Lee Johnston is hoping his dream succeeds where another’s recently failed.
Johnston has applied for use of land just south of Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park to develop a non-mechanized backcountry skiing operation. The Nelson resident’s plan has been gestating since 2004 when Johnston started working as a ski patroller and leading tours in the Selkirk Mountains.
“I just fell in love with the life as a ski touring guide at a remote hut,” he said. “Hauling water and serving your guests after a whole day of guiding them, in that environment it really struck a chord with my heart.”
Johnston’s proposal, for a company called Alpine Basin Ski-touring, was received by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources on Nov. 9. His request also includes occasional use of the southern face of a mountain within Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park. The ministry has 140 days to either accept or deny the application, which can be viewed in full here.
The application comes after Kootenay Heli-Ski Inc.’s tenure application to operate daily heli-ski tours in the same area was denied by the ministry in November. Public opposition to the plan was cited as one of the reason’s for the application’s failure by the ministry.
Johnston wants to avoid the same fate.
His plans include a helipad, built to ferry guests, resources and sewage in and out of the site on a once-per-week basis, as well as two yurts. Johnston said he wants 8-10 guests at max capacity including two guides and one cook at the site, which would begin construction in summer 2017.
Johnston stresses he isn’t trying to buy the land. His said his request for a land-use tenure won’t exclude private skiers from using the site.
“I can understand if someone were to look at this and be like, oh, there’s another chunk of our terrain gone,” said Johnston. “But it’s not gone. It’s not exclusive. I can never, and I would never, want to push people away who are there to partake in the area in a self-propelled manner.”
The 38-year-old’s application boasts an extensive list of credentials. Johnson, who works part time as a registered nurse at Kootenay Lake Hospital, has been certified by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides since 2006. He has bachelor degrees in education and kinesiology, a decade experience working as a firefighter and is a certified tree feller.
He said he wants to provide local residents with an affordable opportunity to visit land rarely used by skiers.
“It’s a real drive for me, motivation for this is to set something up that isn’t going to conflict, isn’t going to piss people off and it will be a resource that people see, like, ‘oh yeah, you know what I can actually afford to go up there and go ski in some amazing terrain, and have a fully qualified guide to be there and keep me safe, and yet I won’t be paying for maybe the most posh setting and I also won’t have to pay for the helicopter.’ I’m trying to make it more accessible.”
Two details complicate Johnston’s application.
The first is the use of park land. Johnston’s request only includes a small fraction of the provincial park, which he says will be rarely used because it faces south and offers only a temporary amount of time to use before the snowpack warms.
“When it is available, it’s nice to say that yes, that is something we can go to,” he said. “And it is amazing terrain, it really is.”
The Kootenay Glacier Cabin, which is operated by the Alpine Club of Canada, is 10 kilometres north-east of Johnston’s proposed lodge site inside park land. Visitors are required to apply for the cabin through a lottery system, which Johnston said shows there’s high demand for skiing in the area.
The other complication is a competing applicant. A recreation site situated within Johnston’s proposed ski area has been applied for by Recreation Sites and Trails BC.
Johnston is sensitive to any public opposition to his plans. Kootenay Heli-Ski Inc. held no meetings to discuss its plans with local residents, but Johnston already has. He met with concerned locals Wednesday at the Nelson and District Community Centre, after which he said he amended his plans to exclude an area used by snowmobilers.
Johnston has another meeting planned at the NDCC’s multi-purpose room on Jan. 6, and said he’ll hold more if there’s demand.
“If this is going to work,” said Johnston, “given that there’s a lot of people who care about this area, then I better speak to everybody as best as I can and be as open about and transparent about all my aspirations here.”