The History of
Vancouver Island's Original Ski Hill
Skiing on Forbidden Plateau, 22 kilometres west of Courtenay, began in the 1920s when skiers would hike from the village of Bevan all the way up to Mt. Becher. Around this time, City of Courtenay engineer Clinton Wood was exploring the area and quickly recognized its beauty and recreational potential. Wishing to share his discovery with the general public, Wood wrote to Ben Hughes, publisher of the Courtenay-Comox Argus newspaper. Wood, who was also secretary of the local board of trade, suggested to Hughes "the idea that a bit of mystery added to the obvious attractions would help to publicize it." And so it was that Hughes and a colleague named the area Forbidden Plateau. Hughes also seized the opportunity to fabricate a spooky legend:
When the K'ómoks tribe faced raids from neighbouring coastal tribes, they took their women and children to the plateau for safekeeping. Once, during a raid by the Cowichan tribe, the women and children vanished without a trace. When a member of the K'ómoks tribe went looking for them, he found nothing but red lichen covering the snow and rocks. He assumed the lichen to be blood from family members. Since then, according to some sources, the plateau has been taboo for the K'ómoks people as it was believed that it was inhabited by evil spirits who had somehow consumed those they had sent during the raids.
In 1928, Wood co-founded the Comox District Mountaineering Club and promoted skiing on the Plateau. Six years later he built Forbidden Plateau Lodge just below what is now the former ski hill (the lodge would burn down in 1982). In the late 1940s a "cable wrapped around a wheel rim," run by a war surplus four-cylinder Wisconsin engine, served as the hill's first rope tow. Thanks to the Club, by the early 1950s there was a maintained run from Mt. Becher, through the forest, all the way down to the lodge. The Club also organized the first Kandahar downhill race in 1951—an annual March event that would continue for decades.
As skiing on Forbidden gained in popularity, Herb Bradley was hired by the City of Courtenay's recreation department to offer weekend ski lessons to kids (students in his program were affectionately known as the "Fanny Dunkers"). In 1964, the Mt. Becher Ski Development Society was formed and assumed all ski operations at Forbidden Plateau. As a non-profit, all financial gains had to be reinvested into the facility. The Society was backed by dozens of Valley residents who donated and loaned money, interest-free, to the organization, and who volunteered their time to help make the hill a success.
Funds were raised in short order to build a $35,000 T-bar—the first on Vancouver Island—above the lodge in January of 1965. The following year, the road to the lodge was extended to the base of the tows, and the 97-hectare ski area was declared a provincial Class C park, officially named Wood Mountain Ski Park. As a Class C, it would be managed by a local board and permitted to provide local recreation amenities.
The new lift proved to be so successful in drawing skiers to the mountain that a $50,000 credit union loan was obtained to double the length of the new T-bar to 4,000 feet and to add a 1,400-foot T-bar to the lower slopes. Both projects were completed by early 1967. The same year, plans were in the works for a ski rental/repair shop fronting the new parking lot.
An early melt the winter of '67-'68 forced the Ski Society to borrow $5,000 to cover operating expenses, and its annual financial report indicated a deficit of almost $1,100. More bad news arrived in the form of an unexpected tax bill from the Provincial Land Assessor. A sum of $1,700 was to be owed annually. The Ski Society argued (unsuccessfully) in court that it should not be taxed because it was a community-owned non-profit. The Society would decline to pay the tax, year after year, with the hope that either the province would reconsider or that the Comox-Strathcona Regional District would step in and acquire the land from the province.
Suboptimal weather and tax troubles, however, did nothing to sour the optimism of Herb Bradley, by now director of the Courtenay Recreation Association. He argued that major investments were required to keep up with Forbidden's ever-increasing popularity. His vision for the hill included more T-bars, a chairlift, a new day lodge at the parking lot, and snow-grooming machinery.
Construction of a $29,000 day lodge began in the fall of 1971 as the Ski Society began a major push to raise money to further expand operations on Wood Mountain. To that end, 10-year term debentures—available in $500 and $1,000 denominations, paying 10% interest—were offered.
By early 1972, the Ski Society's unpaid tax bill had grown to $10,000 and the province began garnishing its bank account. The Society reacted angrily in the press, arguing, as it had all along, that it was the victim of a tax-collecting loophole. Herb Bradley, having recently resigned from his City of Courtenay job to take on duties with the Society, railed against the move and suggested that, far from owing taxes, the Society should be receiving "large size grants" from the government for all the economic good the ski resort generated.
