It isn’t easy keeping your hip mountain town a secret when everyone keeps talking about it. Though surrounded by a palisade of peaks, Fernie has been invaded by laptop-toting media types (not unlike ourselves) eager to extol its delights to the world.
Rolling Stone dubbed it the “Coolest Town in North America,” and Outside ranked it among its “Top 20 Dream Towns.” Journalists from Condé Nast Traveler and National Geographic Adventure have trooped through, each singing Fernie’s praises, along with powder fiends from all the top ski magazines.
The city of 5,000 in the Rockies’ Elk River valley is now famous for the volumes of feather-light powder snow that fall on its local mountains. And while some 300,000 visitors may crowd into town each winter—most stampeding to the slopes at Fernie Alpine Resort in the Lizard Range—it’s positively peaceful on Fernie’s historic streets compared to Whistler, where some 920,000 winter guests surge through the village.
Ten years ago, many residents of this once solidly blue-collar town dreaded large-scale tourism development, believing it would irrevocably alter their community. But while there has been change, it has not come at the cost of Fernie’s amiable small-town character.
“It’s all positive,” says Heiko Socher, 75, a retired forester and ski-hill developer with 40 years in the town. “Fernie hasn’t grown very rapidly. People thought it would be a second Whistler. That never happened.”
Coal mining, on which the town was founded at the turn of the century, still employs some 50 percent of the locals. But a new, more Bohemian class is growing, opening and frequenting coffeehouses, specialty shops, and eateries as travellers continue to discover Fernie as a year-round outdoors destination. And it is precisely that mix that gives this mountain town its enviable charm.
“Fernie is unique because of the history and character that it’s built upon for years,” says Dave Nicholls, Island Lake Lodge’s marketing manager. “It hasn’t just been made. It has real locals. There is a real genuineness.”
“So many ski towns are manufactured, or that’s how they strike me,” says Richard Phillips, manager of the popular Curry Bowl restaurant. “Fernie has a good reason to be here. The coal industry is doing phenomenally well.”
It is a town with one foot squarely planted in its resource past and the other in its resort future. The community has achieved an admirable balance between the two, and for that, we add our voice to the chorus of approval for this Rocky Mountain getaway.
And so, if the phrase “nine metres of powder snow” doesn’t have you leaping into your boots, here are a few other compelling reasons to visit Fernie this winter.
Go for the Snow
“I would not recommend Fernie for the slothful. I take that back: the slothful who like a mountain view with their indolence will find Fernie to their liking. Everyone else should prepare to multi-task.”
Seattle writer Timothy Egan in the New York Times, October 10, 2004.
Can you say, “picturesque”? Sitting above 1,000 metres smack in the Rockies, Fernie is surrounded by mountains on all sides, some more than 2,800 metres high. The Three Sisters flank the town’s north side, along with mounts Procter and Hosmer. Fernie Ridge rises to the east, Morrissey Ridge to the southeast, and the Lizard Range to southwest Enhancing the scene is the Elk River, which begins as glacier ice in Elk Lakes Provincial Park, melts down the mountains into the Elk Lakes, travels along the Elk Valley, and flows right through town.
The topography of mountains and valleys surrounding Fernie creates a unique microclimate, channelling more precipitation into the area than is typical this far inland. The result is snow, snow, and more snow. Delicious, dry, airy, powdery snow that drifts through the dreams of every would-be ski hero.
With winter temperatures averaging -11 C and a snowfall of 360 centimetres in town and 875 centimetres on the ski hill, Fernie is the ultimate powder zone. Pick your favourite winter sport: this mountain town has activities for everyone from the adrenaline junkies to the fireside cocoa sippers.
Skiing and Snowboarding
What keeps skiers and boarders coming back to Fernie’s slopes? “Deep, fluffy powder,” writes former local Gerry George on the Fernie.com website. “Powder so deep you have to spit out snowballs of it as you cascade down the mountainside. Powder so light you have to memorize the landscape in order to make your way through the trees between face shots.” Fernie Alpine Resort obliges with 10 square kilometres of ski-friendly bowls, glades, and chutes. With an average nine metres of snow, the resort is able to stretch its season from December to April, operating 10 lifts that can serve more than 13,000 skiers per hour.
Skip the lift line-ups and head out for pristine powder aboard a snowcat, a bus-like, fully tracked vehicle designed to move on snow. Guided tours take skiers and boarders to remote backcountry, open bowls, and scenic runs just waiting for first tracks. Says Deb Sedrovic, owner-operator of Fernie Wilderness Adventures, “It’s an amazing feeling standing at the top where you can see the surrounding valley, down to the United States and into Alberta.”
