Category Archives: Ski-Town stories

Welcoming Fall to Whistler

In may technically still be (and at times even feel) like summer, but for many people the beginning of September signals the beginning of fall.  While many people will have spent this weekend celebrating a certain beverage at the Whistler Beer Festival, in the 1980s this past weekend would have featured a celebration of the upcoming season with the Whistler Fall Festival.

The Fall Festival was first organized by the Whistler Resort Association (WRA, now known as Tourism Whistler) in 1981.  At the time, the Whistler Village was beginning to emerge from a craze of construction and Blackcomb Mountain was looking forward to its second season of operations.  There was a lot to celebrate in Whistler and the festival featured many of the growing community’s arts, crafts, sports, and activities.

The Fall Festival also included a Paint a Snowflake contest, leaving the fences around construction sites covered in snowflakes. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

One of the local characters showcased at the Fall Festival was Willie Whistler, the new mascot of the WRA.  Willie’s name came from a “Name the Whistler Marmot” contest for children in the area in which the winner, eight-year-old Tammi Wick, won a Blackcomb season pass.  The mascot was created to promote Whistler at local and other events and the Fall Festival, which included time each day to “Meet Willie Whistler,” was his first big event.

Willie Whistler takes a ride with Bo Bo the Clown during the Fall Festival in Village Square. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

The festival also featured local artists and artisans who demonstrated their crafts in the village, including pottery, fibre spinning, stained glass, and painting.  Performers over the weekend included acts such as Evan Kemp and the Trail Riders, the Alpini Band, and local favourite Doc Fingers, as well as dance performances and Bo Bo the Clown.

For visitors and residents alike, the Fall Festival offered different ways to see the Whistler valley.  Snowgoose Transportation offered free 50 minute bus tours, showing off everything from residential areas to the gondola base in Creekside to the Blackcomb daylodge.  To see the valley from above, participants could enjoy a flight from Okanagan Helicopters, take advantage of Blackcomb Mountain’s offer of free chairlift rides, or, subject to wind conditions, go up in Chuck Bump’s hot air balloon, billed at the festival as the “World’s Largest Hot Air Balloon.”

Evan Kemp and the Trail Riders perform in Village Square. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Perhaps not surprisingly, sports and competitions also featured prominently at the Fall Festival.  Spectators could take in volleyball, Pro/Celebrity tennis matches that paired pro players with notables from politics, business, and media, a softball game between the Whistler Contractors Association and the Whistler A’s, or even a parachuting demonstration.  For those looking to compete, the Waiters Race challenged Whistler’s servers to run a timed obstacle course without spilling a drop, and the Labatt’s Great Whistler Water Race relay covered four lakes and the River of Golden Dreams through canoeing, kayaking, swimming, and windsurfing.

A softball game was fun for participants and spectators. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Though the Fall Festival was primarily about showcasing Whistler, it also raised money for several different causes.  On the Sunday, Whistler hosted a run as part of the first national Terry Fox Run, raising over $7,600.  The proceeds from a beer garden hosted by the Whistler Athletic Society that evening were also donated towards cancer research.

Local causes benefited as well.  The WRA donated enough funds from the Village Centre beer garden to replace the snowmobile of the Alta Lake Sports Club that had been destroyed in a fire.  Umberto Menghi, who was then opening his new restaurant Il Caminetto, contributed to the festival by both providing the firework display for the Saturday evening and hosting a gala dinner at Myrtle Philip School to benefit the Whistler Health Care Society.

If you look really closely, Chuck Bump’s balloon also featured some advertising for local restaurants. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation.

According to Glenda Bartosh of The Whistler Question, the first Fall Festival was about far more than raising money and generating revenue for the resort.  She reported that the festival “created laughter, high energy and a true appreciation of what Whistler is all about.”  The WRA must have agreed, as they continued to organize the Fall Festival for at least three more years.

A Wet End to August, 1991

Recently, we were tasked with finding more information about a flood that washed out and damaged several bridges over Fitzsimmons Creek in the 1990s.  As it turned out, the flooding had happened exactly 28 years before we looked into it, with the bulk of information found in the September 5, 1991 edition of The Whistler Question.

