Just north of the border lies a sparsely populated outdoor wonderland
Story by Myers ReeceDriving along British Columbia’s Crowsnest Highway, between Fernie and Cranbrook, the red-tinted rocky peaks of the Steeples Mountains rise so stunningly above the timberline that even a native Montana highlander slows down to get a better look.
In fact, Montanans might find the landscape so familiar that they think they’ve circled back home, until a few reminders set them straight: namely, speed limits posted in kilometers and frequent signs alerting would-be trash throwers to use “litter barrels.” At times, it seems like litter barrels outnumber people, and in certain stretches they do.
The population density of the southeastern regional district of British Columbia known as East Kootenay makes Flathead County, its southern U.S. neighbor, feel positively metropolitan, with twice as much area but nearly half the population. So yes, the metric system and trash-disposal system and population dynamics serve as evidence that, indeed, a border exists. Yet, the differences ultimately amount to semantics.
In the big picture, Montanans should feel at home in East Kootenay. We understand neighborly mountain culture. We’ve experienced the struggles and successes of transitioning from an industrial background to an economy that increasingly emphasizes tourism and outdoor recreation. We know a real Rocky Mountain peak when we see one.
And if we stop to think about it, we realize, or remember, that a trip from Kalispell to Fernie is the same as one to Missoula, or shorter if you mistake miles for kilometers. But don’t do that – 100 miles an hour is too fast no matter what country you’re from.
The currency exchange is tipping back in Americans’ favor. Take advantage of it, but drive the speed limit and, please, use the litter barrels.
Fort SteeleThe story of East Kootenay begins like many stories from the United States’ own frontier: with gold, then a rush, then the rush dying and leaving behind a ragtag collection of hardy settlers tasked with starting a society from the ground up.
In 1855, the discovery of gold near Fort Cortville in Washington Territory set the stage for a flood of prospectors throughout the Columbia River basin. Less than a decade later, the rush reached Wild Horse Creek basin, a little northeast of modern-day Cranbrook deep within the rugged British Columbia interior.
Miners began arriving via the Walla Walla Trail, which led them to a section of the Kootenay River low enough to ford with horse and buggy. The hastily erected mining community of Fisherville became the first permanent white settlement in the region.
A businessman named John Galbraith, recognizing the need for a better way to cross the river, started a ferry service near the confluence of Wild Horse Creek and Kootenay River. The ferry helped usher the Kootenay Gold Rush to its peak in 1865.
A few miles from Fisherville, another settlement took hold at the site of ferry headquarters. Even though the rush would be effectively over by 1870, Galbraith’s fledgling community clung to life.
As the new settlers tried to make a go of it, tension with the native Ktunaxa Nation grew, boiling over when the North West Mounted Police arrested a Ktunaxa man on suspicion of murder with little or no evidence. Outraged, Chief Isadore led 25 armed men to break the detainee out of jail.
In 1887, the Canadian federal government sent Superintendent Samuel Steele to establish a post and, hopefully, order, which he ultimately did by granting the Ktunaxa man and a second accused man a fair trial that exonerated them both.
In the ensuing years, Galbraith’s Ferry, which would later be called Fort Steele in honor of Samuel Steele, experienced a boom greater than Fisherville’s decades earlier.
At its peak in the 1890s, the settlement had, in addition to officers’ quarters and government buildings, a grocery store, general store, hardware store, livery and stable, blacksmith shop, harness maker, bakery, butcher shop, opera house and theater, drinking establishments, churches, several hotels, a newspaper and a schoolhouse.
As many as 6,000 people lived in the bustling town. At one point, 92 students packed into Ms. Bailey’s one-room schoolhouse. Then came the bust: in 1898, the Canadian Pacific Railway opted to build its line along a more southerly route, establishing Cranbrook, 10 miles away, as the region’s new commerce center.
Although population sharply declined, Fort Steele hung on into the 20th century, mainly through grassroots efforts to preserve the settlement. In 1961, it was designated an historic park.
Today, Fort Steele Heritage Town attracts 80,000 visitors a year, offering tours of its remarkable collection of original preserved buildings and exact replicas, as well as an array of other attractions meant to educate and celebrate the place that helped give birth to East Kootenay.
For more information, visit www.fortsteele.ca.
