It’s a lesser-known area for winter recreation but Blaine Carson wants to let the Shuswap in on the secret.
The traverse over the Larch Hills from Salmon Arm to Sicamous is a well-used mountain bike route in the summer, but Carson says he is one of a relatively small group who use the area near the Sicamous end of the traverse as a cross-country ski area. When travelled on skis he said it offers undisturbed routes and beautiful views over Shuswap and Mara Lakes.
Carson’s preferred access point to the traverse is the Sicamous switchbacks, accessible by a dirt road which runs behind the Sicamous sign near the west side of the Bruhn Bridge.
Speaking to the Eagle Valley News while out exploring new terrain in the Larch Hills, which has been opened up by logging operations, Carson, alongside a group of nine other skiers, spoke of a favourite route which offers great views of Mara Lake.
Carson recounted a recent trip on which he hiked up the switchbacks, which took about to two hours in winter conditions, and went on to the Hyde Mountain lookout on his skis. Upon reaching the top of the switchbacks, the trail splits off, either leading to Salmon Arm over the 38-kilometre traverse or on a shorter journey to the lookout. Carson said the skied portion of the journey took approximately two hours and offers peace, quiet and seclusion because few people know the trail is accessible in the winter.
“It’s rare to find anybody there, I did find a couple of college kids once who had read the website and were trying to get there, but they only got part way up the hill,” Carson said.
Carson noted the return journey from the lookout took three hours, making the round trip a seven-hour adventure suitable for seasoned skiers.
On long ski trips, including a full traverse of the Larch Hills which Carson did for the first time 10 years ago and plans to repeat this year, some specialized supplies are required. He said he packs plenty of food, water and extra clothing and uses wide skies and wide baskets on his poles which stop them from sinking into deep snow.
Carson said more signage to draw attention to the ski area at the top of the switchbacks in the winter and a parking area at the bottom would be beneficial. He added that thanks to limited snowfall this winter, parking at the bottom has been OK, but in previous years he has called the highway maintenance contractor to request enough space be cleared behind the Sicamous sign for him to park.
More signage asking snowmobilers to stay out of the Larch Hills would also help things for skiers Carson said. Winter logging has given trucks looking to unload sleds access to parts of the Larch Hills which they often don’t in the winter. Carson said in the relatively shallow snow this year, the snowmobile tracks aren’t much of an impediment, but in deep powder they can make areas impassible on skis.
Phil McIntyre-Paul, executive director of the Shuswap Trail Alliance, said winter use of the areas at the Sicamous end of the traverse is on their radar, partly thanks to Carson, who sends them updates on conditions in the area. He said people like the traverse in the winter because it straddles the line between front and backcountry, offering rigorous cross-country ski touring without the risk of avalanche found in other areas.
McIntyre-Paul raised the possibility of more winter-only signage in the area of the traverse, highlighting routes skiers can take, such as over logging cut blocks, which would be impassable without a thick blanket of snow on the ground.
There are several other recreational trails around the Shuswap that McIntyre-Paul said are under-utilized in the winter months despite being well-suited to skiing or snowshoeing. He said the Trail Alliance makes an effort to mark many of its popular hiking trails with orange tape on trees so people can use them in the winter without wandering off into the woods.
He said the trail up to the Mount Baldy lookout is a great snowshoe route and the trail systems at the Skmana Lake and Larch Hills cross- country ski areas are ideal for beginners. He added that the North Fork Wild trail system near Malakwa is also snowshoe-accessible and offers beautiful scenery, but trail users should be wary of the steep drop off to the river.
For those looking for some outdoor winter exercise without straying far from Salmon Arm or Sicamous, McIntyre Paul said the South Canoe and Rubberhead mountain bike trails make good snow shoe routes with gruelling inclines in places.