Whistler’s Answers: November 10, 1983

In the 1980s the Whistler Question began posing a question to three to six people and publishing their responses under “Whistler’s Answers” (not to be confused with the Whistler Answer).  Each week, we’ll be sharing one question and the answers given back in 1983.  Please note, all names/answers/occupations/neighbourhoods represent information given to the Question at the time of publishing and do not necessarily reflect the person today.

Some context for this week’s question: After the election of Bill Bennett and a Social Credit government in 1983, Bennett’s party introduced a series of bills that quickly became controversial. Of particular concern to the BC Government Employees Union (BCGEU) were Bill 2, which limited the rights of workers and unions in the public sector to negotiate terms except for wages and benefits, and Bill 3, which gave public sector authorities the power to terminate workers without cause and regardless of seniority. Despite organized opposition to these moves (including an estimated 80,000 person demonstration in Vancouver), these and other bills were passed. At midnight on October 31, 1983, about 40,000 members of the BCGEU went on strike, demanding the government retract Bill 2 and provide an exemption from Bill 3.

Question: How has the BC Government Employees Union strike affected you?

Donna Liakakos – Village Store Manager – Alpine Meadows

If the schools go out everyone with children will be affected. I don’t care about the liquor store, but there could be trouble if road conditions worsen. In Vancouver there’s more awareness about the strike than here because more jobs are affected.

John Ryan – Store Security Worker – Vancouver

Not apart from the liquor store, although if the buses go it’ll be a hassle to go to work. People get laid off all the time but when it happens to big unions they act differently. It seems kind of quiet here – we’ve seen a few pickets, and the exercise class is cancelled.

Joe Bowman – Waiter – Pemberton

Not at all. I’ve seen some pickets. They (strikers) should have done it 10 years ago: shut it down and take a better look at it. It’s got to be done now. The thing to do is to provide jobs. The government has been hired as managers; if we don’t have tenure they shouldn’t either.

Best in Snow – The Volkswagen Beetle

Snow tire season is upon us! Even through snowy and icy conditions you will see all types of vehicle tackling the Sea to Sky Highway today. Fifty years ago, however, one car dominated the snow, and that was the Volkswagen Beetle.

In the 1960s, Volkswagen touted the VW Beetle as the best car for driving in the snow, and North America listened. In one famous commercial a Beetle is seen driving through snowy conditions. The narrator asks “Have you ever wondered how the man who drives the snowplow, drives to the snowplow? This one drives a Volkswagen, so you can stop wondering.”

George Benjamin’s Volkswagen Beetle on Alta Lake. George Benjamin Collection.

At this time, most American-made cars were rear-wheel drive and had their heavy engines at the front, resulting in little weight over the drive wheels and thus less traction. Despite also being rear-wheel drive, the Beetle did better in the snow because the engine was also in the rear, giving the drive wheels more traction for slippery conditions. Somewhat surprisingly, the narrow wheels also seemed to help because the Beetle cut through the snow rather than riding on top.

In 1965, Cliff Jennings bought his 1957 Beetle before heading out west to Alta Lake. It was not a straight forward journey. “When I arrived in Vancouver, nobody had heard about this new area, so I just headed blindly north. Two hours later, in Squamish I got directions and headed up a steep gravel road, arriving eventually at a dead end with a trailhead signposted to Diamond Head. Back in Brackendale, I hung a right and headed blindly north again on what would now be called a 4×4 road. The first sign of civilisation was Garibaldi and Daisy Lake Dam, which the road proceeded over onto a detour around Shadow Lake through huge puddles that nearly drowned my Beetle. Finally, five hours after leaving Vancouver, I arrived at a big slash clearing and a swampy parking lot in pouring rain.” Cliff had made it to the ski resort!

The Volkswagen Beetle is a little harder to recognise in this photo. George Benjamin Collection.

Jim Moodie arrived in Whistler a few months later once the lifts had opened, also driving up in his Volkswagen Beetle. “People remark about the road being bad nowadays but the road then, a lot of it was gravel, and so it was a frightening experience if we were smart enough to think about it but we mostly didn’t. I can remember one day driving up and the car simply stopped moving forward. At least that’s what we thought had happened. When we got out to see what was happening the Volkswagen Beetle was just plowing up a great big snowdrift in front of it so we couldn’t go anymore.” Good in the snow, but not quite a snowplow.

The imagery of the Volkswagen Beetle was so connected to mountain towns that Whistler Mountain’s 20th Anniversary poster featured a red Volkswagen Beetle driving off into the sunset. In the iconic Whistler poster the car is covered in stickers with skis jammed into the bumper.

The iconic 20th Anniversary poster. Whistler Mountain Collection.

With many people sharing similar memories, it is no wonder the photographs of Volkswagen Beetles in the snow are popular prints at the Whistler Museum. You can see some of the Whistler Museum image collection on Smug Mug.

Whistler’s Answers: November 3, 1983

In the 1980s the Whistler Question began posing a question to three to six people and publishing their responses under “Whistler’s Answers” (not to be confused with the Whistler Answer).  Each week, we’ll be sharing one question and the answers given back in 1983.  Please note, all names/answers/occupations/neighbourhoods represent information given to the Question at the time of publishing and do not necessarily reflect the person today.

