The Tyee: How to Save One of BC’s Last, Great Co-op Ski Hills

This article was originally published in the Tyee, where I recommend reading it. It’s prettier there.

Getting up the long logging road that leads to Mount Cain requires tire chains. I should know: I have spent hours digging myself out of the high snow banks that flank the road that takes skiers and snowboarders up every Saturday and down every Sunday.

The snow banks are Campbell Wilson’s fault. A Cain local, Wilson and a few dedicated volunteers run a giant, insectine machine along the 14-kilometres of road to keep it passable even during the powder-iest of powder days.

Wilson, though, is worried about his machine. If the grader breaks down, then people can’t get up the mountain, which could mean the loss of tens of thousands of dollars in ticket sales. It’s not the sort of make or break issue volunteers usually have to think about. But Cain is one of two community-run ski hills in B.C. and the only hill in the province responsible for its own road. Which means that every time Campbell Wilson coaxes the grader to life, Mount Cain’s somewhat eccentric but charming experiment in operating a co-operative ski run manages to live for another day.

Photo by Leif Zapf-Gilje
Photo by Leif Zapf-Gilje

It takes a mountain

Just as Mount Cain can’t afford to replace its grader, B.C. can’t afford to lose Mount Cain. The ski hill, an hour and a half northwest of Campbell River, is a rare vestige of what communities used to be, a village that really does raise the child. It’s not uncommon to see one parent shepherding half a dozen children around the hill while the rest of the parents go for a backcountry run, or an unrelated adult scolding a pack of feral snowboarders.

The skiing is at once central to the community and almost incidental. Skiing brings the community together, but the community is what makes the skiing possible. As a volunteer-run hill, Mount Cain would not exist without donated time. It’s a gift economy run on goodwill, social standing, and, most importantly, necessity.

In 2009, when I first arrived at Mount Cain as a volunteer ski patroller, Helen Brown was running the groomer while her husband, Casey, was the first person to be called to fix a broken-down T-bar or a generator that wasn’t generating. The two were constantly on call, and had been for years. It wasn’t exactly a thankless job –- thanks are easy to come by at Cain -– but it was time-consuming for volunteer work. Helen’s and Casey’s had become the first names you would hear on the radio in the morning, and the lights on Helen’s groomer would burn late into the night.

In 2010, Helen and Casey Brown sold their cabin at Mount Cain, bought an RV, and went on a ski trip through the Rockies. The weight of the mountain had started to lean on them too much, and the Browns needed a break. For a mountain that depends on volunteers to open every morning, the loss of two such Atlases hit hard. But the mountain’s remaining volunteers, and some new ones, pitched in and Cain pulled through.

In a province dominated by large urban centres where community is losing out in favour of commercialism, Mount Cain is a model of a different way of thinking. Its low-profit business model makes the community vulnerable to stochastic events. If the mountain is a symbol of the old ways clashing with the new, then this narrative hinges on the grader.

Land leases have been the saving grace of the mountain’s finances. The Alpine Park Society sold leases every four years to the lucky winners of a lottery. Prospective cabin owners put in a $5,000 deposit, which would go towards their $40,000 lease if their name were drawn; the mountain pocketed this revenue and spent it carefully. Meanwhile, cabin owners did not actually own the land on which their cabins were built, but had a collective agreement with the province through the mountain.

After years of relative plenty, with the proceeds of land leases padding the books and allowing the leverage needed to get grants for infrastructure investments (like a new workshop and lodge), that revenue stream has recently been diverted. Because of a new land use agreement, proceeds from new leases will go to the province rather than the mountain.

That’s a big reason why  Mount Cain’s grader just has to keep working.

Pretty desperate

Wendy Knudson wears the worried look of a matriarch presiding on the brink of chaos. She is Cain’s bookkeeper and a skier’s mother, and the mountain is rife with hazards to both jobs. In 2004, due to a bad snow year, the mountain came close to shutting down, and only loans from locals like Knudson and her partner, Bob Romanow, kept it alive.

Knudson has seen trouble at the mountain, and she sees more trouble in its future.

“We don’t have debt because we had those cabins that we sold. That’s the last — when that’s gone, we’re back to paying $1,000 each if we don’t have enough money [like in 2004-2005]. It was pretty desperate.”

Sitting in the small office above the ticket booth, she scrolls through her records, reading out last year’s expenses. Twenty-five thousand dollars in repairs for the grader. Twenty-three thousand in road widening. Forty-eight thousand in gas. Altogether, the annual costs for the road alone approach $100,000. For a mountain selling just short of $200,000 in lift passes per year, this is not an expense the mountain takes lightly.

