Life Travel

British Columbia

Kootenay Rockies a little piece of heaven

By Tracy McLaughlin, Special to Postmedia Network

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TAMARACK TRAIL, B.C. -- You can almost hear angels sing as you climb any summit on trails near the resort town of Fernie in the Kootenay Mountains.

The mountain trails switch from cool paths through old growth forests to craggy rock-ways through deep soft snow and finally to lookout points, where blue snowcapped mountains take your breath away.

"Helloooooooo!" mountain guide Mike McPhee shouts. McPhee works at the rustic Island Lake Lodge, which now looks like a tiny speck in the green forest far below.

His cheerful hello is not to greet his hiking group; it's to scare off grizzly bears along the way. He shouts the loud greeting often. Recently, there have been 12 grizzly bears spotted in the area, as well as a family of mom and baby moose.

McPhee points to large clear grizzly paw tracks in the soft mountain snow. The avid hiker and snowboarder has only seen a few grizzlies from a distance in his mountain career.

"What did you do?" his hikers ask breathlessly, waiting for a scary punch line.

"You back away slowly," he says, casually. "They usually don't want to be around people anymore than we want to be around them."

Despite the size of its footprint and protruding claws, danger from grizzlies is remote compared to the risks most of us take each day on busy highways filled with potentially deadly hunks of racing metal.

There is something fun about hiking in deep snow while it is warm enough to wear a tank top. The looming giant cedars, whose trunks take three people to encircle, look like a scene from Little Red Riding Hood.

For hikers who want the wonder and rush of a mountain summit, the Tamarack trail is a moderately difficult 8 km hike through Rocky Mountain rain forest with a viewpoint halfway up that shows a dramatic vista of mountains rising 2,438 metres into the sky. Not too hard, but sturdy hiking boots, a water bottle and a few pauses are a must.

"It's stupid-pretty, says Tom Ryan, a photographer and our escort from Tourism British Columbia, as he snaps his Nikon at the spectacular view.

Across the sky we can see the ski bowls on Mt. Baldy, where some of the world's best glade and cat skiing can be found.

Heading back down the trail, the thirsty hikers stop at Island Lake Lodge, where we sit on an outside deck surrounded by mountains, and enjoy freshly made lemonade with a sprinkle of lavender and grilled bison-burgers from a local farm.

The cabins at Island Lake Lodge sit in the centre of 2,832 hectares of private wilderness. In summer, its a bumpy ride up a winding gravel road to the resort; in winter the only way in is by snowcat or snowmobile. There are no televisions but there is a golf course, and some of the best dry fly fishing in the world along the Elk River. Fernie -- where there are no traffic lights, and where children run in and out of quaint shops to say hello to their parents, is just 20 minutes away.

As we gaze out at the mountains and an aqua green lake, some of us (not all) are disappointed we didn't get to see the majestic grizzly (from a distance). But almost as a peace offering from mother nature, a gigantic Bald Eagle leaves its perch in a tall tree to soar over us.

The way of the Crowsnest

Road-tripping through the Rocky Mountains along this province's highways and back-roads is a story-book adventure.

It's not complicated -- just pick up a B.C. Rockies map and pick a route along Hwy. 3, known as the Crowsnest Highway.

The two-lane black-top meanders through spectacular white-capped mountains, where glacial streams trickle or cascade down rock-faces and bighorn mountain sheep roam free. Along the way you'll pass cozy looking B&Bs, picnic spots and campgrounds.

Just 20 minutes from the town of Creston, down a quaint dirt road, stop in for a visit at the Kootenay Alpine Cheese farm. The smell of fresh hay permeates the air around the family run farm, which is surrounded by 40 hectares of green pastures and mountains beyond.

"Our cows are well-loved here," says Nadine Harris, a rosy-cheeked university business graduate who returned home to help Mom and Dad run the farm with her sister and bother. The entire family is up by 3 a.m. each day to start work.

Behind her, cows roam in fresh fields. Playful little calves race around while bossy Meg, the Border-Collie, runs in and out between their legs, keeping every cow in order. Meg later brings them in for milking.

There are no heaps of manure or mud, and no silage feed. The cows graze naturally and are changed to fresh pastures every 12 hours, which boosts their immune systems. Kootenay Alpine Cheese is not pasturized, and no additives or chemicals are used in production. The farm's recipes use raw, organic cows milk, and over-heating the cheese doesn't make sense, Harris says.

"With pasteurization you are boiling all the good bacteria out. Then you have to add bacteria. Here we keep all the naturally good bacteria."

The best way to serve cheese is at room temperature, "just like chocolate," she says, as she offers a platter of samples of her favourite Alpindon cheese. The nutty- flavoured cheese is hand-rubbed and aged in caves, following the centuries old traditions of cheese-makers in the French Alps.

Back on Hwy. 3, we pass cherry and peach orchards en route to a couple of wineries.

At Baillie-Grohaman Winery, the grapes are hand-picked and you can purchase award-winning craft wine to go with the cheese.

Next door -- in the shadow of the Skimmerhorn Mountains -- is the small family run Skimmerhorn Winery and Vineyard. Visitors can stay for lunch at the bistro, which has views of the vineyard and is reminiscent of a remote village in France or Italy, but with the white-capped Rockies beyond.

The charming and hard-working owners, Al and Marlene Hoag, toil in the vineyards as well as the gardens, where fresh vegetables and herbs are grown for the chef.

"People thought we were crazy to start a winery in the mountains but we pulled it off and proved them wrong," Al says, adding that his winemaker, who is from New Zealand, had a hunch conditions would be favourable.

The cool mountain climate turned out to be just right for Skimmerhorn's award-winning wines. Their favourites are the gold-medal red Marechal Foch and a white Autumn Trist, sold throughout the region.

Wine-tasting and tours are offered weekends June through September. Bookings aren't required, but reservations are strongly suggested for the bistro.

NEED TO KNOW

For more on the Tamarack Trail area, check tourismfernie.com and islandlakecatskiing.com. For details on the road trip, check out kootenayalpinecheese.com, bailiegrohman.com, skimmerhorn.ca. For information on all aspects of travel in British Columbia, visit Tourism B.C. at hellobc.com.


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