Vancouver Island's first chairlift was proudly unveiled and operational in December of 1972. In order to finance the $250,000 project the Ski Society had to form a limited liability company, to which funds could then be advanced by the Industrial Development Bank (a federal Crown corporation tasked with helping grow small- to medium-size enterprises). Bob McPhee, president of the Society and the new LLC, indicated that the latter was non-profit and both entities operated "for the benefit of the entire community."
1975 began auspiciously when the province, through the Community Recreational Assistance Fund, delivered a $98,000 cheque to the Ski Society. An additional grant of $42,000 to put towards a new $135,000 T-bar—that would tow skiers 1,800 feet to Courtenay Lookout—was approved a few months later, while plans for a second chairlift were shelved due to cost.
From 1964 to 1979, Forbidden Plateau's success increased steadily. The hill attracted skiers from all over the Island, with cities as far away as Victoria offering chartered bus service. The resort was the pride of the Comox Valley, boasting a family-friendly atmosphere and the lowest ticket prices in the province for comparable facilities. Today, we can pinpoint the '78-'79 ski season as Forbidden's apex—a season that saw almost 8,000 students register for ski school and over 100,000 skiers flock to the hill, generating $700,000 in revenue for the Society.
For years, the possibility of a new provincially funded ski development at Coronation Mountain near Ladysmith had caused consternation for the operators of Forbidden, Green Mountain (near Nanaimo), and Mt. Arrowsmith. But as those worries subsided with news of the government's scrapping of the project, a different development was approved in early 1976. And this one would go on to change the face of skiing on the Island forever.
Given the go-ahead by the Comox-Strathcona Regional District, a large new privately owned ski resort at Mt. Washington would, over the next three years, begin to take shape, just a stone's throw from Forbidden Plateau.
When Mt. Washington eventually opened its gates the winter of '79-'80, the bosses at the Ski Society appeared not to be too concerned, with Herb Bradley welcoming the competition from the neighbouring facility. Nor was Forbidden standing still: an ambitious $1-million improvement plan was in motion, one that would see water and sewer services introduced; BC Hydro lines sent up the mountain ($256,000); and a three-storey addition built on the day lodge incorporating indoor washrooms, a larger kitchen, a 130-seat licensed dining room, heated change rooms, lockers, a first-aid area, and lunch room facilities ($400,000).
Funding for these upgrades was to come from a joint federal-provincial loan program, a bank loan, the Community Recreational Assistance Fund, and operational revenue. But in early 1981, with all the improvement work already completed, the Ski Society found itself in a financial pinch when the province denied the organization's application for a $142,000 grant from the Assistance Fund. (It did not help matters that both Tourism B.C. and the B.C. Lottery Fund also rejected funding requests.) A disastrous '80-'81 ski season—in which no snow fell for the first time since 1947—left the Society owing $165,000 "to small businesses all over the valley" and carrying an accumulated debt of $900,000. Worse, provincial officials were signalling that, if financial obligations could not be met, the $2-million Forbidden facility could be sold to a private developer.
Desperate to raise money quickly, the Ski Society made the decision to offer a 10-year, $500 season pass ahead of the '81-'82 ski season. However, the weather did not cooperate that winter, nor the next one, leaving the Society unable to make even interest-only payments on its $500,000 loan with the Royal Bank. The Society penned a letter to the province in early 1983, requesting "some consideration" toward a financial helping hand. Although selling off the resort was not being seriously contemplated, Society president Dave Kirk conceded that if someone approached them offering cash, "we'd have to seriously look at it." By this point, it had also become clear to the Ski Society that Mt. Washington—with its higher elevation, better snow conditions, more runs, and superior equipment—was poaching significant numbers of skiers from Forbidden.
In January of 1984, during a ski season in which the resort only operated for 18 days before shutting down due to lack of snow, the Federal Business Development Bank (formerly the Industrial Development Bank) called in a loan of $208,000, plus accumulated interest, forcing the Mt. Becher Ski Development Society into receivership. "It was the weather that did us in," concluded area manager Wolf Clar. "And nobody controls the weather."
July brought news that about 50 long-time Comox Valley residents put up $300,000 of their own money to save the facility, forming a private company—Forbidden Plateau Recreation Ltd.—to purchase the operation and all its assets. For the first time in decades, the resort would head into a ski season debt-free.
