*Originally published in our Vol 13. February issue. Words & photos by Chris O'Connell / TGR
“You better hope they don’t win,” the weathered, ex-con-looking guy at the bar said to me without even a hint of a smile. I waited for even the slightest wink, nod or other signal that he was half-joking. Apparently he wasn’t.
“They” were the US hockey team, and the “win” was the Olympic gold medal in last February’s Games. I was in a northern British Columbia mining town called Stewart, just over the Alaskan border, with Seth Morrison, Sammy Carlson, Kye Peterson, Callum Pettit and the TGR crew, watching the big game in a shady bar with a grizzly crew of adversaries.
A few nights earlier, our crew went to the local watering hole to watch the first USA vs. Canada hockey match, which the US dominated. Six of us were Yanks, and we didn’t hold back the cheering. Besides us, the bar was filled with about 20 weatherhardened, Canadian rednecks: loggers, miners and other shady characters who tend to inhabit bars in these kinds of towns. Let’s just say we caught a couple stink eyes. In a town where it wouldn’t be hard to make someone disappear, I wondered about how loudly I should cheer for US hockey.
The crew scouting lines.
But here we were, back in that same bar, in the same situation with the same rednecks. This time it was a lot more serious. Canadians support their national hockey team like Texans support their right to bear arms. When the US scored the last minute goal to put the game into OT, not one of us cheered. Not even TGR’s eternally jovial Todd Jones. We ordered another round. Maybe the punches to the face would hurt less.
Lucky for us, in a sad sort of way, Sidney Crosby scored in overtime and the Canadians took home the cake. We were all friends again in the bar.
We ended up in Stewart to check out Ripley Creek Heli Skiing after a successful a trip to Last Frontier Heli last winter. Ripley Creek is Last Frontier’s sister operation, and the guides at Last Frontier raved about the massive vertical and multitude of options at Ripley.
Stewart is a once-busy mining town that used to have a population in the thousands. According to a local, the population is now around 250. I think it’s probably shy of 200. You could lay down on main street for 20 minutes on a Friday night and not get hit by a car. Matter of fact, we did. We stopped looking before crossing the street after two days. A three bedroom home in Stewart will set you back around $30,000. There are two stores, probably a half dozen watering holes and a few restaurants. Stewart feels like a town where someone who may be on the run could hang for a while.
Sammy Carlson slashes in the Great White North.
Ripley Creek Heli Skiing operates out of the Ripley Creek Inn, which is an amazing hotel right on the water, with all kinds of antique memorabilia, including a toaster museum. The only thing you have to be careful of is Mr. Ripley, an angry goose that patrols the premises. Other than that, it’s a beautiful lodge, with large rooms and speedy internet: everything a traveling skier would need.
Meals are served across the street at the Bitter Creek Café. On our first morning, Andre Ike, one of the lead guides, explained the unique vibe of Bitter Creek to me. “The lady who owns this joint bought it like 10 years ago and Neil Young was in the CD player. That’s all that has played in here ever since.”
“Breakfast, lunch and dinner?”
“Yes,” he replied with a sheepish grin, almost implying that it would take mental toughness to not be affected. Andre has worked at Ripley for five years, and he seems to have come to terms with the music. “Neil Young isn’t so bad,” I thought to myself, “and we are, after all, in Canada.”
Ten days of Neil Young took its toll on us, but nothing compared to what 10 years of Neil Young has done to Bitter Creek’s owner, Debbie. She matches the name of her restaurant. Thanks to Debbie for ruining whatever appreciation I had for Neil Young. I will forever associate “Old Man” with the Bitter Creek Café.
It became apparent on our first day out in the field that the terrain in this area of the Northern Coastal mountains is, in one word, big. A few of the warmup runs we did were 4,000-plus vertical feet, which would be considered a very long run in Alaska.
The runs were so long they made filming difficult, as it was hard to find an angle where the rider doesn’t look like a speck on white. So we searched for smaller, more technical lines, and we weren’t disappointed. The terrain is endless in all directions.
We ended up in skiing along some amazing seracs, Callum launching off the ice and Seth chucking a backflip. “Anytime there’s ice in the photo, it gets published, so may as well huck it,” Seth told me afterwards. He was right: blue ice is pretty hard to come by, because most of the time it’s not safe to hang around thousands of tons of hanging, moving, glacial ice.
TGR Almost Live — Callum Pettit: Dislocated Shoulder
Sammy really came into his own on the trip. Within a couple days, he was already calling lines and skiing very comfortably in big mountain terrain. Kye Petersen knows his way around big peaks, and both he and Seth stepped up to some great, flowing fast lines with plenty of airtime. Kye, with his slippy, slidy Cham style, had a few epic transfer airs mid-line and Seth took home biggest cliff of the trip for sure, straight-lining a 40-footer mid-way down a 2,500 vertical peak.
Ripley Creek’s clientele is like that at many other heli ski operations in BC: European. We were the only North Americans out of the couple dozen skiers, which meant more powder for us. Even though the terrain was absolutely limitless, those guys would stack tight turns down 4,000-foot flat pow runs, then go up and stack more next to them. Skinny skis and all. It was like 1990s all over again. Good for us.
“This is your Hyderizer, this is your water. You can’t smell it or taste it, and you have to take it all in one shot or you buy the whole bar a round.” The bartender placed shots of 90 percent grain alcohol on the bar in front of us. It was the middle of the day, raining, with no breaks predicted for the next few days and we were about to get Hyderized in Hyder, Alaska, which is located just over the US border, about a mile from Stewart.
“You can’t be drunk all day unless you start early in the morning.” Seth Morrison said, then downed the shot and chased it back with a little water. Seth doesn’t drink so much anymore, especially on trips, but a few days of miserable grey weather in Stewart will do that to you. And when in Hyder, you get Hyderized. They opened the bar just for our crew with only a phone call. I wish all bars did that.
Proof of Kye's Hyderized-ation.
If Stewart is a town where a few people may be on the run, Hyder is a town where multiple people are definitely on the run. I played a few games of pool with a leather-vest-clad biker type name Jim, who told me: “I don’t know what I know, but I know that two quarters are better than one.” He also told me that he hasn’t done blow since he moved here many years ago; it’s too hard to get and the quality is crap. Jim and I played quite a few games of pool, and he was really good. I beat him once. His parting words as we headed back to Stewart: “You can only go down a dead end street so far.” I guess that’s how he ended up in Hyder.
The trip went down as well as any 10 days could go in a large coastal mountain range at such latitude in February. It wasn’t without incident — Callum Petit pinned it off a huge chunk of ice in the middle of a large run. The takeoff was really hard, and he ended up in the backseat, and after about 40 feet in the air he came down on his back. It was apparent we were in an evac situation right away. He made it out on a backboard, with only a dislocated shoulder. We stayed one extra day, which ended up the best of the trip — total bluebird and pow pow. Sammy and Seth traded lines down a gnarly face, and Sammy even cut off a slab trying to get into a line, which I am sure was as exciting for him as it was for me standing below him, luckily about 40 feet in the right direction.
If you aren’t afraid of a week’s worth of Neil Young during your morning coffee, you want to get Hyderized, you don’t mind the thigh burn associated with massively long runs (some up to 6,000 vertical feet), and you want a small town instead of a remote backcountry lodge, then Ripley Creek is the place for you to spend a week of a lifetime. The lodging is comfortable, guides are very well trained, and the terrain is all-time. Just be sure that you don’t act too American in the bar when hockey is on.
Appropriately enough, our last night in town coincided with the Olympic closing ceremonies. Guess which Canadian folk rock artist played for the hundred of millions watching?
The infamous collage page.