South Star’s mysterious Escher Trail

Editor Barry Coulter stumbles across a secret cross-country ski trail in Cranbrook

I want you all to know: This winter I have taken up cross-country skiing, a sport that seems to fit my budget, temperament and relative degree of conditioning.

Yes, I got some skis, and when winter hit I immediately headed out to the fabulous, fantastic, famous South Star Trails in the mysterious hills south of Cranbrook.

The South Star Trails, at the base of Cranbrook Mountain, are a local paradise for recreationalists — endless kilometres of trails, spread out over an immeasurable area of light forest, all kept in pristine condition by local volunteers.

Skiers head out into its vastness and disappear from each other for hours, re-emerging later in the parking lot at the end of 38th Street, refreshed like they’ve had some communion with the wild gods of the East Kootenay mountain wilderness.

In my first outings, I kept to the easy trails, like “Easy Street.” But the other day, hypnotized by the stillness and the swish of the skis, I lost track of where I was. When I “came too,” I found that I was not only quite tired, but I was on one of the tougher, “black diamond” trails — I wasn’t quite sure where.

I tried to turn around, tripped over my skis and fell over. I then had the devil of a time trying to get back up, flailing around like some giant overturned beetle in the snow.

To my relief, a skier came schussing up out of the lightly falling snow. He stopped, offered his arm, and I was able to finally pull myself back to my feet. I leaned on my poles, gasping.

“Say, you look like you could use a breather,” he said. I nodded. “I’d love a bench,” I panted.

He looked around over both his shoulders, as if to check that no one was there. “Listen,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but head that way for 20 metres, take a right, go another 20 metres, take a left, then follow the S-shaped trail for yet another 20 metres, hang another left, and ski the trail you find there for a while. When you feel better, just ski back to the start of that trail and follow your nose out to the parking lot.

“And remember, don’t tell anyone where you heard about it.” The skier then schussed away into the lightly falling snow.

So I did it. I skied 20 metres, hung a roscoe, another 20 metres, hung a louie, then another louie, and found myself in front of a sign that said “Escher Trail (volunteers only).” I started down this trail.

Escher Trail had a gentle downhill slope that seemed to go on for miles, twisting through the trees. It was the most fun trail I’d been on yet. Easy too. Skiing on it was like resting. “I’m sure not looking forward to that uphill slog on the way back,” I said. “But this great downhill cruise makes it worth it, for sure!”

After what seemed like hours, the trail ended, just like that, with only the forbidding wilderness of Cranbrook Mountain in front of me. I turned around, feeling refreshed, prepared to herring-bone, skate-ski and pole my way back to the head of the trail.

But to my surprise, I began to glide back the way I came — downhill again! Through some trick of geography, Escher Trail was a trail that went downhill both ways. “Oh boy,” I said, “I’m going to be skiing this trail again!”

If anything, Escher Trail was easier skiing back the way I came. Downhill both ways, how often does that happen?

About halfway along, I saw a man on the trail, busy grooming away some tree branches. He looked up as I skied up to him.

“What are you doing on this trail?” he asked. “This is for volunteers only. Didn’t you see the sign?”

“I did see the sign,” I said. “But I guess I ignored it. Say, how about this trail! It’s the best!”

The man shook his head. “You’ve got a glimpse of what non-volunteers never glimpse. Many have skied these hills looking for the fabulous Escher Trail. Many have skied, few have seen. This is a mystical, edge-of-another-world perk for those who volunteer, keeping the South Star Trails in shape. Who told you about it?”

“No one told me about it,” I said. “I just stumbled across it.”

The man shook his head again. “No one just stumbles across it. Many have skied, few have seen.”

“Well,” I said, “now that I have found it, you can bet I’ll be back. Not only do I feel refreshed, I feel like a Scandinavian Olympian.”

Again, he shook his head. What was with all the head-shaking?

“You might think you’ll come right back,” he said. “But you won’t.

“You could,” he added, “always volunteer.”

He got me to help him move a big piece of windfall away from the trail. And then I was off, skiing downhill the way I came, to the top of Escher Trail. And then I followed my nose out to the parking lot, feeling like an Olympian.

And that was that. I have skied South Star Trails again and again, searching for the fabulous Escher Trail, that goes downhill both ways. But I have not been able to find it. I ask skiers as they schuss on by — they look at me blankly. I’ve taken the roscoe, the louie and another louie, and I’ve followed my nose. But it’s like Escher Trail never existed.

But I’m not giving up my search. I’m keen to see what it’s like biking it in the summer. Perhaps it’s time to volunteer.