Fernie, British Columbia, is the Rocky Mountains’ outdoor recreation hot spot.
In This Article You Will Discover
Bold and beautiful, China Wall looms above the Wigwam River, just outside Fernie, British Columbia, like the monolithic watchman of the Elk River Valley.
It’s midsummer, and the sun has turned my skin to chocolate during these past five days spent casting flies into the tributaries of the Elk River; a waterbody that helps define the landscape of the Fernie area.
Standing next to the clear-emerald rushing Wigwam River, a waterway often less than five metres from bank to bank, I can see schools of massive bull trout piled up in the current, waiting for a turn to spawn. Downstream, a whitetail doe wades through the shallows, unafraid. My fishing partner, an Aussie named Frank Bluch, and I are the only humans on the Wigwam today, and we are soaking up every second spent in “Canada’s Patagonia.”
If there is a better spot in Western Canada for outdoor recreation than Fernie — spring, summer, fall and winter — I’ve yet to find it. And that’s why travellers with a taste for hiking, biking, skiing and fishing would do well to hit up the Rocky Mountain ‘burg of Fernie.
Warm Weather Fun
Founded as a coal-mining town in 1898, it has taken more than a few decades for Fernie to reach the Tourist Destination status it enjoys today. However, although there is a full-service ski resort, five-star accommodation, luxurious spas and more — don’t go confusing Fernie with Whistler or Banff. Geography has hidden this town from the masses; it’s 300 km from Calgary and a whopping 1,100 from Vancouver. Big city weekend warriors tend to give the Kootenay-Rockies a pass-over, leaving its recreation for the heartier among us.
Oh, and what recreation there is! However, thanks to the marketing efforts of Fernie Alpine Resort — with is 10 metres of annual snowfall and 113 runs — many Western Canadians dub Fernie as a snow-only destination. How wrong they are. In fact, some of Fernie’s best opportunities come in the months between May and October.
Fly fishing is quite possibly Fernie’s ultimate asset. Thanks to abundant fisheries in the Elk River and its tributaries, visitors and residents routinely make like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It — practicing the delicate art of flipping dry flies for hard-fighting, tropical-coloured westslope cutthroat trout (a subspecies unique to the area). Strong-arm types trundle heavy wet flies along the riverbottom, plying for the marauding bull trout that occupy the waters as well. “Bullies” grow to 15 pounds or more in waterways one could wade across.
Even if you’ve never cast a fly, local outfitters such as the Elk River Guiding Company and Fernie Fly Fishing, to name just two, will, for the right price, put even a rank amateur into the fish of a lifetime. But don’t go thinking you can get away without learning to fly cast — the fishery is very strictly managed. It’s fly fishing only, catch-and-release and even requires the purchases of a special Classified Waters licence.
Beyond fish slime, the mountains around Fernie offer near-unlimited hiking opportunities as well. (Keep in mind this is bear country and always take an emergency first aid kit. It’s probably a bad idea to head out alone too — those of you who have seen the film 127 Hours understand.) Awesome day hikes include the Cabin Ridge Trail, Castle Mountain, Baldy Loop and Lizard Lake. Just pop into the tourism info centre for a map and your on your way.
Downhill and cross-country mountain biking is another major summer draw. Right in town, you can find the extreme-only Dirt Jump Park; just outside you’ll find a lovely club-run series of trails and, during the summer, Fernie Alpine Resort operates a world-class downhill mountain bike facility. Bike clinics and lessons are always available.
Hungry for more? How about whitewater rafting? Yup. Canoeing and kayaking? You betcha. Swimming? Indoor and out. Golf? Yes… well, you get the picture.
Fernie Real Estate
If you’re the type that’s looking to own a piece of Fernie to enjoy daily doses of outdoor excitement, according to Ryan J. Frazer, a real estate agent with Century 21 in the Fernie area, there are still a great many opportunities to purchase your own little chunk of Elk River Valley paradise.
“Fernie Alpine Resort offers properties of all size and price range — from timeshare condos to large alpine style chalets,” says Frazer. “Forty minutes south of Fernie is what’s known as the ‘South Country.’ The region is known for warmer temperatures, lower precipitation and many beautiful lakes to recreate on. Lake Koocanusa, Tie Lake and Burton Lake are a few popular lakes amongst cottagers from Calgary and the area.”
According to Frazer, the average price of a detached home in the Fernie area is about $480,000. No small sum, but is about one-third what you might pay in Whistler for the same. And for the buyer, the news gets better still.
“We have seen a decrease in prices and sales overall across the board in the past three years. The ski hill properties have suffered the most from the global recession. It is an excellent opportunity for buyers to take advantage of these real estate deals,” says Frazer.
Whether you choose to spend a weekend, buy a cottage or move permanently to the Elk River Valley, there is much you can look forward to during your time in Fernie. Take it from a resident like Frazer:
“What I love about living in Fernie is being surrounded by the beauty of the mountains and by a community of people that are here for the lifestyle. Fernie has a vibrant arts community, many excellent restaurants and a real small town atmosphere that never feels crowded,” he says. “Fernie is a true ‘mountain town’ with many opportunities. Tourism is a large component of the local economy but the town has managed to retain its roots as a Village in the Rockies. Simply put it is a great to live, raise a family or retire.”
Yesterday & Today
While idyllic today, Fernie has had a troubled past. In the late 19th century, before the town was incorporated, namesake William Fernie incited the rage of the local First Nations when he reneged on an accord with their Chief. The Chief was to show Fernie where to find his precious coal, and Fernie would in turn marry the Chief’s daughter. Fernie took the coal, sure, but not the Chief’s daughter’s hand. Outraged, the Chief invoked a curse of biblical proportions — calling for fire, flood and famine to strike down the town. Amazingly, the area was, in fact, struck down by those exact forces over the following few decades!
So potent was the belief in this curse that in 1964 the town’s mayor smoked a peace pipe with the current First Nations chief to put to bed any remaining animosity. Today, on summer evenings, the famous Fernie Ghost Rider — an eerie shadow cast on the face of Mount Hosmer that undeniably resembles a man on horseback — appears as a reminder of the town’s shady past.
However, spend one weekend in Fernie, any time of year, ghost rider or not — and it becomes obvious the curse has been lifted.
No doubt, the heart and soul of snow-bound fun in the area is Fernie Alpine Resort, with its ample dry powder, first-class facilities, terrain park and 100-plus runs, but there is much more than that to November-April recreation in Fernie. For starters, a network of Nordic skiing trails runs through the town, and on the hill as well. Advanced skiers and boarders can book a tour with Island Lake Catskiing and FWA’s Powder Catskiing, or go it alone with a ski-touring escapade. There’s an outdoor skating area in town, a curling rink, a dogsled operator — Fernie Dogsledding — and even snowmobile tours. Find out more at www.tourismfernie.com.