The first mention of an unusually wet end to August appeared in the previous week’s editorial section, where editor Bob Barnett opened a piece on government money granted in the area with the thought, “The old age it never rains, it pours, has applied to the weather this week, but also to government handouts.”  Between August 16 and 31, 155 mm of rain were reported to have fallen in Whistler, with the bulk of the rain falling between August 29 and 30.  The average rainfall for the entire month of August was historically under 50 mm; this unusually large quantity of water caused destruction throughout the Sea to Sky corridor.

An excavator removes rock and gravel carried down Fitzsimmons Creek during Labour Day weekend’s floods. Whistler Question Collection, 1991

During the five days of intense rain, water levels at the Pemberton Airport and the Golf and Country Club were recorded at over two metres and BC Rail recorded at least twelve places between Britannia Beach and Lillooet where the crushed rock that supported the rails was washed away, leaving sections suspended over the ground.

In Britannia Beach severe flooding caused Britannia Creek to change course through the lower townsite and the highway around Squamish was blocked for 36 hours.  According to the Ministry of Forests, three quarters of the forest service roads in the Squamish Forest District were closed from washouts, flooding or slides, with multiple bridges destroyed.  North of Pemberton, some residents around Skookumchuck were evacuated to Pemberton by helicopter.

Within the Pemberton Valley, a Friday afternoon community effort to shore p a dike behind the Van Loon property attempted to mitigate the damage caused by the flood.  Approximately 100 people were reported to have come out to fill sandbags.  Their success was limited as the dike was breached a few kilometres north of their work, flooding fields and homes and ruining potato crops.

An aerial view of the flood at the airport. Whistler Question Collection, 1991

Compared to other areas of the Sea to Sky, the flooding would appear to have caused relatively little destruction in Whistler, mainly due to the community effort to keep Fitzsimmons Creek in its channel.

Through the evening of Thursday and Friday, local contractors, excavators and heavy equipment crews worked to shore up the banks of Fitzsimmons Creek and keep the waters out of the village and White Gold.  According to Tony Evans, public safety director, “If we hadn’t had that we could have made Britannia Beach look like a walk in the park.”

The footbridge over Fitzsimmons Creek, 1991. Photo courtesy of Jan Jansen

As it was, the high waters and debris in the creek took out two supports of the Nancy Greene Drive bridge, partially washed out two footbridges linking the village and benchlands, and destroyed Fitzsimmons Creek Park.  The flooding also damaged sewer pipes and interrupted water supplies to White Gold.

At this time 28 years ago, Whistler and the surrounding communities were still in the midst of their clean up efforts as the water receded.  It would take weeks to clear debris, assess damages, rebuild bridges, and construct measures to prevent future flooding, such as deepening Fitzsimmons Creek.  Some of these measures can still be seen while walking across Fitzsimmons Creek today.

How McKeever’s Got Its Name

This past week we opened a new temporary exhibit at the museum featuring the various ways people have found a place to call home in the valley (the exhibit runs through July 31st so be sure to drop by!).  While putting together the exhibit we’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about housing and development and what has and hasn’t changed.  We recently came across an article in the Squamish Citizen that featured the beginning of a building that has changed quite a bit while, in some ways, remaining the same: McKeever’s General Store.

On July 22, 1986 Sue Cote, a reporter for the Squamish Citizen, was invited to a groundbreaking ceremony in Alpine Meadows by Chuck Johnstone, the owner of the property at the corner of Alpine Way and Highway 99.  Attended by MLA John Reynolds, Alderman Paul Burrows, Michael and Mark Sadler of Sadler Brothers Building Ltd. and Harry McKeever, the actual breaking of the ground was done by Art Den Duyf and his grader (no spades were needed).

With approval from the neighbourhood and the RMOW, Johnstone planned to develop and convenience store and laundromat on the property.  The store would be owned and operated by McKeever and his sister Linda who committed to leasing the space.  After early reports of opposition to the store were published in the Whistler Question in October 1985 Alpine Meadows residents Sonya McCarthy and Margaret Kogler conducted a petition that showed overwhelming support for the idea.  By the end of 1986, the idea had become reality and residents now had access to McKeever’s General Store and Dirty Harry’s Laundromat.

