MT. ASSINIBOINE PROVINCIAL PARK, British Columbia, Canada — At least half the fun of a cross-country ski trip in British Columbia's Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park is getting there.
Most skiers opt for a short helicopter ride from southwestern Alberta, because the park is a relatively inaccessible, roadless wilderness wedged against the craggy border between the two provinces.
The alternative, skiing in, is arduous, requires treading carefully around potential avalanche slopes and often means camping overnight on the trail.
Our 10-minute whirlybird hop to Assiniboine began in a gravelly lot at Pigeon Mountain, about 10 minutes south along the Trans-Canada Highway in the Albertan Rockies from Canmore--principal site for the cross-country ski competition of next month's Winter Olympic Games (Feb. 13-28).
Shortly after take-off, our five-seater aircraft, with bright maple leaf logo painted outside, bobbed in the air currents beside towering Wind Ridge, which borders the Trans-Canada Highway.
To this novice chopper passenger, a crash into the ridge seemed imminent, making the original gathering place for our group--a nearby helicopter pilots' hangout called "Dead Man's Flats"--seem all too appropriate.
Sky High View
Suddenly, mountain air thermals lifted us through a notch in the rocky, snow-speckled ridge top. Unfolding were magnificent views hidden from the passengers in the cars on the highway.
Below us, the deep green of conifers looked train-set-sized. Around us, as we sped along at an average of 100 m.p.h., were scores of snow-topped peaks by wide U-shaped valleys--formed eons ago by glaciers and pocketed now with snow-covered lakes.
On the return trip from Assiniboine, John Philip, our young, plucky pilot with Banff Heli Sports, detoured to give us an unforgettable close-up of the greenish tongue of the glacier well up 11,870-foot Mt. Assiniboine.
As a final bit of spice, a low cloud condition obscured our route in for the return flight, making Philip "feel" through several alternative paths before bringing us home.
The skiing also was memorable. Most heli-skiing elsewhere is geared to downhillers seeking to test virgin snow of slopes not served by chairlifts, away from the madding ski crowd. It's only recommended for very good skiers--and even these people tell of gruesome wipeouts.
By contrast, a novice cross-country skier could have easily, and safely, taken to much of the Nordic terrain on the expansive plateau at the 7,200-foot elevation at the base of Assiniboine, which is named for a local Indian tribe.
With gentle inclines, the plateau is ideal for intermediate Nordic trekkers (such as myself), who always wanted to perfect the method, called telemarking, of going downhill on cross-country skis but could never find the right place to practice.
On one such ever-so-gradual descent, my never-better telemark form carved long S turns in powder snow that swirled around my ankles. When large flakes began to fall during the turns, my movie-crowded brain started playing the theme from "White Christmas." If struck by a bolt of winter lightning at that point, I would have died with a smile on my face.
Miles of Powder
For advanced telemark skiers, steeper, wide-open slopes towered, conservatively, hundreds of feet high. For people just interested in cruising on skis, miles of powdery snow over rolling terrain, with views of myriad craggy surrounding peaks, make the sport a joy.
"It's super-touring," says Derin Kennedy, a longtime Assiniboine veteran from Tata Creek, British Columbia.
Kennedy and party were hold up in one of the Naiset log cabins, which date to the 1920s, when rugged outdoorsmen such as members of the Alpine Club of Canada convinced the government to set aside the area as the province's third park.
The meadow just outside Kennedy's cabin served as the helicopter's snowy landing pad, but is covered by wildflowers in summer.
The four Naiset cabins sleep six to eight, have only bare bone accommodations, and cost $6 a night.
With snow stacked on the side to a depth where it merged with a layer coating the pitched roof, a peek into Kennedy's cozy digs revealed bunk beds, a Coleman stove he brought for coking and the cabin's potbellied stove used for warmth (firewood is scarce, and it's recommended you bring some with you; it's rationed in the park).
Also inside were several clotheslines, strung with a heavy burden of damp clothes, looking like a tenement's backyard on wash day.
But while space and amenities are a premium in the cabins, they have a saving grace besides price--they can only be booked one month in advance.
Across the meadow and down a short snowy path is Mount Assiniboine Lodge, the plush quarters hereabouts, which is typically booked for the winter high season (March and April) six to eight months in advance.
Built of Spruce Logs