The purchase of snow-making equipment valued at $1 million was contemplated in 1987, with the aim of increasing days of operation—a severe shortage of which had bedevilled the resort every year since the decade began. However, in a cruel irony, continued lack of snow the next few seasons meant there was no money to purchase snow-making machinery—and only barely enough to keep the company solvent.
By 1991, Forbidden Recreation was so financially strapped that a "save the mountain" concert was held that summer with the hope of raising close to $250,000. The company also announced that there was "still an active search underway for new investors." Funds raised that summer, however, only amounted to $50,000 and came mostly from the wallets of the 50 company shareholders. But it was enough for Forbidden Recreation spokesman Robert Kirk to declare, "Our financial worries are behind us," as he and Forbidden headed into the '91-'92 ski season, one that would go into the books as the resort's second-worst in history, with only three days of operation.
February, 1994, brought massive snowfall to the hill, the likes of which had not been seen for 15 years. Over the course of a week, 245 centimetres fell on the slopes, partially burying the chairlift terminal at the summit. But despite the incredible snow, and several subsequent favourable winters, Forbidden struggled each season to draw big crowds. In early 1998, Forbidden Recreation general manager Robert Kirk called, once again, for investors "to help finance future upgrades of the facilities."
On the evening of Thursday, February 25, 1999, one-third of the day lodge's roof collapsed under heavy snow. No one was hurt. The ski hill had received about eight metres of snow that month and the lodge's roof had already been cleared of snow twice prior to the collapse. Fortunately, after inspection, the rest of the lodge was deemed to be structurally sound, but the cost of the damage was estimated to be $250,000 and the building was not insured. The ski hill reopened one week later, with lodge general manager Ralph Sorenson imploring the community to support Forbidden in its time of need. To entice skiers, family passes were discounted to $250 (from $855).
Just one week after resuming operations, yet another disaster befell the ailing ski resort. A valve on an 18,000-litre diesel tank broke and leaked what was later estimated to be over 5,000 litres of fuel, which contaminated the well water of nearby cabins and a fish-bearing stream.
With cabin owners taking legal action, and the Ministry of Environment planning to pursue Forbidden Recreation for the cost of the fuel cleanup, Robert Kirk announced, in the fall of 1999, that Forbidden was out of money and that the mountain was closed indefinitely.
Forbidden was "mothballed, not dead," stated Robert Kirk in early 2001. The $3.5-million ski facility required $1.5 million to repair the lodge, upgrade everything, and pay its bills. According to Kirk, Forbidden's only hope was to attract a wealthy investor (to whom majority control would be given), since banks were unwilling to lend money to a private company operating on land that was leased, not owned.
In the early hours of Sunday, February 24, 2002—three years, almost to the day, since the roof collapse—the Forbidden Plateau day lodge burned to the ground. At the height of the fire, flames could be seen all the way from Courtenay. The suspicious fire caused damage estimated at $400,000. Since being shuttered, the lodge had been plagued by vandalism and break-ins. One incident involved a third-floor rampage featuring the lodge's dinnerware being tossed onto the parking lot below, smashed to bits.
The official time of death of the Forbidden Plateau ski hill was probably 2004, when Forbidden Recreation's 20-year lease expired. Around that time, some large debris piles deemed a fire hazard were removed by the province. The resort's buildings and equipment, already in rough shape from years of weather-damage and human-damage, would be left to deteriorate for another decade.
In 2015, Edwin Grieve, area director of the Comox Valley Regional District, wrote to the province requesting funding to clean up and remediate the former ski hill. One year later, the Forbidden Plateau Reclamation Society was formed and obtained a permit (but no money) from the province to begin cleanup. Funding would come from the CVRD, BC Hydro, and donations from the local community and businesses.
Cleanup began in the fall of 2017 with removal of the day lodge foundation, three nearby buildings, and the large diesel tanks that powered the ski lifts. Risk of wildfire limited work in 2018, but the next year saw the lifts, chairlift towers, and remaining debris hauled away.
By December, 2019, the project was complete. However, not everything was removed. The chairlift's return bullwheel at the summit and a lattice arch (part of the chairlift's hold-down assembly) at the base still stand where they have since 1972, serving as a "monument" to Vancouver Island's original ski hill.
An agreement-in-principle for the return of Wood Mountain Ski Park has been signed by the province and the K'ómoks First Nation as part of a treaty settlement. Public access to Strathcona Provincial Park will be preserved.