Harry McKeever, Alpine Meadows resident, Vending Machine Operator. Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

McKeever’s was a well-known name in the valley well before the opening of this store.  Harry McKeever first came to Alta Lake on holiday in 1957.  In 1960 is family bought property and built a cabin in Alta Vista.  Not too long after that he moved up permanently and when Garibaldi Lifts began operating in 1965/66 McKeever became one of the company’s first lifities.  Working mainly in the gondola barn in the valley, McKeever became valley supervisor and stayed with Garibaldi Lifts until 1975.  According to a 1993 article by Bob Colebrook in the Whistler Answer, “McKeever could give seminars to today’s lifties on courtesy and friendliness, although he might have a hard time imparting his sincerity.”

Lifts were not McKeever’s only occupation; he ran a successful vending machine business between 1970 and 1990, supplying the valley’s game, pop and cigarette machines, and became known to some as Whistler’s “slot machine mogul”.  During his time in Whistler McKeever was also an early member of the Chamber of Commerce, on the Board of Directors of the Whistler TV Society, a member of the Whistler Rotary Club and the sponsor of Dirty Harry’s hockey team.

When McKeever’s General Store opened in 1986 it carried groceries, hardware, auto supplies and video rentals while the laundromat provided a welcome service to residents.  Shortly before they opened Linda McKeever stated, “We want to make the store a focal point for the neighbourhood,” a goal they certainly achieved.  McKeever’s provided a convenient location to pick up eggs or butter (especially if you already happened to be checking your mailbox) and for the children of the neighbourhood it was the closest place to buy popsicles in the summer.

When discussing the store with Colebrook in the early 1990s, Harry McKeever told him: “It’s excellent, it’s the first easy job I’ve had.  As the staff learns more and more my work gets less and less.  It’s a great way to keep in touch with the people.  Also, by having my name on the store I get a lot of people from twenty-five or thirty years ago coming in because they same my name.”

The store has evolved since McKeever left the valley.  The laundromat (and the linoleum flooring) is gone, replaced by Alpine Cafe and the store is now named Alpine Meadows Market.  The McKeever name, however, will always be associated with the address: 8104 McKeevers Place.

Finding A Place: A History of Housing in Whistler

Our newest temporary exhibit Finding A Place: A History of Housing in Whistler will be opening Friday, May 31!

Finding A Place takes a look at the different ways people have made a home in the valley over the past century, from constructing a fishing lodge to subdividing a neighbourhood and from squatting in the woods to the Whistler Housing Authority (and everything in between!).  The exhibit also features the photographs of Carin Smolinski’s Living the Dream, providing a glimpse of some unique living situations in Whistler’s present.

Doors open at 6:30 pm.  Cash bar & free admission.  The exhibit will run through July 31.

Blackcomb Mountain’s Blabcomb

We love newsletters at the museum.  They’re a great way of keeping interested parties up to date and sharing information and, when donated to the archives, are an interesting record of changes to an organization over time.  Recently, some of the museum’s resource binders were digitized to make them text-searchable to help with our own and others’ research projects.  One of these binders housed a collection of newsletters published by Blackcomb Mountain over the late 1980s and early 1990s: the Blabcomb.

The 18 foot cake prepared by Gourmet for the opening of Blackcomb Mountain in 1980.  By the time the Blabcomb began publishing the mountain had been open for skiing for only seven seasons.  Whistler Question Collection.

When the first edition of the Blabcomb came out on March 17, 1988 the newsletter was only four pages of news and updates related to Blackcomb operations; the last issue that the museum has a copy of, from July 12, 1991, had grown to twelve.

Early issues of the Blabcomb came out with payroll every two weeks, then switched to monthly publication for the summer months.

The issues included lists of birthdays, staff changes, discounts, meetings and recognition of the latest ICE (Inspire Continued Excellence) Awards.  Even birth announcements made it in,

Thought the newsletter included frequent calls for volunteers and contributions, it would seem Blabcomb was spearheaded by Eric Sinclair of Blackcomb’s accounting department.  The name “Blabcomb” was the product of Wayne “Chookhead” Burt, who won out against competing submissions such as “Snow News” (Bart Parsons), “Seventh Heaven Express” (Peter Bacholtz), and “Blackcomb Briefs” (Gerhard Reimer).

Considering the chatty (and, at times, perhaps gossipy) tone of the newsletter, Blabcomb seems like a perfect fit.

The suitcase races on Blackcomb were a popular event, and would have made for great television. Blackcomb Collection.