Some context for this week’s question: The Alta Lake Sports Club (ALSC) began building cross-country ski trails in the Whistler valley, specifically around Lost Lake, in the 1970s. The ALSC groomed the trails and, for the first years, they were available for free to anyone with skis. In the early 1980s, when the municipality held a referendum on the development of parks and trails in the valley, it was widely understood that the maintenance would be paid for through taxes. The municipality proposed charging cross-country skiers to access the trails at Lost Lake Park in 1983, causing controversy within Whistler as some residents felt it was one of the only free activities available in the winter, the facilities at Lost Lake Park didn’t warrant a $2 fee, and the ALSC had previously been able to afford to provide the maintenance for free.

Question: Is Council justified in charging cross-country skiers to use Lost Lake Park?

Les Doyle – Unemployed – Brio

I think it’s ridiculous. The trails should be a service to the community. I know a few people who come just to cross-country ski and it’ll turn them off. If it’s a public park you can’t really charge to get in.

Cathy Greenwood – Hotel Office Manager – Whistler Cay

Yes. It’s costing us taxpayers money, not the government. I don’t think people will object to it. Back east they have to pay for cross-country. It’s not like they’re charging $10.

Samuel P. Umpkin – Sci-fi Novelist – Tapley’s Farm

I think it’s a seedy thing to do. I haven’t skied myself since my accident, but I can see that concerns will be voiced that a public park should be a free public park. They may as well charge for… pumpkins, for example.

Having a Blast

When talking to people from Alta Lake and Whistler there are many stories that are almost universal- people come to Whistler for a visit and stay for life, and along that journey most people have experienced housing woes. One experience that I did not expect to be shared among so many locals was the stories of working in drilling and blasting. While the rocky, mountainous landscape draws people to Whistler from around the world, it also creates additional engineering challenges. Lots of rock needed to be moved for the rapid growth of Whistler, and blasting was a relatively well paying summer job.

The Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE), also known as the ‘Province’s Great Expense’ arrived in Alta Lake in 1914, bringing tourism as well as an increase in mining and forestry. The earliest known commercial mining in the area was on Whistler Mountain around 1910, with Green Lake Mining and Milling Company running ten small claims between 1000 and 1300 metres elevation.

Some of the first blasting in the valley was for mining. Here a horse is laden with dynamite bound for Jimmy Fitzsimmons’ copper mine on the north flank of Whistler Mountain, circa 1919. Rainbow Lodge can be seen in the background. Philip Collection.

Many other small operations opened and closed over the years but none struck it rich. As a word of caution, after finding an abandoned mine shaft in the mountains, some early mountaineers were pushing rocks down the shaft and set off unexploded dynamite. Nobody was hurt, but it is worth giving abandoned mines a wide berth for the many hazards they pose.

It was a logging company that gave Andy Petersen dynamite in the 1960s to help put a water line to Alta Lake Road for running water. Andy and Dick Fairhurst, owner of Cypress Lodge, had never used dynamite before. “We drilled about 27 holes and put three sticks of dynamite in each hole. Well, this thing went off. Three of them went off and boulders came up over our heads and hit the power lines. We thought we were going to take the power down. That was our experience with dynamite, but we learned.”

There were more hazards than just flying rock. During blasting and clearing of a trail along Nita Lake in 1985, Jack Demidoff and his 25-tonne hoe fell off the trail and through the ice into the lake. Whistler Question Collection.

When skiing arrived Whistler became a tourist destination in the winter but remained very quiet in summer. Many locals who worked on the mountain would have summer jobs in construction and blasting, including Murray Coates who was in ski patrol and had a blasting company. Fellow patrollers, Brian Leighton and Bruce Watt also worked some summers blasting. “There were no safety precautions”, Bruce recalled on his podcast ‘Whistler Stories that Need to be Told’, “It was just get out there and don’t be a wimp”.

Brian Leighton had a similar experience. “I was way over my head in what I was doing. But no one died, no one was hurt.” One memorable moment occurred after loading some explosives into the drill holes while creating Whistler’s sewage system. “I said to Murray, ‘I think the trucks parked a little close here.’ He said, ‘No, no, no, it’s fine.’ So we get underneath the truck and he hits the blasting machine. Sure enough, a rock the size of a soccer ball goes through the rear window of the truck. I mean we were safe, but the truck not so much”.

An dog finds refuge from the rain beneath a Wedgemont Blasting truck parked in village, not unlike Murray Coates and Brian Leighton hiding from the falling rocks. Whistler Question Collection.

Before she became a lawyer and later the Mayor of Whistler, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden also worked as a driller and blaster for the Department of Highways. She wasn’t so worried about rocks landing on her, but as her boss watched closely to make sure she was setting the dynamite correctly, “I was always worried that he was going to spit this horrible chewing tobacco on the back of my head.”

The Whistler Museum has more stories about drilling and blasting than will fit in one article, but nowadays we are much more familiar with the sound of avalanche bombs. Hopefully they are ringing throughout the valley again soon!