It’s a good thing I love action photography as much as I do. A few years ago, I planned the ultimate West Coast ski trip: the Diablo Shores Pro Am, three days of skiing at Radar Lake and the Malibu Pro — all capped off with a few days of skiing on Vancouver Island, which my friend Shawn Shorsky had been telling me about for years. One day into the trip, I badly sprained my ankle on the water, completely changing the way I would spend my time for the next week. In the days that followed, I became closely acquainted with my camera.
After the Malibu Pro, Shorsky and I drove from Abbotsford, British Columbia, to the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal, within 600 yards of the U.S. border, and took the ferry through the Gulf Islands, destination Victoria. A gorgeous sunset was the perfect introduction to the island. We woke up early the next morning and headed to Shawnigan Lake, about a 30-minute drive north. It’s there we met up with several members of one of Canada’s longest-running ski clubs. The Victoria Aqua Ski Club has been around for 53 years and has about 70 skiers. Although it was a crisp, beautiful morning, I was a little disappointed about the windy conditions. The course was completely blown out, but, luckily, the seven-mile lake offers protected fingers that welcome free-skiers. After a quick jaunt across the lake, we were out of the chop and into the glass that ran deep into a channel that was about 200 yards wide.
Jessica Erb skied first. A personal trainer and competitive skier who placed second at Canadian Nationals, Erb carved turn after turn as we closely trailed her in the photo boat. Jed Leech was next. He’s a third-generation skier and the grandson of the only living founder of the ski club. Our time on Shawnigan Lake was brief because we wanted to get to Lake Cowichan for an evening session. Lake Cowichan is one of the largest lakes on Vancouver Island at more than 18 miles long, and the water is extraordinarily clean. Shorsky says he likes being able to “drop at the end of a pass and take a gulp of water” — a near-death sentence on certain lakes I’ve skied. Nick Parsons and Terry Winter met us at Cowichan Lake Marina (where Shorsky owns Tow Rope Ski & Board Shop), which rents runabouts and PWCs and offers mooring to visiting boats.
When Parsons and Winter arrived it was almost 3 p.m. and the light was near perfect for shooting, although the Vancouver Island glass wasn’t ready to appear just yet. Despite a modest breeze, we ventured out of the marina in search of protected shorelines. To get shots of Winter and Parsons skiing out of the narrow mouth of the river where a blind turn gave the effect of the boat and skier appearing out of nowhere, I took off my air cast and got in the shallow water. There’s something great about being literally immersed in nature. I wondered what animals were checking me out as I waited for the guys to ski past me.
While we were there, Shorsky’s ski buddy Pete Viinikka told us a crazy story that happened right in the same area as my shooting location. “I remember one set in particular soon after I moved to the island from Edmonton about 10 years ago,” he says. “I skied into the narrow mouth of the river and it wasn’t until I was halfway through my turn that I realized I was about 10 feet from a black bear wading in the shallow water. I think it shocked us both.”
The next morning we were back on Lake Cowichan. Rock, paper, scissors — that’s how Winter and Parsons decided who would ski first. I shot the guys in the slalom course from a PWC near the marina. Early in the morning there was a slight texture on the water, but as the day went on, it was pancake-flat, and I was able to get some great shots of them as well as Dave Miller, who arrived that morning from his place in Abbotsford, where he skis at Albert Dyck Water Ski Park. Miller, the Men’s Masters national record holder (4 at 41 mph, 34 mph), first skied on the island more than 20 years ago.
Miller skied a long run on the north arm of the lake — about a mile without stopping — creating one of those shots that defined the perfection of the whole experience. Almost perfect, I should say. It would have been perfect if I could have skied it myself.
The "Family of Water-Ski Clubs**
As one of Canada’s longest-running water-ski clubs, British Columbia’s Victoria Aqua Ski Club (many of whose members share the last name Leech) operates out of the northern part of Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island. Jim Leech, the only original living member of the club, introduced skiing to his four sons long ago, and now their love for the water has been passed down to a gaggle of third-generation skiers. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see as many as eight Leech family members on the running order at one of the summer tournaments. “We have a lot of fun skiing here on Shawnigan Lake,” says Gene Leech. “There are 20 family members who all ski behind a 1977 MasterCraft.”
The club’s modest $175 membership fee allows open access to the slalom course, a jump and a place to store your boat. Besides the tournaments the club hosts each year, it also runs a summer camp that helps develop the skills of Canada’s future talent. “My parents got me hooked at a young age,” says Jessica Erb with a smile, “and I’ve been spending their money ever since."