SIMPLE PLEASURES IN THE BIG LAND
Smokey Mountain, Labrador
Words by Alex Henniffent | Photos by Dru Kennedy
For over the past year, we've all been dealing with some pretty lousy circumstances. Sometimes it's hard to believe that something so simple as a tiny, inanimate ball of genetic material could slap us around the way that it has. But at the same time, it's quite humbling how this entire thing has forced us to slow down a bit, look around, and refine to a simpler way of doin' what we do. That notion of simplicity and appreciation is something that I've been trying to lean into lately, whether it be for snowboarding, work, or life in general. So when things randomly lined up for a last-minute trip up to Smokey Mountain in Labrador to get a final stab at winter, the only real question was, "Who's in?"
For those who have never heard of Smokey Mountain, it's a quirky little ski hill that quietly lives on the side of an open-pit mine in Western Labrador. Many have never heard of it, but those who have, know just how legendary it is. Without a doubt, it's one of Atlantic Canada's best-kept secrets. Home to incredible terrain and the nicest snow in the East. And the people that make up the community there are simply the best. Unless you work in the mining sector or can afford expensive, off-the-grid fishing excursions, you've likely never considered Labrador a travel destination. Travel options are minimal and include many kilometres over an unpaved and unfriendly highway or one costly plane ticket. I've dealt with both in the past, but this time around, we lined up an arrangement with our friends at PAL Airlines, one of the few providers servicing Labrador. Although Smokey Mountain is one of only three ski resorts that operate within Newfoundland and Labrador, many province residents still have no idea it exists. I was one of those people. But since my first visit, I've obligated myself to an annual trip over their "Big Weekend." A rowdy gathering that basically consists of a straight week of drinking, snowboarding, and banter.
As we unloaded our snowboards and began walking towards the lodge, an old snowmobile struggled up over a nearby riverbank. The slender, scruffy-looking driver in full military attire drove towards us. Sitting between his arms was a well-aged chocolate lab, trailing not far behind was another; Yoni. Yoni owns the local dive bar and somehow lives at the base of Smokey with his two dogs. I then see Toby, Smokey's president, storm out of the lodge, saying he's misplaced his phone somewhere. In the same breath mumble, "The boys fucked up the groomer again..." It was a real commotion. Still, I couldn't think of a more perfect moment to capture Smokey's erratic nature and the characters that hung out here. It was like we had never left.
Smokey Mountain is an industry ski hill, and I don't mean the ski industry. Built back in the ’60s by the Iron Ore Company of Canada as a recreational outlet for its staff to keep busy while off the clock. The proximity of the lifts to the mine are so close that you can sometimes see shards of iron ore in the snow from the blasting. Once a week, when blasting takes place, the ski hill and its one resident (Yoni) have to be evacuated. Everyone in the area is affected by the trading price of the ore that gets mined on the adjacent ridge, which creates a interesting lodge dynamic. Each weekend, people of all ages, ethnicities, and income brackets—ranging from the janitors to executive management—pile into the tiny bar and find common grounds around the joys of skiing and snowboarding. It's a true melting pot. The inclusivity of how quick locals are to welcome outsiders is something I'm always fascinated by. A visit to Smokey and seeing first-hand how playfully the hill is operated is an exotic experience for the average person. And on the other hand, when a fresh group of outsiders come into town, it shakes things up and helps "make the familiar fun," as told to me one morning on the chairlift. A unique convergence takes place, and it does something special for both sides.
Springtime in Labrador is insane. There's always a ton of snow, the days are long, and the energy is unrivalled. Aside from the all-time riding that Smokey consistently offers, I get the biggest kick out of the unusual traditions that have taken form here. During a normal year, there's a huge pig roast and an on-hill campout. Locals will set up a colony of heavy-duty canvas tents equipped with small wood stoves and floored with the boughs of a spruce tree. Unfortunately, these didn't happen this year, but two that did were Steak Night and the Slush Cup. Both might sound fairly standard, but they're far from it. In the middle of Smokey's lodge, there's a large, open-faced charcoal grill (that's somehow been grandfathered into their insurance policy) where people can bring and sling their own meat onto. Fancy a baked potato and some mushrooms and onions? For a few bucks, the canteen's got you covered. What's better is Smokey's take on a Slush Cup, which follows the rules of a Chinese Downhill—it's a jam format and every person for themselves. It's fast and chaotic, but the best part is that it takes place on an actual pond, so you'd better be able to swim.
At the end of the Big Weekend, everybody gathers at the peak with bottles of pricey champagne for the final run of the season. A toast is made to the winter that has come and gone. A reflection and celebration of the good times and the challenges overcome that ultimately made the season possible. This year that toast seemed to carry more weight than ever before.
As we all huddled, champagne in-hand while fireworks blasted off around us, it occurred to me that this was a pretty special moment. Many of us have been separated for nearly two years, dealing with our own stuff amidst everything else that was going on. Collectively, our love for this secret little ski hill has brought us back together. I admire these smaller-scale hills because of their ability to be nimble, resourceful, and clever with how they operate. It might not always be pretty, but it often works, and as long as it results in the lifts turning and people getting to ride, they've succeeded.
In Smokey's case, it definitely didn't take a global pandemic to highlight their ability to improvise and adapt. Over the years, I've heard stories of folks skiing around with carburettors in their pockets in case the engine on the lift acted up. I've seen peanut-butter containers next to the lift shack for folks to drop a toonie into, just to entice a lifty enough to run the chair for another day. Rarely do you see such drive and ingenuity at the more prominent resorts. Less is more, and I say this because it encourages things to be viewed through a more creative, resourceful, and appreciative lens. Spending time with tight-knit communities at offbeat places like Smokey Mountain is a testament to the fun to be had at resorts that wouldn't be your first pick.
Drinking a beer and blasting off fireworks while riding my snowboard down the side of an active mine, I couldn't think of a better way to conclude this weird-ass winter.