Opt for a gentle tour or an aerobic workout on the network of trails in and around Fernie. The city’s groomed recreational trails loop around town and the golf course, and border the Elk River. Fernie Alpine Resort maintains a 14-kilometre hillside circuit, and Island Lake Lodge offers a 10-kilometre loop around Island Lake. Fernie Nature Tours offer guided programs such as the Stargazing Snowshoe Fondue tour.
City of Fernie (250-423-6817; www.fernie.ca). Trail map available online.
Island Lake Lodge (250-423-3700; www.islandlakeresorts.com).
Fernie Nature Tours (250-423-4306).
Climb onto the driver’s seat for a snowmobile tour along groomed trails into scenic, deep-powder play areas. “It is an adrenaline rush,” says Mike Sosnowski of Prestige Tours. “It’s exhilarating.” Experienced drivers are available for those who prefer a view from the backseat.
Whether you’ve never seen a husky before or you dream of completing the Iditarod, this is your chance to try dog sledding, a distinctly Canadian winter experience. Try it for an hour or a whole day, or plan a multi-day adventure into the backcountry.
A little bite in the air, a big bite on the line: avid anglers who can’t wait for spring can opt for winter fly-fishing or ice fishing in Fernie. Cast a line for local white fish, bull trout, cutthroat, and rainbow trout. Local outfitters carry all the necessities for self-directed or guided trips.
Kootenay Fly Shop and Guiding Company (250-423-4483; www.kootenayflyshop.ca).
Fernie Wilderness Adventures (250-423-6704; www.fernieadventures.com). Also offers winter wildlife-viewing tours.
Elk River Guiding Company Ltd. (250-423-7239; www.elkriver.ca).
Home Waters (250-423-1456; www.flyfishtheelk.com).
You can try it all in Fernie without packing in a load of equipment. Local outfitters have everything to outfit you, train you, and prepare you for a full-on powder plunge.
Board Stiff (250-423-3473).
Edge of the World Board Shop (250-423-9292).
Fernie Sports (250-423-3611).
Quest Ski and Snowboard Rentals (250-423-2057), at Fernie Alpine Resort.
Go for the History
Looking at Fernie today, its historic downtown like a quaint Edwardian movie set, we can hardly imagine how fiercely this townsite resisted domestication. In the wild embrace of the Rocky Mountains, isolated and smothered with snow in the winter months, it remained only a seasonal destination for First Nations for millennia—until the discovery of coal in 1873 brought settlers like William Fernie. But even then, the land proved a stubborn conquest. The town’s early history reads like a contrived disaster epic, punctuated with deadly explosions and great fires.
Coal mining, and later logging, brought the Canadian Pacific Railway to Fernie in 1898, and established it as the commercial centre of the Elk Valley. Merchants and government representatives were just nicely getting down to business when the first calamity occurred in 1902. An underground explosion at the Coal Creek Mine killed 128 men, one of the worst mining disasters in Canadian history. In 1904 and again in 1908, wildfires swept through Fernie, levelling its buildings.
From the ashes, fire-resistant brick and stone buildings arose that today are heralded for their design and beauty. “They’ve become a hallmark of Fernie,” says Michael Pennock, associate curator of Fernie’s museum.
Still serving their original purpose are the Fernie Court House (1911) and Holy Family Catholic Church (1912). Others, like the Fernie Heritage Library (1908), City Hall (1905), and new Arts Station in the former railway station (1908), have been reclaimed and restored as heritage landmarks in recent years. These and others are detailed in the $5 Heritage Walking Tour Booklet, the Fernie and District Historical Society’s guide to Fernie’s historic architecture, available at the Fernie Museum.
One of the gems of Fernie’s history is the characterization of town founder William Fernie as an opportunistic scoundrel. Popular legend lays blame for the town’s string of early disasters on Fernie, who, the story goes, promised to marry the daughter of a Ktunaxa chief in 1897 if he would reveal the source of the region’s coal. Once in possession of the valuable secret, Fernie spurned the princess, to her irreparable disgrace. Her grandmother responded by issuing an eternal curse, imposing fire, hunger, misery, and death on the valley’s inhabitants.
Explosions, fires, floods, and recessions plagued the town well into the 20th century, lending credence to the legend. Belief in the curse persisted until First Nations members performed a ceremony to lift the spell in 1964, at the request of Fernie’s mayor.
Residents today still point out a distinctive shadow that forms across the face of Mount Hosmer in late summer. Known as the Ghostrider, it is said to be the image of the chief and his daughter on horseback, continuing the search for William Fernie.
Fernie Museum (250-423-7016; www.ferniemuseum.com).
