I’m about to do something I haven’t done in 40 years. Canary yellow Snow Surfer in hand, I poise at the highest point above the steepest pitch of the Callaghan Country Lodge tubing slope, sprint a few feet and fling myself down the hill like a luge rider.
The sled yaws a bit as I round the halfway curve, but I manage to straighten it and avoid the speed-killing bump on the left side, keep up good momentum along the bottom run-out, then soar off the bank over a lake and into thin air.
And thin it is. Callaghan Lodge is at 4,500 feet (1,370 m) in British Columbia’s Coast Range, it’s midwinter and the temperature is below 20 F (-6 C). Out into this evanescent atmosphere I sail, but no worries: The lake is concretely frozen and hip-deep in snow, where I land with a whump. Sluicing across it like a wakeboarder, I finally come to rest 20 feet (6 m) from shore.
“That was a no-holds-barred run,” lodge hostess Carol Johnson tells me when I get back to the top of the hill. I shrug, grinning. Why hold back?
The radar gun says I topped out at 31 mph (50 km/h).
OK, not really — there’s no radar gun at Callaghan, a wonderfully low-tech lodge set in the wilderness near Whistler, British Columbia. It’s a one-of-a-kind winter retreat where visitors have innumerable opportunities to create lifetime memories.
Who knows how fast I went, but I did set the unofficial tubing distance record (seven strides from shore was the low-tech measurement) at Callaghan. John Kennedy was president the last time I had that much fun, but visitors don’t have to embrace daredevil snow-sledding. You can:
– Buckle on cross-country skis and set out for serene treks along 20 miles (32 km) of groomed trails amid jaw-dropping alpine scenery. Head up along a broad snowy thoroughfare toward the Solitude Glacier and you wind up in a gorgeous, gentle meadow bigger than most towns in North Dakota. You’ll be the only ones there.
Stop a minute, concentrate on the moment, and you might hear your breath echo off the slopes high above. It’s tempting to yell, to hear the echo, but my wife Leslie and I treasure the sheer serenity too much to disturb it.
– Dogs just want to have fun, especially the sled dogs that gleefully dash along Callaghan’s lakeside trail with a sled behind. Bundled into the sled like babes in papooses, their human passengers receive an exhilarating lesson in the forces of inertia, gravity and momentum.
I’m sure that when it comes to a stop, my stepdaughter Kirsten is sporting the biggest grin ever — but a picture of Kirsten shows proof only that her eyes are dark beneath the fleece muffler and cap.
– Strap on snowshoes, venture into the deeper copses of sub-alpine fir and spruce and enjoy the prismatic effect of the foot (30 cm) of powder snow that sifts off each branch you touch.
– Or you can simply stretch out in a lounge chair by the lodge’s fire, dozing as dusk descends outside.
Callaghan is the only facility in 8,600 acres (35 km²) of sub-alpine wilderness clasped within a huge bowl west of Whistler. The latter is one of the world’s biggest, busiest and best ski resorts. Its downhill drop is nearly a mile (1.6 km), its 20,000-bed pedestrian village pulsates with life, and its international buzz is practically neon.
Callaghan is the anti-matter to Whistler’s tourism mass. In winter, you get to the lodge by a 90-minute snow-cat ride, a 45-minute snowmobile run or by helicopter. Not to worry about the snowmobiles — they reach only to the lodge itself, and the remaining entirety of the basin beneath Callaghan Peak is machine-free.
(Except for the lodge staff’s occasional trail-grooming runs.) Customized snowmobile excursions with a private guide lead guests to far-away areas in the old growth forests and deep powder bowls.
The lodge perches on a small knoll above Conflict Lake, the venue for tubing-distance competitions. Snow-clothed pinnacles of granite loom in every direction, glaciers draped beneath like package wrapping. The lodge houses a stuffed-full maximum of 28 guests, and each of the 28 can select a vista all his or her own, all day, from a lodge window or the endless snowy platform outside.
Built by Whistler craftsmen, Callaghan is a modern timber-frame gem whose cedar or spruce floors, fir trim and slate tiles — classic mountain lodge touches — are set off by pomegranate, café au lait or mustard walls and fine art.
A visit is all-inclusive, with hot breakfasts and lunch (superb, homemade soups and sandwiches) filling enough to set up a battle between the urge to work it off outdoors or sleep it off in. Power is supplied by an outside generator; housed in a shed buried in 12 feet (3.6 m) of snow, it simply can’t be heard.
Lovely as it is to enjoy bedside lights, drying racks for your clothes and on-demand hot showers, more old-fashioned aesthetics leave the most vivid memories. Our first night there, after a spiced, roast pork dinner, we bundle up and march outside into a starry night. The Milky Way is like a diamond scarf above. The snow crunches like Rice Krispies. And a hundred feet (30 m) from the lodge, candles glimmer, set in snowbanks, lighting the way to the tubing hill.
Sledding is the main evening activity at the lodge for staffers and visitors alike. “You can’t see the bottom,” Carol explains mischievously, “but I promise you’ll find this down there.” She hefts a handful of light snow and lets it sift back down. “So — pick your chariot.” A polyglot array of snow-sliding devices awaits our choice.
I pick the yellow surfer I’ll use the next day (in daylight) for my all-out run down the hill. Tonight, it’s point and go into the starlit night. I look at Leslie. “Gentlemen first,” she urges me.
I can see the blue tinge to Jupiter in the northwest quarter of the sky — the air’s that clear. So it offers little resistance as I swoosh downward and do a headfirst plunge into unpacked snow.
Back up top my stepdaughter looks me up and down. “Frosty,” she declares. I raise my eyebrows questioningly. “The Snowman,” she adds.
No matter. Back at the lodge are cups of hot cider, quilt-laden beds, the flicker of a fire banked for the crystal quiet of a winter wilderness night.
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