lifelong pursuits of the classic school. Speed, my wife would argue, is a much more distant cousin.
Symmetry, nonetheless, is a liquid state that takes the shape of its container. After two hours, my container was less symmetrical, and I could feel the slosh of things throwing me off balance. Hot tubs are a good way to re-center.
SilverStar Mountain Resort: more than skiing
Of course, SilverStar is more than a vast platform for cross-country skiing. Its eleven lifts serve 132 marked runs from beginner to expert. Freestyle skiers and snowboarders can hone their tricks in a terrain park. An outdoor skating rink on Brewers Pond brings out hockey players and recreational skaters.
The village of SilverStar has 5,600 pillows throughout its nine hotels and lodges, and eighteen food and beverage venues and multiple retail and rental shops. My favorite is Bugaboos Bakery Café, a strudel-lover’s lair from Dutch-born baker Frank Berkers. In the air, the scents of cinnamon, chocolate and coffee mix with spoken accents of French, Dutch, Australian, German and Canadian.
On any given day, I can easily spend four hours at Bugaboos working, partaking of pastry, drinking end-to-end Americanos and listening to the banter of non-Americanos.
For two years in a row, we’ve stumbled into The Red Antler for dinner on Wednesday’s half-price wing night. This is a sooey call to all of the resort’s workers, so go early and leave early. The Red Antler has good Canadian pub grub that includes poutine and a lamb burger along with local meats and cheeses. The local beer isn’t quite on par with the craftsmanship of Washington and Oregon, but it’s on its way.
The people of Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre take their cross-country skiing and biathlon seriously. With 105 kilometers of trails and a communal lodge at its center, Sovereign is known as the largest continuously groomed network of trails in Canada. The lodge has restrooms, a fire stove and tables for eating lunch. Out back is the ski stadium, a large clearing where races start and finish. Not far from the parking lot is a biathlon target area. I can spend days on Sovereign’s meticulous groomers and ski until my symmetry wanes with the falling sun.
Each March, Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre hosts a 30k freestyle loppet race for the recreational competitive skier. The so-called loppet series comes from the Worldloppet Ski Federation, which promotes long-distance Nordic ski races around the world. My wife, Sarah, has done many from Germany and Switzerland to Sweden and Wisconsin. I once flailed 50k through the Konig Ludwig worldloppet into Oberammergau, Germany, sight-skiing my way to an unremarkable finish. Sovereign’s 30k race now sounds
Nothing called a getaway is easy to get to. The small Kelowna airport is an hour southwest of SilverStar, with two major airlines of Air Canada and Alaska Airlines (and a handful of locals) in service. Alaska Airlines flies daily from Seattle to Kelowna with a quick one-hour flight. Air Canada has flights from Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver.
Most visitors will drive in from around the Pacific Northwest. Driving has its perks, too. The town of Vernon, just 15 miles southwest of SilverStar, is home to a fantastic German deli, Helmut’s Sausage Kitchen. Herein lie dozens of mustards, homemade sausage with creative combinations like cranberry turkey sausage, and to-go sandwiches for the drive made of schnitzel and bratwurst.
If possible, whether coming or going, drive the beautiful Okanagan Valley during daylight hours. More than 200 wineries span 100 miles of this terroir along the long tendril of the winsome Okanagan Lake, created by the snow melt from the surrounding Monashee Mountains. Wines from this region had once been synonymous with ice wine, but increasingly are known for its newer varietals including the German Riesling and Gewurztraminer as well as warmer varietals such as Sangiovese and Tempranillo. Not without patina, Okanagan’s first vines were planted in 1859 by a French priest who grew grapes for the church’s sacramental wine.
Ski, bakery, work, dine, drink good wine—this is the menu of life up the Okanagan Valley and into SilverStar. It’s the symmetry of work, play and recreation in equal parts in this remote corner that brings out the best in human nature and patiently awaits our return next winter.