In some ways the resort described in the Blabcomb is very different from the Whistler Blackcomb operations of today.  Events such as the Celebrity Challenge Suitcase Race (you can learn more about that event here) no longer run and with the merger between Whistler and Blackcomb guest numbers are no longer a competition.  Other parts of their spring 1988 newsletters, however, could almost be published today.

The Blabcomb reportedly began “in order to maintain the Blackcomb spirit,” which some feared was being lost as the company grew (a feeling not unknown in Whistler).  In early March 1988 the Blackcomb staff (combining both employees of Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises and of Alta Lake Foods, which ran the food and beverage operations for the mountain) surpassed the 600 employees mark.  The creation of the Blabcomb recognized that it could be “difficult to maintain that feeling of ‘family’ among such a large employee base.”

Original pin that was used to promote the new Wizard Chair at Blackcomb Mountain. Whistler Museum.

With expanded food service and five new lifts added in 1987 (Magic Chair, Wizard Express, Solar Coaster Express, 7th Heaven Express and Horstman Glacier T-Bar) the 1987-88 season was a big year for Blackcomb Mountain.  By early April it had exceeded 512,000 visits (to put the number is perspective, the previous record of 508,000 had been set by Whistler Mountain in the 1984/85 season) and looked on track to exceed 600,000 by the time the season ended.

Employees asked by the Blabcomb described the season as “exciting, exhausting, wild and, of course, magical” but the newsletter also acknowledged the toll the season had taken.

As they put it, “Not only did Blackcomb employees have to adjust to a massive expansion project that included new lifts, buildings and added responsibilities, they were overwhelmed by the number of skiers we received in Whistler Resort this year… A shortage of employees, cramped, and sometimes marginal living conditions made these ‘adjustments’ even more difficult.”

Over the next few years the Blabcomb continued to update employees about changes in operations and events on the mountain, while also covering topics that we still discuss in Whistler today, such as the construction of employee housing (it was during this period that Blackcomb and CP Hotels, later the Chateau, built some of the housing currently in use).

Though newsletters are often written thinking of the present and future, they can be really useful resources when examining our past.

George Benjamin’s Candid Whistler

The Whistler Museum’s archive houses many documents, printed material, films, oral histories, and photographs from Whistler’s rich cultural past, from the arrival of Whistler’s earliest pioneers to the journey of hosting the Olympic Games.  It’s a treasure trove of interesting facts and unique stories that are unapologetically Whistler.

One of the first major collections I (Brad Nichols, Executive Director/Curator) catalogued while working in the archives as an intern at the Whistler Museum in the summer of 2011 was the George Benjamin photograph collection.

George Benjamin, originally from Toronto, Ontario, first came to Whistler in 1968 on a ski vacation, staying at the infamous Toad Hall.  George, on “Benji,” as he was more commonly known, would move to Whistler in 1970.

George was a semi-professional photographer.  His family back in Ontario owned a photo-finishing business, and this allowed him to develop his photographs for free – a handy asset in the days before digital photography.

George Benjamin himself holds his catch at the dock of Tokum Corners. Benjamin Collection.

The George Benjamin Collection consists of 8,236 images from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.  Photos in the collection include images of early Whistler Mountain Ski Patrol, Soo Valley Toad Hall, Gelandesprung ski jump competitions, summer days spent at many of Whistler’s lakes, parties, and everyday shots of living and working in Whistler.  This might be the most candid representation of Whistler during this era in our collection.

Photos don’t usually get more candid than this. Benjamin Collection.

Folks living in Whistler during this time would have had more in common with Whistler’s early-20th century pioneers than with the Whistler of today.  Many residents were still using outhouses, had little-to-no electricity, and relied on wood stoves for their cooking needs.  George’s photos capture this pioneer lifestyle, but with the added element of the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s – and, of course, people that loved to ski.

George’s residence in Whistler was the infamous Tokum Corners.  This cabin – which was once home to Whistler Museum Board Chair John Hetherington, had no running water, and was often repaired with found materials – would become one of the cornerstones of social life in the valley.

Tokum Corners, as seen across the tracks in 1971. Benjamin Collection.

George, who had access to 16mm film equipment, would often shoot on Whistler Mountain, capturing his days following ski patrol blasting and partaking in avalanche control.  These film vignettes would be screened at Tokum Corners, usually with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon playing over top to ever-growing crowds.

