"The middle of nowhere" is _the_ name for the place we've chosen for this New Year eve! In winter, the area is so desolated, you can bet there are more bears there than people. Luckily, bears, being sound asleep, are not aware of their dominance...
Yes, this magnificent place is West Kootenay! I still don't know what that name means (if it means anything) in the native language (hopefully, nothing too scary...) Kootenay lake is an ancient fault between the mountain ranges. It is long, deep, and its shores are very steep, actually being the mountains themselves, rising right from the water. Not much of flat surface there!
West Kootenay sits far from the major trunk highways. As we have been going further into this mountain country, snow became deeper, passes steeper, elevation higher, and roads more and more narrow. We even started to doubt: are we going to get through? Shouldn't we select a more accessible goal? Our small sedan is not the best car for true winter driving, and we planned a long trip through the winter Kootenay. Hell, we did not even have winter tires!
Our first stop is the city of Rossland. The city is high up in the mountains... very high! It was a scary climb, and heavy snowfall made it even worse. If we had to stop on this road, I'm not sure we could continue going up, or even stay level without sliding back! We were very happy when the climb was over!
In the whole town, there was only one flat surface: the main street. Side streets were almost vertical, or so it seemed. We saw big four-wheels trying to negotiate the street slopes with variable success. The town was built when horses were still the main transportation, and they were truly all-season-all-terrain vehicles!
On Christmas night, the town looks and feels enchanted. You find yourself seriously looking around to catch a glimpse of Santa-Claus and his deer. No matter how hard the town tries to clean the snow, it cannot keep up with Mother Nature. A street is being cleaned form one end, it is already covered again from another. Locals don't even bother to swipe snow from the tops of their cars: the next snowfall is always just around the corner. It's easier just to wait till spring...
The city is proud of its heritage, and cares a lot about its historical buildings. Like this old fire hall - there is a very good restaurant on the ground level (that Okanagan icewine was just fantastic!) but the most amazing thing is a small condo in the tower. Would be a fun place to live - we could even see a decorated Christmas tree through the window!
When snow conditions are bad for driving, they are just perfect for skiing. There are lots of ski clubs in the Kootenay, both for downhill and cross-country skiing. It's not as easy to find level spot for cross-country, but the locals try hard and don't miss any opportunity.
Cross-country skiing goes along the river valleys and old forest roads. In some places you can see very old warden stations and warming huts. They look very similar to the modern ones; forest living is not the where technology changes much.
There are tons of snow in the forest! As more and more snow falls, young spruces bend further and further down under its weight, until fully curling into balls, like hedgehogs. Sometimes you don't even realize that there is a spruce inside a big snow ball, waiting for spring.
Our next destination is the city of Castlegar and its great cross-country ski club. To our surprise, we meet the same people on the ski trails we've just seen in Rossland club! Here is the best club in they area, they say, so skiers flock to it from all surrounding towns. Well, the locals always know better!
The club deserves its fame: lots of interesting trails for all skill levels, all in good shape, warming huts are clean and cozy. The weather was perfect, too: light chill and bright sun turned landscapes into pure beauty. We spent the whole day in the forest, and returned to town only after dark.
It's always hard to resist a temptation to draw anything on the fresh snow. By the way, what you see here is a hedgehog, not a porcupine.
We are heading further north, to Nelson. Being build on the southern shore, under a steep hill, this little town sees very little sun. Probably this lack of natural light forces people here to spend more money on illumination instead of proper snow removal. It was the only place were we had to use the hazard lights while slowly crawling along the snow-covered streets. If the street was bad, the intersections were much worse... and nobody bothered to remove layers of snow and ice from the hotel yard!
Well, we were not really in the town itself. What we wanted to see was the old railway on the side of the mountain that hangs over the city. The old grade serves as a hiking trail in summer, and an unmaintained ski trail in winter. A set of spectacular old trestles makes it worth the visit regardless of messy roads in the valley. The skiing is not a good as in a ski club here, but the views are fantastic!
We didn't stay long in Nelson. But on our way out we stopped on the other side of the lake to spend some time in the West Kokanee Creek Provincial park. You wouldn't want to miss this hidden gem! In winter, the unfrozen lake looks great, surrounded the snow-covered banks.
In summer, the park is more crowded, and more trails are available for public. In winter, only x-country ski enthusiasts will come here. Unfortunately, the mountain part of the park with its Kokanee Glacier (famous among beer lovers) is closed.
We are approaching our final destination, the Ainsworth Hot Springs resort. But, as we are getting closer, the road becomes more and more dangerous. Snow, ice, sharp turns combined with steep grades...
Finally, we are there, safely! On the outside, hotel does not look very impressive. But inside, it is very nice and cozy. It actually makes sense: it is the inside that matters. Nobody (except wildlife) will be looking at it from the outside in this desolated place in the middle of nowhere. On the right photo you can see the hotel's roof. On the left photo, a closer look to our window with a stuffed toy on it. On the last photo, the mysterious ice column - where is this all this ice thing coming from?!
Down below, you can see a hot mineral pool, big enough for swimming. Inside the mountain from which the photo was shot, there is a hot spring cave. Very hot water percolates right through the walls. It's very dark, hot, foggy and spooky in there!
The lake looks very different in different weather! Just compare these photos made from the same place at different time of day! When it's snowing, and the distant shore is not visible, you feel as if you are standing on the ocean!
These mountains are very rich with mineral ores. Ainsworth used to be a big mining town with a port. A net of forest roads and an old cemetery remind of these days, but not much left of the town itself, just a tiny village surrounding the resort.
Even in winter, you can reach the historic cemetery - of course, if you don't mind walking in the half-a-meter deep snow. Skies will be useless here: ups and downs are too steep. But the view of the lake is well worth the effort!
Can this old Ainsworth cemetery be the last resting place for the Old Year? Maybe... This is the last time zone on the continent, so New Year comes here the last. When this photo has been taken, the New Year had already arrived on most of the planet!
Who made this photo if we were alone on the mountain, with no one else? Well, on the New Year eve, miracles do happen. Maybe a squirrel went down from a tree to press the camera button!
Finally, the New Year has reached us, too! The resort had a nice celebration. The food was as great as our appetites after the whole day in the snowy forest. This was followed by dancing to live music... very pleasant night!
Even though the mountain walls are almost vertical here, there are lots of old forest roads on them. Those were been made for horses, so few today's cars can negotiate them, but they are certainly walkable, even in winter (though the deep snow makes it quite challenging).
Closer to the village, roads are a little better. On one of them, we saw this strange shed without any visible door. Do they climb down the chimney?
There is certainly no shortage of wildlife in the mountains even when bears are sound asleep. On the fresh snow, you can see footprints of deer, sheep, wolfs, sometimes even a cougar or a lynx. Here, you can see bighorn sheep and a flock of wild turkeys.
Finally, it's time to go home. But if we want to go back, we have to dig our car from a snow bank. Well, at least the sun is shining at full force, it will quickly evaporate the rest of the snow from the roof!
On our way back we took a different route. Instead of returning through Rossland and Castlegar, we took a Kootenay lake ferry.
From the ferry, we look back at the resort and the mountains. It's a beautiful ride, but a bit scary, too: just imagine how cold this water is this time of year!
We drive along the Kootenay lake shore, stopping here and there to enjoy great views.
Only the southern part the lake freezes. Moving from north, you can see how ice pieces start to appear in the water, until the whole surface is covered with solid shield.
Looking at all this snow and ice, and big tall spruces, it's hard to believe that in summertime they grow grapes here and make wine. We should definitely return in summer and make check it out!