CranbrookMore than a century after the fateful decision to steer the railroad away from Fort Steele, Cranbrook maintains its role as the regional commercial center. While the area’s mining and railroad roots haven’t disappeared, the city today boasts the East Kootenay Regional Hospital, College of the Rockies, 600-seat Key City Theatre, Canadian Rockies International Airport, Western Financial Place and a strong retail sector.
At 20,000 residents, it’s the only town in East Kootenay with a population exceeding 10,000. It’s nestled on a valley floor between the Rocky and Purcell mountains, meaning that it doesn’t have its own ski hill, although it serves as an ideal jumping-off point to multiple ski resorts and a vast number of other recreational opportunities.
But tourism and city officials are working hard to spread the word that Cranbrook is not only a good starting point or base of operations; it’s a fine tourist destination in its own right.
Entering Cranbrook on the Crowsnest Highway, the city’s role as an industrial and retail hub is on full display with box stores and strip malls. If you stayed on that road, you might think that’s all there is.
But a towering archway announcing “Cranbrook” beckons you away from the outskirts into the city core. You should follow its lead, because you’ll find a charming downtown and, beyond, quaint neighborhoods dotted with city parks.
The heart of downtown’s business district is historic Baker Street. The street is home to a number of nice restaurants, including Sakura Sushi and Grill, which earns its overwhelmingly positive online reviews with high-quality fish and authentic Japanese fare. It’s one of several sushi joints in Cranbrook.
Also on Baker is the only brewpub in the region, The Heid Out Restaurant and Brewhouse, named after owner Heidi Romich. Exceedingly friendly, Romich has an extensive culinary background and opened The Heid Out two years ago. Her business partner Jordon Aasland runs the brewery. The beer is first class, as are the food and service.
Cranbrook Community Forest on the eastern edge of town has an expansive trail system that reminds a Flathead resident of Herron Park or Pig Farm Trails. South of town is Elizabeth Lake, a beautiful bird sanctuary with a lodge offering miniature golf. There are also numerous golf courses spread throughout Cranbrook and the surrounding area.
If you’re hungry heading north back out of town, stop by Smokey Bro’s food truck in the Harley Davidson store parking lot. When my wife and I visited, a tattooed biker greeted us with typical British Columbian politeness and plied our two dogs with bacon. I ordered the excellent Maui ribs, and my wife, generally a delicate eater, ordered the chili-cheese fries, which weighed about as much as our corgi. They were delicious.
Highlighting Cranbrook’s lodging lineup is the four-star Prestige Rocky Mountain Resort and Convention Centre, a high-class hotel. Right next door sits the Cranbrook History Centre, which features, among other attractions, the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel. The train museum showcases 28 railway cars, including 17 available for public tours, dating back to the Victorian-era 1887 Pacific Express.
For more information, visit www.cranbrooktourism.ca.
KimberleyOn a mountainside in the northwestern corner of town, the past, present and future merge to form a perfect distillation of Kimberley’s identity: a community that embraces both its mining heritage and its status as a ski resort destination, guided by a belief that the two aren’t inherently in competition.
In 1892, prospectors discovered a lead zinc ore called galena, and the first claim, North Star, was staked. Soon after, a group of miners, including Pat Sullivan, established the Sullivan Mine, which would become British Columbia’s largest dollar-value mine and one of the biggest zinc mining operations in the world.
Today, the North Star and Sullivan mines are no longer active, although the mountain that once housed the North Star operation is as busy as ever, at least in the winter. It’s just that now everything takes place above surface, at Kimberley Alpine Resort.
Further incorporating the area’s mining past into its outdoor-recreation present is the 17-mile North Star Rails to Trails, completed in 2010 along a former stretch of the Canadian Pacific Railway that once connected Cranbrook to the two major Kimberley mines.
And one more piece of evidence that a community can celebrate its industrial legacy within the context of building a more eco-friendly future is the Kimberley Underground Mining Railway, a popular tourist attraction that educates visitors about the Sullivan Mine’s history. There’s also the Kimberley Heritage Museum.
The presence of the ski resort has spurred Kimberley’s transformation into a tourist destination, though it retains more of its pastoral charm than some full-blown resort towns. Likewise, it’s still family-friendly, not just visitor-friendly, as evidenced by its 8.4 percent growth from 2006 to 2011, including a huge spike in kids ages 0-4.