The Photocell, covered in snow. Benjamin Collection.

George opened the Photo Cell photography store in Creekside around 1973.

He later became a commercial fisherman in the late-1970s.  He moved from Whistler back to Toronto in the early 1980s and now lives in Port Perry, Ontario.

George generously donated his collection of photographs and negatives to the museum in 2009.  The bulk of George Benjamin’s photos are available on the Whistler Museum’s website here.

If you  have any interesting stories, films, or photographs from Whistler’s past, we would love to hear from you.

Remembering Whistler’s Downhill World Cups

This year marks a few important anniversaries for ski racing on Whistler Mountain: it has been 40 years since the ski hill almost hosted the World Cup in 1979 before it was cancelled due to weather and safety concerns, and it is 30 years since Rob Boyd became the first Canadian male to win a World Cup downhill event on Canadian soil.

Local boy Rob Boyd atop the podium, 25 February 1989. Photo: Greg Griffith/WMAS.

Whistler Mountain also held other successful World Cup events in the 1980s and ’90s starting with a World Cup downhill in 1982.

By the last week of February 1982, Whistler had undergone some major changes since a World Cup was last attempted in 1979.  Blackcomb Mountain opened for skiing in 1980, giving Whistler Mountain nearby competition, and the first phase of Whistler Village construction was, for the most part, wrapped up.

The course for this World Cup downhill was changed as well.  Rather than follow the traditional route that used what is now known as Dave Murray Downhill ending in Creekside, the 1982 course ended in Whistler Village.

The Molson World Downhill came to Whistler, bringing thousands of spectators along with it.  Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

The new 3,810-metre course was expected to result in a winning time in the two-minutes-and-15-seconds range.  Racers began near the top of the Black and Orange Chairs and then headed down through the Double Trouble rollers, the Pony Trail Flats, Tokum Corner, the Elevator Shaft, across Crabapple Creek and to the finish line in view of the spectators waiting in the village.

There was more to Whistler’s 1982 World Cup than raceday on Saturday.  The opening ceremonies began the festivities on Wednesday, February 24 and included a parade of nations complete with flags and local dignitaries.  The following evening was Western Night.  The scheduled events included a display of logger sports such as axe-throwing and chainsaw demonstrations and a square-dancing demonstration for the national teams.  The Lil’wat Nation also hosted an outdoor salmon barbecue.  The Friday evening before the race was a more casual affair with a torchlight ski parade and fireworks display.

A torchlight parade makes its way down Whistler Mountain.  Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

According to The Vancouver Sun, prior to Saturday the weather was “the most-discussed element of the whole affair.”  Days of fog and fresh snow leading up to the race meant great conditions for those skiing on the rest of Whistler Mountain but these conditions weren’t great for training runs, causing delays and cancelled practices.  Luckily, on Saturday and weather cooperated and, for the first time on Whistler, the World Cup downhill could go ahead.

Going into the race, the two racers to watch were thought to be Steve Podborski of the Crazy Canucks and Austrian Harti Weirather, the 1981 World Cup downhill champion.  The race was, however, won by Swiss skier Peter Mueller, a two-time World Cup downhill champion (the 1982 season ended with a tie for the title between Mueller and Podborski).

At the awards ceremony after the race on Saturday, the cheers for Mueller were reported to be just as loud as those for the Crazy Canucks.  Mueller appeared to enjoy his second trip to Whistler, having first come to the valley one a five-week camping tour of Western Canada in the 1970s.  When speaking of the area’s hospitality, he told reporters that, “The people here are so friendly.  They come up to me and say, ‘Hi Pete,’ even if they don’t know me.  I would really like to come back here.”

Whistler’s 1982 World Cup was not an unqualified success to everyone.  According to Doug Sack in Whistler Magazine some teams “loathed the new course.”  It ended too slowly, passing over the flats of Lower Olympic, and one Austrian was even heard to say “I should have brought my cross-country skis with me.”

Whistler Mountain hosted more World Cup downhills after 1982, using the Dave Murray Downhill course.  If you’re interested in learning more about Whistler’s World Cups and what it takes to organize and pull off such an event, join us at the Whistler Museum for our next Speaker Series on Thursday, March 29 with guests Rob Boyd and Alex Kleinman.