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Sep 12 2011

The Table

It's the first thing you notice...

What draws your attention the most
is an oval slab of granite…

It’s the first thing you notice when you enter Selkirk Lodge, which is odd considering it’s just a table. Sure you’ll spend a fair amount of time at it in the coming week as you log long days of backcountry skiing, but the skiing was the point of the vacation, not the table, right? Later on, when your vacation is done and you’re thinking back on the moments that defined the trip, I’ll guarantee half of them are at the table.

Rectangular in shape, the eight-by-three-foot top is a book-matched, edge-glued piece of local Revelstoke birch, with a spline of black walnut and a breadboard end. The finish is a clear satin varnish, thick enough to enrich the texture in the grain of the wood, but not so thick as to steal the show with its own glossy sheen. Instead of traditional posts, its legs are two pairs of laminated birch arches drawn like a bow, adding an under-appreciated touch of elegance.

What draws your attention the most is an oval slab of granite, inlaid dead center in the top like a frozen tear from the mountain gods. The polished surface reflects the light streaming in from the picture windows around the table, revealing the snowy playground you’ll be romping in for the next seven days and inspiring the thought that this stone might even have been polished by the glaciers surrounding you. Which, when you first arrive, is all you’re thinking about.

After all, a backcountry skiing vacation means chasing untracked, virgin powder, swapping the weight of the world for a simple pack loaded with food, water and spare necessities, the congestion and traffic of your daily commute for a simple, sweat powered skin track, a cityscape for a view from a snow-clad peak and overpopulation for solitude.

Deep in our hearts, that exchange of surroundings means so much more than the pure quality of that snow, though. Even after a day spent skinning and schussing in the fantabulous light powder of the Selkirk Mountains, with blue skies and light winds, the magic doesn’t really start until the first communal dinner. It always does when you bring kindred strangers together at the same table.

The magic doesn't really start until the first communal dinner..

It’s funny how it works. You share turns, sweat and the altitude together, then dinner conversation begins right where you left off. On my last trip to Selkirk Lodge, I reminisced with Rober’, my backcountry bro’ who had skied with me as smelly tele-heads in our prime the last time we were here.

We fell right back in to conversation, though now I ribbed him he’d, “Gone to the darkside,”—no matter that I was to blame for getting him to try AT.

For everyone else, it was new faces and names to cogitate on, and fresh friendships quickly began. If you’re gonna have a fair-weather friend, my friend, this is the way to do it. Hook up with a bunch of fellow backcountry fanatics deep in the mountains in a cozy hut, living skiing to the max. It’s hard not to consider someone a friend who shares those good times with you.

I brought earplugs for everyone.

You may never see any of these people again, but now you know someone else in the world that might open their door to you if all hell breaks loose, and you’re in their neighborhood. Then again, they might not. But the beauty of a week at the table is, you won’t have to test that.

For the next seven days, they will be subject to your farts, belches, generally peculiar habits and bad jokes, as you will be to everyone else’s. And personal oddities tend to make for great comedy, especially in close quarters.

Take Gil, for instance. He’s an easy target ‘cuz he snores. BAD! He knows it. He apologizes for it. But he wasn’t willing to sacrifice for the rest of us and get the operation we suggested either, so we gave him grief with a smile.

...but it doesn't stop the walls from shaking

Then there’s Bill, who we called Clint Billwood for his pointed, man-of-few-words act. He thought the snoring so bad that joking could only be a social requirement for cohabitation in the same hut, greeting Gil at the trailhead with a hearty, “Hey, did you get the operation?”

But back to the talk at the table. Gil replied to Clint, “but I have earplugs… for everybody!”

Lou bellowed in, “Yeah, but it doesn’t stop the walls from shaking!” He knew how bad Gils’ snoring could be, and his comment was disturbingly accurate.

Everyone roared at that.

Ten out of 15 of us roared at that, while the other five exchanged nervous glances. Half of them realized they’d forgotten earplugs and were later quite grateful for Gil’s considerate offer. Still the conversation kept moving on, none of it related to work.

By nine, we felt the pull of tomorrow’s turns and set in motion the recharge of the eyelids. A brigade formed to hit the snow mine one more time, stocking up the water pots, and we all drifted off in our beds.

Day two was even better. It wasn’t just that the conditions were perfect, they were sublime. The storm that preceded our arrival had left at least 12 inches in the flats with a sparkly surface. The skies had stayed clear both nights since the storm, drying northern aspects even lighter than when it fell. On the steep, lee sides of the slopes dropping from Devine Peak we found it twice that deep, with surface hoar lighter still.