Go for the Culture
“The mullets, rodeos, gun racks, demolition derbies, coal miners, and loggers are here to stay, and they are as integral to the Fernie quilt as the hippies, ski bums, and condo owners. Often, they are one and the same: witness my friend Jay, who can be spotted driving his pickup around town wearing yoga pants, an elephant-print batik shirt, and a John Deere hat.”
Fernie writer Mike Brcic, Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine, Winter 05/06.
When asked what defines their community’s culture, many locals point to Fernie’s split personality: part mountain resort, part industrial resource town. Though the population surges each year as the snow begins to fly, a core of dedicated residents enjoy their alpine oasis year-round. Come winter, when they’re not dropping a line down a fresh backcountry chute, locals can be found discussing new work at the Arts Co-op, bending elbows at one of the many pubs, or lining up for a hot band at the Arts Station. Here are a few of the top local picks for a Fernie culture immersion.
With a festive atmosphere both on the hill and off, Fernie offers plenty of good options for sharing a pitcher with new friends. As Joe Howse, owner of The Raging Elk Hostel observes, “Beer has a lot to do with everything in Fernie.”
Brick House Bar and Grill (250-423-0009), 4th St. and 2nd Ave. This unpretentious wine bar/pub has the flavour of an acoustic coffeehouse. Downstairs, the Phat City Lounge nightclub—which owner Matt Brazeau characterizes as “dark, dank, dingy, and industrial”—attracts a younger crowd.
Fernie Pub (250-423-6444), 691 1st Ave. A sports bar with a wide selection of beer, big-screen TVs, comfortable couches, and Internet access.
Rockin’ R Bar (250-423-7750), 501-1st Ave., at the Royal Hotel. Intimate venue with weekend performances from big out-of-town acts to home-grown talent. Don’t miss the Thursday night jams.
“We have an exceptionally vibrant arts community. . . . People here encourage each other to dream a little bit, and that helps bring that creativity out.”
Patrick Burke, Fernie city councillor, 18-year resident.
The Arts Station is Fernie’s creative nucleus, hosting concerts, art exhibits, workshops, and community events. Housed in the 1908 former Canadian Pacific Railway station, the Fernie and District Art Council’s restored space includes two galleries, artist studios, pottery and kiln rooms, a photography space, and a theatre.
“It’s one of the best intimate 100-seat houses around—great acoustics,” says administrator Jennifer Girard.
To shop for local art, stop by the Fernie Arts Cooperative on 2nd Avenue. The 371-square-metre historic building houses the work of 32 local artisans, from painters and potters to quilters and metalworkers.
Just next door, book lovers can search the stacks at Polar Peek Books and Treasures. Occasional book launches here may feature local authors such as Angie Abdou and Jon Turk.
The Arts Station (250-423-4842; www.theartsstation.com), 601-1st Ave.
Fernie Arts Cooperative (250-423-7044), 572-2nd Ave.
Polar Peek Books and Treasures (250-423-3736), 592-2nd Ave.
There is no better way to ward off cabin fever than to get locals together for a community winter event. Fernie Alpine Resort hosts several ski-performance events, including the national Powder 8s championships in February, the Fernie Freeskiing Competition in March, and Powder Pedal Paddle relay race in April. Our favourites, though, are two of the wackier ones.
In recent years, participants of the Cardboard Derby (February 3, 2007) have fashioned replicas of everything from a Viking ship to the Eiffel Tower. They bring their cardboard constructions to Fernie Alpine Resort and, cheered on by some 1,000 spectators, ride them down a 200-metre slope. Many crafts, made entirely of cardboard, paper, glue, tape, string, and paint, don’t survive the journey.
“There are always a few crashes, which are fun to watch,” observes event organizer Karen Pepper.
While some throw their conveyances together overnight, Calgary autobody mechanic John Sharples—who regularly takes the prize for design—spends up to four months on his creations. He’s busy perfecting this year’s entry?a full-sized motorcycle, complete with sidecar.
“It’s a hoot. I spend all of this time building these things for an event that lasts less than 30 seconds. Then they’re trashed.”
A month later, Fernie fun breaks out again during Griz Days (March 1-4, 2007), with sporting competitions, a parade, and a family carnival. In the annual Dummy Downhill event, entrants fashion elaborate dummies, strap them onto skis, and send them hurtling over a ski jump to catch the best “air.” Past designs have included Premier Gordon Campbell, SpongeBob SquarePants, and a giant pig.
The winter festival is named for The Griz, a legendary Fernie character credited with bringing on the snow. It’s said he was born in a grizzly bear’s den in 1879—and the fight that broke out between the two roused townsfolk miles away. While exploring the woods the next day, one man glimpsed a small boy clothed in a bear hide. Years later, The Griz appeared again near Snow Valley as a massive mountain man—136 kilograms with shoulders two metres wide—in a bear coat and hat. He carried a giant musket which he fired into the clouds, prompting a flurry of powdery snow. In appreciation, the townspeople organized a festival in his honour.
