It’s hard to say when the first beings took an interest in sliding down the slopes around Mount Cain. I’m sure it was the ravens. You can still catch them in the high summits, as we did earlier this spring, walking up a little promontory, flipping onto their backs, and sliding headfirst, only to repeat the process over again in an otherworldly joy. Maybe glissade is instinct, a joy known to all creatures of the high mountains. Certainly at some point, the musical language of Kwak’wala echoed through the hills long before the sounds of the loggers’ saws brought roads closer to the alpine.
What we do know for sure is that on September 14, 1972, the Mount Cain Ski Club was established under the auspices of the Regional District of Mount Waddington (RDMW), as announced by an article in the North Island Gazette that year. Initial plans were to build a 3,000 foot ‘rope tow’ in the West Bowl. The late Mount Cain historian Jeff Jones wrote:
A prominent BC Fish and Wildlife biologist, Ian Smith, recommends a logging moratorium in the Tsitika–Schoen Lake headwaters, which includes the West Bowl, impacting plans to develop the ski area at that location. This is in response to concerns about MacMillan Bloedel’s plans to log the pristine Tsitika River watershed and construct a dry land sort at Robson Bight where the rubbing beaches are used by the iconic orca whales.
As any visitor knows, gazing out on the patchwork landscape, such a moratorium never materialized; however, the remains of two abandoned runs still grace the West Bowl to the keen observer. An old warm-up shack bleaches its bones in the fragile alpine meadow with a wood stove still barely intact. In those days, Rod Bain, Julius Kaptiany, Don Burroughs, Bet Wiggins, and Judy Eilor were the first members of the Mount Cain Ski Club. One can imagine them making grand plans by oil lamp in the cozy confines of this small A-frame cabin.
Constructions of this iconic lodge began in 1977 and finished in 1979 by North Island Secondary School shop teacher, Lance Thor, and his high school shop class. The massive logs were donated by the logging industry, likely taken from the road that Canadian Forest Products (Canfor) built to the present-day site. In 1977, the Mount Cain Alpine Park Society was formally incorporated in Victoria, and the following year, a Special Use Permit was issued to the RDMW, Mount Cain’s legal owner. In 1981 Mount Cain’s lower T-bar opened to the public, with the upper T-bar opening in early 1988.
Today, accommodations are a valued commodity on the mountain. The parking lot culture harkens back to the days of outdoor camping and tailgate lunching. The “Ghetto,” as it is known through the grapevine, is a small but eclectic trailer-park on the hill, populated by Cain volunteers. Other accommodations on the hill include 52 private cabins. Some, like the Sointula Lion’s cabin, are for rent during the season to groups of respectable moral pedigree. On the hill itself, the original lodge’s loft-style hostel mattresses have grown to include two separate 10-person cabins and the 33-person Kapitany Lodge. As the mountain has grown in popularity, these highly coveted bookings are first made available to the volunteer crews who attend the annual work party, which has traditionally taken place on the third full weekend in September every year. In addition, the ‘Na̱mg̱is First Nation operate a beautiful cabin (not open to the public) perched above Mistaken Lake. The ice of this lake has been known to host both hockey games and the annual Snowshoe Baseball tournament between North Island and South Island.
Coincidently, the creek in the West Bowl is also rumoured to be the seasonal home of the Shartle, Cain’s unofficial half-shark, half-turtle mascot. Mount Cain has been famous for its costumed events, such as Viking Fest, Tele-fest, and Kids-fest, to name a few, where the stealthy Shartle blends seamlessly into the pastiche of colourful characters.
Though the District is comprised of over two million hectares of land, the population is only a fraction of the rest of Vancouver Island (11,035 people as of 2016). This has made for some difficult choices in the allocation of scarce recreation budgets between communities over the years. Mount Cain has consistently seen financial support from both the District and private individuals and businesses in terms of heroic labour, machinery, and materials over the years. This has allowed the mountain to thrive where other small Island ski hills have faltered.
Over the years, there have been articles, blogs, and films documenting Mount Cain’s highs and lows. Attempting to include all the names of the hard-working volunteers who have waxed and waned would be unfair, although the mountain is always eager to add new recruits to this roll.
Some visitors to this lofty realm come for the socializing. Others come to shop lavishly in the well-appointed ski shop. Some enjoy the suffering of recreational carpentry. Some come for fame and notoriety. Some to chase the smell of power, money, and prestige that go handin-hand with ski bumming.
But after the ski hill closes for the year and the cries of the wild, endangered parking lot yahoo have ceased, the ravens still just want to simply slide down the hill, with not a care in the world. From a small wildcat ski operation run by loggers for the enjoyment of their families in the lonely wilderness, to an island respite unfettered by Wi-Fi and the distractions of civilization, Mount Cain continues to entertain the adventurers of this world.