The climb up was easy. Our guides, Ken and Matt took it easy on us after the previous day’s opening volley of 6800 vertical feet. A light breeze dusted the ridge as we climbed, wicking our sweat so we didn’t overheat. Seasoned hut skiers that we were, we didn’t really ask questions about where we were headed, trusting the guides to deliver the goods if we could keep up.

With every turn the slope bent steeper...

All the same, when Ken announced we were headed down Espresso, I had to ask a second time to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Over the course of several trips to Selkirk Lodge, I had concluded that skiing Espresso would only happen in the afterlife, or in my dreams. But no, Ken re-iterated, we were skiing straight down the ridge to where the slope disappeared from view.

Every time I’d come here, I’d been up to Devine Peak, and every time we had come back down the way we climbed, along a rolling, moderately pitched ridge and slightly steeper open bowl. Apparently the steep north slopes leading straight down from the summit were both too good and too avy prone to dare share with mere visitors. True local status had to be part of the key to access. After all, the only one who seemed to make a habit of skiing the north face of Devine was Grania Devine, the owner of the lodge and the widow of the peak’s late namesake. Until today.

As each of us took our turn, the frost sparkling ahead in the sun, the smoky shadow billowing behind, and not silently either, but with the sound of thousands of tiny chimes as the crystals collided with each other. With every turn the slope bent steeper, pulling from the deep into a moment of freefall leading into the next turn, and the next, to the bottom. From the bottom each of us gazed back up in disbelief, no one speaking, but all feeling those moments etched on the canvas of the slope. If there is skiing in Heaven, every run will be at least this good.

The sun was sinking too low for the other run we all wanted, and we used our remaining energy to climb home, awaiting the table’s divine offering of hors d’oeuvres—croissants stuffed with creamy pate of crab meat, plus crackers, veggies, spinach dip, chased with pure, refreshing mountain snowmelt, beer and wine.

Grania Devine, Grand Dame of hut karma.

Our bodies bent on refueling and rehydrating, conversation ran absent, just a few jokes and jabs recounting the moments of the day. Once satiated we all drifted off to clean out our packs, take a sauna or shower, catnap or relax with a book. Grania and Kate busily prepared dinner, and the guides penciled notes on conditions in their logbooks.

As the glow of the sunset faded, it was time to convene at the table again, for food yes, but also for conversations, memories relived and friendships built strong. It’s the best part of the trip, an indigenous camaraderie that seems to emanate from tables in backcountry huts throughout the world.

Knock knock. Who's there?

It’s been the common theme of every table I’ve ever had the privilege to sit at—the laughter at the linoleum-covered tables of Baldy Hut, the din of conversation at the picnic-style tables of Meadow Hut, the riotous jokes and jabs at Durrand Glacier Chalet, and the drunken fun at the Discovery Hut or Baldy Knoll Yurt. Talk always meanders through a wide range of topics, from all that matters to silly trivia, and always a bit of minutia thrown in that you never knew. Conversation partners at these tables run the gamut, from landscapers to nuclear physicists. There’s always a doctor or a nurse at the table, and though rare, sometimes you get the pleasure of a musician too.

Don't blame me, he set the...

I haven’t yet been to Mistaya, Powder Creek, Carlyle Lodge, Burnie Glacier Chalet, Baldface Lodge, the Friends Hut, the San Juans, or the Phillips Brook yurts, though I’m looking forward to sharing memories and meals at each of those tables.

But for me, the table at Grania’s will always hold a unique elegance. My wife and I spent our honeymoon dining at that table. At least two marriages that I know of were born there, including Grania’s sister Reinet and her husband Hans, and Roger and Vicki Laurilla (though Vicki has left us). Who knows how many other romances—let alone friendships—have been kindled there, as love swirls around that table like a cosmic vortex of good karma, something that others and I have often witnessed.

The attention to detail implies three things...

As the hot dishes were set on the stone for all 14 of us to share elbow to elbow, our conversation settled—as it does at least once a week at Selkirk Lodge—on the special quality of the table.

The attention to detail evident in this table tells you three things.

First, a craftsman of unusual skill built it.

Second, it was built with love.

And third, it is cared for and used with love, every week.

If you haven’t experienced what a week of dining at a table in a backcountry hut can do for you, it’s time to change that. Who knows, fate may put us in the same hut some day, and when it does, we’ll both be better off for having spent time at the table.

© 2006

 

This article was first published in Couloir XIX-1, Sept. 2006.