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Nakusp’s winter tourism potential

Does Nakusp have potential for more winter tourism?
Bill Sones drops into a trackless ski slope at a local backcountry skiing area. Could this area be used to promote Nakusp as a winter tourism destination?

Cresting the ridge, the view was incredible. Below us, to the south, a sea of clouds stretched through the valleys from Arrow to Slocan Lake. The sun was out and a little-tracked white canvas dotted with trees lay below us.

I was in a popular local touring area with local veteranarian Bill Sones. I got in touch with him after a few Google searches for Nakusp ski touring turned up his name in association with a non-profit backcountry hut society.

Being an avid backcountry skier, I asked if he could take me out for a day. I met him at his home on Superbowl Sunday, where we drove to the trailhead and then hopped on his snowmobile for the ride to the ski touring area on a network of groomed logging roads. It was a zone used by both backcountry skiers and snowmobilers, with each sticking to their own side of the valley.

Our destination was the heart of a sub-alpine basin surrounded by thinly-treed slopes. A group staying at the hut had already set a number of skin tracks, so climbs were easy and the descents gentle and safe given the moderate avalanche hazard that day. We skied three laps of boot-deep powder on top of a smooth surface — not bad considering it had barely snowed in weeks. It was Superbowl Sunday, so there weren’t many people around.

While there I talked to Sones about ski touring around Nakusp — namely how I found it really hard to find information about where to go. I found a few descriptions of tours in the Trout Lake and Retallack areas, but nothing for around Nakusp, except for a couple of mentions of the area we were in — an area Sones asked me not to name in the newspaper, though most people reading this probably know where I’m referring to, and a search for “ski touring Nakusp” mentions it in the first result.

I had already been wondering about Nakusp’s potential for winter tourism. That’s probably because I came here from Revelstoke, which has blossomed as a winter destination since the ski resort there opened in 2007 (not to mention the thriving snowmobile tourism industry).

In my six weeks in Nakusp, I’ve enjoyed a powder day at Summit Lake, been cross-country skiing at Wensley Creek and the Kuskanax Trails and visited the hot springs. The trails have been quiet and the locales very low key.

While out with Bill Sones, I said I was thinking about an article about Nakusp’s winter tourism potential. Backcountry skiing and snowmobiling are growing industries and here’s Nakusp, with a great little backcountry hut in an fairly accessible location surrounded by lots of great ski touring and snowmobiling terrain.

Sones response was simple. The hut isn’t promoted because the society that runs it doesn’t want it to be too busy. It’s maintained by a small group of volunteers who bring up the propane and firewood and more people would mean more work keeping the place supplied.

They also don’t want the area to get too busy and tracked up, hence keeping it on the down low. Knowledge of the hut gets out by word of mouth and they want to keep that way.

While that may be great for the locals who go play in the area in the winter, what about the portion of the population who makes a living off tourism? Nakusp has a great summer tourism industry, but in the winter – outside the K2 Rotor Lodge – the town is very quiet.

I spoke to both Peter Welkering, the owner of the Brouse Creek Bed & Breakfast, the vice-president of the Nakusp & District Chamber of Commerce, and a director with the West Kootenay Tourism Alliance. I asked what kind of efforts there were to promote Nakusp as a winter destination. “Everybody’s talking about it because they’re suffering for the winter,” he told me.

He pointed to the Nakusp Arrow Lakes Winter Guide pamphlet that the Chamber of Commerce produces in cooperation with Kootenay Rockies Tourism. The pamphlet has photos of all sorts of winter recreation opportunities — snowboarding, heli-sking, cross-country skiing, curling, hockey, snowmobiling, fishing, tubing and more. It has maps of all the local Nordic trail networks but there is no mention of the backcountry area Bill Sones took me to.

He brought up the challenges of promoting Nakusp — notably the access. If you’re coming from Alberta, you have to contend not only with two major mountain passes along the Trans-Canada Highway, but also the ferry crossing. Coming from the Okanagan, you have to take a ferry and the winding Monashee Highway. “It’s unpredictable that if you come on the Friday, that you could make it back on the Sunday,” Welkering said.

The other challenge is working with locals to promote the local recreation areas that they don’t want promoted. Welkering suggested building new huts if local groups wanted to keep existing ones quiet.

“If people don’t want strangers going to their huts, we need to build huts they can use,” Welkering said. “You have to put a lot of things into place before you start developing a certain area.”

A few weeks later I spoke to Cedra Eichenauer, the manager of the chamber of commerce. I brought up the idea of my article and we talked about promoting Nakusp in winter.

Her thought was that without a big tourism draw in place like a major ski resort, Nakusp could position itself as a quiet destination where you make your own adventure — whether it be Nordic or alpine skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, fising or simply coming to relax in the hot springs.

This got me thinking that maybe Nakusp could follow in the footsteps of Smithers, B.C., where the Bulkley Backcountry Ski Society worked to create the Hankin-Evelyn Backcountry Skiing Recreation Area. It’s a non-motorized recreation area with cross-country skiing and snowshoe trails in the valley and access to the alpine above. There’s an overnight hut and a warming hut for day-users.

Nakusp has an area perfectly suited for this, but as best as I can tell, the desire is to keep it a locals secret. Developing a new area would require a significant organization to gain the permissions and raise the money needed to build infrastructure. It doesn’t have to be non-motorized.

How you boost winter tourism while still maintaining the peaceful nature of the community and without over-crowding the trails is a balance that would have to be reached.