Californian real-estate developer Robert Capps was on the ultimate ski holiday. The expert skier from Squaw Valley, California, home to the 1960 Winter Olympics, spent a week in British Columbia, Canada, on a 34m commercial logging boat that had its own landing pad. Along with his friends – including a well-known ski guide, the head of the logging company that owned the boat, and the owner of a helicopter company – Capps slept on board the boat at night and chased powder at mountains nearby by helicopter during the day. Cabin fever? Not a chance.
“We were skiing in places no one had ever skied before,” enthuses Capps. “The scenery was spectacular. We got skunked some days on the skiing because of the weather, but what was most memorable about the trip was that we were then able to do lots of other things like hiking, fishing, snorkelling and boating.”
Such an adventure no longer requires the insider connections that made Capps’ trip possible. Points North Heli-Adventures, based in Cordova, Alaska, is the biggest heli-ski operation in the state, according to co-owner Jessica Quinn. Recently, the company began leasing a 26m fishing vessel, in order to offer boat-based heli-ski trips from February to late April. “There are so many possibilities, when you put a helicopter on board a boat,” she says.
“There are so many possibilities when you put a helicopter on board a boat.” Jessica Quinn, co-owner of Points North Heli-adventures
The ship has its own helicopter pad and cruises around Prince William Sound. A seven-day trip costs US$14,750 (S$18,400) per person, and each trip has a chef, two certified guides and a maximum of eight skiers. “The advantage is that, with a boat, we can chase the sunshine and dock wherever we find it,” says Quinn.
Skiers must be able to ski off-piste and in powder snow. A sense of frontier adventure also comes in handy. “This is a commercial fishing boat, not a luxury yacht,” Quinn remarks. “It’s clean, comfortable and you eat lots of good, hearty Alaskan meals.” If cabin fever does strike, then guests have lots of options not typically associated with a ski holiday, such as kayaking, fishing, whale watching, scuba diving, and even surfing at some of the northern-most points of the Pacific.
CASTING A LONG LINE INTO THE BUSINESS
Just as surfers dream of an endless summer –although Alaska may not be quite what they have in mind – plenty of skiers dream of an endless winter. But, by the time most ski resorts close for the season, conditions have deteriorated to cruddy slush or dirt and exposed rocks. So, many skiing pros take up other sports during the months off, including fishing. That’s when they noticed something interesting.
No ordinary adventurer, Mike Overcast has decades of professional wilderness experience under his belt, both on snow and on water. “Soon after moving to Alaska, I was fishing and saw lots of snow that hadn’t melted,” he says. “I realised that I could ski and go salmon fishing all on the same day.” So, Overcast and a few friends chipped in and leased a helicopter to see if they could spring ski on the corn snow still remaining on the massive Alaskan Tordrillo Mountain range, as well as fish in the local world-class waters teeming with spawning salmon and rainbow trout.
They were so successful that Overcast and his pal, business partner and Olympic downhill-ski gold medallist Tommy Moe, created the Cast and Carve heli-ski/fish programme. The five-day adventure is held in June and early July at their Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, and is priced at US$9,000. The lodge is accessible only by small plane, and sits on the banks of the Talachulitna River and Judd Lake, with 49,000ha of mountain terrain at its doorstep.
“It’s the yin and the yang, summer and winter,” says Overcast. “It’s an incredibly unique experience to be skiing in the backcountry with wild flowers around you, and then fly back, kick your boots off and run around the grass.” Guests can also fly by chopper to go heli-fishing, or cast a rod while floating down stretches of river.
A few other outfits offer a similar programme, particularly in Alaska and Canada, which are far away enough from the equator and have huge mountains with year-round snowpack. They tell a similar story of stumbling on surprisingly good spring and early-summer skiing, mixed with fantastic fishing.
Says Tait Wardlaw of Chugach Powder Guides, which is headquartered in Girdwood, Alaska: “We hadn’t really shared it with anyone outside of the hardcore big-mountain ski community. It’s like having a ski resort to yourself, except that it’s 10 times the size and you’re skiing in a Hawaiian shirt.”
A SECRET TOO GOOD TO BE KEPT
But word is getting out. Next June, Chugach is offering five-day, US$10,500 Kings and Corn heli-ski/fishing trips. Guests travel by floatplane to Winterlake Lodge, 320km north-west of Anchorage. “King” refers to Alaska king salmon and “Corn” is the nickname for springtime mountain snow that melts and refreezes into a velvety texture that, while not as classically beloved by skiers as deep powder, still offers plenty of fun.
“Early in the morning, corn snow is smooth and hard but, as it warms up, with the top centimetre or so melting, it feels almost like you’re skiing on groomed or corduroy snow,” says Wardlaw.
“As the snow has never been skied on before, it’s a wonderful blend of smooth skiing in a natural environment.”
Also, spring and early summer means that the weather is more settled and there is little chance of avalanches when carving those 800m runs. Says Overcast: “As you don’t have the danger of avalanche, it’s a good way to introduce helicopter skiing.” And intermediate skiers have an easier time, because there’s no deep fresh snow. However, there is plenty of steep terrain and couloirs for even the most advanced skier.
An alternative is offered by Bella Coola Heli Sports. The Whistler, Canada-based company sponsors the Rod & Ski Club at Tweedsmuir Park Lodge, located in British Columbia’s largest protected park. Bella Coola offers the programme in June and July, but keeps things flexible; guests decide on trip length and dates, with three-night stays starting at C$5,280 (S$6,500).
“The feeling here is that we are stoked on skiing. But the fishing is awesome here and our mountains are so big, so why not merge these two? If the snow is getting heavy, you swop your skis for rods and gaiters,” says Bella Coola’s Tim Wilkinson. Guests can walk, drive or fly via helicopter to fishing spots, but most prefer to use drift boats. No previous fishing experience is required.
“You’ll see grizzly bears, eagles, kingfishers, all sorts of wildlife,” says Wilkinson. “Some guests even caught salmon and had bears jumping on the line.” Not to worry, he adds quickly, as “the bear is going after the fish, not the fisherman”.
WHEN TIME IS ON OUR SIDE
Both bears and humans alike have plenty of time on their hands, as summer solstice this far north means close to 24 hours of daylight. This creates a strikingly different experience from wintertime ski trips, where it may be dark by mid-afternoon. Watches and schedules are tossed, and “skiing is truly when the mood strikes”, says Wardlaw.
Overcast says: “If it’s cloudy, we might fish in the morning. Or, if the weather improves, maybe we’ll ski into the evening. Sometimes, we ski from 9pm until 1.30am or 2am.” He adds that he once skied 24 hours straight but has been hard pressed to find anyone to join him on another attempt.
Says Joan Valentine, a professional ski instructor who has been on Cast and Carve with her husband: “Some of my favourite moments during the trip have been our night-skiing adventures – in broad daylight, of course.”
Along with the skiing, Valentine says she enjoyed fishing and stand-up paddle boarding, and even tried swimming in the lake. “But it is a chilly 46 degrees (8 deg C) and I decided the lake was better utilised for a quick dip after the hot tub and a martini.”
American J. Courtney Gorman, an avid skier and snowboarder who also journeyed to Alaska for Cast and Carve, agrees, saying: “There is no such thing as a typical day. We skied as long as the conditions stayed good. Some days, we skied and fished; other days, we just floated down a river and fished.”
Having been on multiple heli-ski trips, Gorman is a big fan. “This was way more laid-back, and unreal, fun,” she says.