Stuart Abernethy is a serious, hardworking contractor. He is also vice president of the board of directors at Mount Cain. On Christmas Eve, Abernethy took me on a snowmobile ride down the logging road. Boxing Day is one of the most important days for the mountain, and the road had to be in top shape, so Abernethy wanted to check on progress. A few minutes down, we met Lance Karsten, a small man with a huge presence on the mountain. As a skilled carpenter, Karsten built many of the cabins at Cain and helps maintain the public buildings as well. Christmas Eve found him running the D8, a powerful, hulking machine that helps the grader with raw pushing power.

A little further down the road, original Mount Cain local John Rainbow was urging the grader down the shoulder to widen it in anticipation of heavy traffic. In an ordinary business, senior partners step back as they gain rank and influence. At this mountain, seniority means spending Christmas Eve halfway down a logging road pushing snow.

“Cain sucks, tell your friends”

Mount Cain has conflicting priorities for how to move forward. Some locals, referred to as the “draw-bridgers,” want to see the mountain stay small, largely unknown, and, quite likely, unprofitable. These are the people who heckled a former board member, semi-retired tugboat captain Peter Knott, until he stepped down in frustration in 2011. His crime: developing and updating a website for the mountain that was blamed for drawing large crowds.

“We have three or four days a year when we have a lineup, and people are bitching because they can’t ski right on to the t-bar,” Knott recalls. “But those were $20,000 days. Those days are what make the coffer. We need those banner days to survive.”

The result of the tension between the draw-bridgers and the more pragmatic locals is a bumper sticker young local Sonia Nicholl printed last year: “Cain sucks, tell your friends.” Nicholl was summarizing the attitude of many who have been fortunate enough to discover the mountain. While they understand that new people need to be brought in to keep it alive, they advertise reluctantly and ironically.

The draw-bridgers understand what makes the mountain special, even if they know little about what keeps it viable. It is hard to argue that a lot of the mountain’s charm comes from being able to ski directly on to an empty t-bar on a perfect powder day, or from knowing every face at the top of the hill. It’s a magic that can’t be found at a large commercial resort, and it goes hand-in-hand with the other thing that makes the place special, the volunteerism. Without the visibility that comes with being part of a small community, the subtle social incentives to pitch in could evaporate.

A long road

The community is about to get larger, and it could be the next step in keeping the mountain alive. Last year, a new road was built. It was the start of a new development, a plan to build five new cabins – but this development is independent of the Mount Cain Alpine Park Society. The ‘Namgis First Nation has established a land claim in the park, directly adjacent to the borders of the ski area.

Doug Aberley is the treaty coordinator for the ‘Namgis. He first met with the mountain several years ago to talk about what has now become the new development.

“The ‘Namgis have a policy of wanting to be involved with any economic development within the territory,” he said. “We approached the government and had quite a good negotiation with the park society.”

The ten hectares of proposed treaty settlement land could mean a big change for the mountain: for the first time since Mount Cain’s t-bars started turning, a new partner has entered the arena. It’s a partner that can help in many ways. First, the new cabins mean more people can access the ski hill, and it means that the pool of volunteers might have just widened. But most importantly, the ‘Namgis bring a new and powerful voice to the table to negotiate with the province over who should be responsible for the road.

“The Namgis First Nation has offered to cooperate with Mount Cain and registered in a lobby that would see the road become a gazetted part of the highway system,” says Aberley. For a road to be “gazetted,” in legal terms, means that it has passed into public ownership. It means that the province would be responsible for clearing the road, which in turn means that the grader, and Wilson and his volunteer team, can get some rest. It would be one less Damoclean liability hanging over the head of the community.

Things are progressing slowly among the five groups involved – Western Forest Products, which owns the road; the ‘Namgis; the Mount Cain Alpine Park Society; Mount Waddington Regional District; and the province – have yet to come to the table together and decide on a new arrangement.

To Aberley, it seems like a simple decision that would benefit the whole region. “If we’re to compete up here with logging and other industries, we need to have amenities,” he says. “It’s only the same deal they’ve offered every other ski hill in the province.”

“It’s just going to take political pressure,” he says.

Stuart Abernethy has put his money where his heart lies. One year  he chipped in $5,000 himself to keep the mountain going.

That kind of love that the locals at Mount Cain feel for their community is what allows it to keep running. Early mornings shoveling the lift lines, late nights grooming runs, whole weeks spent organizing fundraisers and events, lost ski days fixing machinery, and long hikes through deep snow up the logging road to get the grader started are all done out of that same love.

Even overworked volunteers Helen and Casey Brown still spend time at Mount Cain. Their daughter, Megan, grew up at the mountain, and got engaged on its slopes this winter; their son, Lucas, has meanwhile become one of the primary groomer operators. For a family that has grown up at the mountain, losing it entirely would be unthinkable.

Cain is expecting more than 20 centimeters of fresh snow on its 4.5 metre base this weekend, and around 200 people are likely to head up the road to ski and board in the plush powder. Let’s hope Campbell Wilson can get the grader to work one more time. But if this unique community is to survive, the mountain and its new partners the ‘Namgis may have to convince the provincial government that it is worth saving.

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