It appears that quite a few people agree with the city’s straightforward tagline: “a good place to be.” With a population of 7,600, it’s the second largest town in East Kootenay. It also knows how to throw a party, earning the moniker “City of Festivals” for events such as JulyFest and Round the Mountain Festival.
Tucked in between the Purcell Mountains and Canadian Rockies, Kimberley may not be as familiar to Montanans as Fernie, but its outdoors culture is increasingly putting it on visitors’ radars. Within minutes of city limits are numerous opportunities for rafting, kayaking, fly fishing, hiking, mountain biking and golf. In the winter, you can add snowshoeing and cross country skiing to the list, and of course downhill skiing and snowboarding.
Kimberley was once known as the “Bavarian City of the Rockies,” and shades of that European background are found in the town’s architecture, including the pedestrian-only downtown. Without having to dodge vehicles, visitors can leisurely stroll through the heart of Kimberley and enjoy an assortment of shops and fine restaurants. They’ll also find a climbing wall and the largest free-standing cuckoo clock in the world.
Given its popularity with tourists, Kimberley has an array of lodging, including hotels, chalets, townhomes and condos, such as the suites found at Mountain Spirit Resort. While you’re up on the mountain, look around: what you’ll see is a comfortable, if rare, marriage between nostalgia and foresight.
For more information, visit www.tourismkimberley.com.
FernieBarely north of the border, Montanans likely know Fernie most intimately of all East Kootenay’s major hubs. It has all the trappings of a true resort town, in some ways resembling a Canadian version of Whitefish. Indeed, the two are sometimes referred to as “sister towns.”
But viewing Fernie in that light fails to capture everything that makes the community unique. Even just a brief mosey through town will disabuse you of any notion you might have that it’s in some way an extension of Montana: most strikingly, its brick-and-stone architecture harkens back to a history unshared by its honorary American sibling 100 miles south. That particular history is one of flames and tragedy and, ultimately, redemption.
Surrounded on all sides by the Rocky Mountains, Fernie is situated in the beautiful Elk Valley. Coal mining, thanks to the efforts of men like William Fernie, started in the area in 1897. The following year, the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived, establishing Fernie as a townsite.
On May 22, 1902, a massive explosion at the nearby Coal Creek Colliery killed 128 workers in one of the deadliest mining disasters in Canadian history. Then in April 1904, a fire demolished Fernie’s commercial district. Four years later, a wildfire swept into town and again reduced its wooden buildings to piles of ash.
But residents were resolute, and in 1910 they completely rebuilt the town. Having learned from the previous fires, they now used brick and stone instead of wood. Today, those gorgeous buildings stand as proud reminders of a young community’s collective ingenuity in the aftermath of multiple disasters.
In 1963, the Fernie Snow Valley ski operation opened. A failed bid to host the 1968 Winter Olympics propelled a makeover of the mountain, helping it transition from a modest local hill to a renowned resort. Decades later, Fernie Alpine Resort has only strengthened its status as a ski destination and crucial piece of British Columbia’s tourism economy.
Today, Fernie has a year-round population of just under 5,000 residents, although that number grows substantially during ski season. Both downtown and the surrounding area within city limits, as well as the resort itself, are full of boutique shops, bars and excellent restaurants, from burgers to sushi to upscale fine dining. And there’s no shortage of lodging accommodations.
It’s an idyllic getaway for outdoor enthusiasts, with ample opportunities for rafting, fishing, mountain biking, hiking, winter sports, you name it. But it’s just as inviting to travelers whose idea of outdoors is sitting on a deck, cold beer in hand, and staring at the awe-inspiring mountains.
There’s also a busy nightlife, both at the resort and downtown, with live music, good food and an energy typical of towns that attract active, adventure-seeking souls.
While much of Fernie feels polished and occasionally ritzy, a nice change of pace can be found at Earl’s Fruit Stand on the outskirts of town. Earl’s sells fresh produce and delicious homemade delicacies: jams, salsas, sauces, pickled Thai chili peppers, and much more.
Despite an inauspicious beginning a century ago, Fernie is proof that a town born in fire and disaster can evolve into an enclave of mountain serenity.
For more information, visit www.tourismfernie.com.