During Griz Days, Fernie men emulate The Griz by growing bushy beards, donning fur clothing, and competing in various manly challenges. The one who best typifies the mythical mountain man becomes the honorary Griz for the year. The Fernie Brewing Company has even created a beer to celebrate the local hero: Griz Pale Ale.
To Know If You Go—Touring Fernie
“You’re in a small, little valley with absolutely huge mountains surrounding you, with a river running through. It can’t get much better than that.”
Becky Clark, employee at Fernie’s Elk River Guiding Company
The city of Fernie is in the Rocky Mountains’ Elk River valley in the province’s southeast corner. It is 101 km east of Cranbrook on Hwy 3, 920 km east of Vancouver, and 307 km southwest of Calgary. Note: Fernie operates on Mountain Standard Time, one hour ahead of Pacific Standard Time.
Pacific Coastal Air (604-273-8666; www.pacificcoastal.com). Daily flights between Vancouver and Cranbrook.
Kootenay Taxi (250-423-4408). Taxi service in the Elk Valley.
Some Good Eats
For a small mountain city, Fernie has diverse gastronomic choices—including Italian, Mexican, Thai, and Japanese. Dining ranges from über-gourmet to casual fare you can eat with your snowpants on. Here are some local favourites.
The Wood On The Hill (250-423-4597) 5369 Ski Hill Road. Casual fine dining with ski-up access at Fernie Alpine Resort. Sample mussels in white wine and cream sauce on the heated outdoor patio or by the dining room’s large fireplace.
The Blue Toque Diner (250-423-4637), 601 1st Avenue. Hands-down, the top rated breakfast joint in town. Hearty portions of home-style cooking.
Yamagoya Sushi (250-430-0090), 741 7th Ave. Popular spot for sushi and other Japanese fare. Try the tiger-prawn curry roll with mango, red pepper, and secret sauce.
The Curry Bowl (250-423-2695), 931 7th Ave. Reputed for top-quality Pan-Asian cuisine, such as curry-simmered Bombay Chicken with sautéed onions, red peppers, dried apricots, and cashews.
Sawai Thai (250-423-6222) 141 Commerce Rd. Local favourite for Thai cuisine from fish cakes to curries.
Some Sweet Sleeps
Fernie has accommodation ranging from budget hostel to deluxe chalet. Consult the B.C. Approved Accommodation Guide (800-435-5622; www.hellobc.com), or contact one of Fernie’s reservation services: Fernie Alpine Resort (800-258-7669), Fernie Central Reservations (800-622-5007), Fernie Lodging Company (800-667-9911), Rocky Mountain Vacations (877-423-7905).
Island Lake Lodge (250-423-3700, 888-422-8754; www.islandlakeresorts.com). Three remote lodges at 1,370 metres in the Lizard Range accommodate guests on all-inclusive cat-skiing packages. Access by snowcat only mid-December to mid-April; call for details about day access to winter activities and the Ancient Timbers fine-dining restaurant.
Lizard Creek Lodge (250-423-2057, 877-228-1948; www.lizardcreek.com), 5346 Highline Dr. At Fernie Alpine Resort, 4.5-star accommodation in suites with ski-in/ski-out access. Onsite fine-dining restaurant, or have groceries delivered in.
Park Place Lodge (250-423-6871, 888-381-7275; www.parkplacelodge.com), 742 Hwy 3. Spacious rooms with mountain views and gas fireplaces at this family-run hotel in downtown Fernie.
Some Budget Lodgings
Snow Valley Motel (250-423-4421, 877-696-7669; www.snowvalleymotel.com), 1041 7th Ave. In town, a five-minute drive from the ski resort. Room options to suit those travelling solo, with a few ski buddies, or a six-person entourage.
East Kootenay Motel (250-423-9266, 888-737-2777), 1302 Hwy 3, a 10-minute drive from the ski hill. Newly renovated suites, some with kitchenettes and jacuzzi tubs.
Raging Elk Hostel (250-423-6811; www.ragingelk.com), 892 6th Ave. Compare stories with fellow snow fiends as you cook spaghetti in the communal kitchen. Dorm, semi-private, private, and family rooms.
Samesun Backpacker’s Lodge (250-423-4492; www.samesun.com/destinations/fernie), 892 Hwy 3. Prime accommodation for the young and boisterous, with dorm, private, or large hotel-style rooms.
Our Fernie: a Community Co-op (www.ourfernie.com).
Fernie Visitor Info Centre (250-423-6868; www.ferniechamber.com).