Tag Archives: Blackcomb Mountain

Creating Whistler’s Parks: Emerald Forest, the three-way

Nancy Wilhelm-Morden made many important decisions for the Whistler community during her time as councillor and mayor. However, the accomplishment she is most proud of from this time is the protection of the Emerald Forest.

Emerald Forest is the 56.3 hectare (139 acre) protected area between Whistler Cay and Alpine. It is a significant habitat corridor for many of Whistler’s furry and feathered friends and is enjoyed by hikers and bikers.

Before 1972 when the BC Highways Department extended Alta Lake Road connecting Rainbow Lodge (now Rainbow Park) to Alpine, there was limited access to the area now known as the Emerald Forest. The extension of Alta Lake Road, along with the construction of the first section of the Valley Trail between Whistler Cay and Alpine, meant that the Emerald Forest Lands became more readily accessible to recreationists.

When mountain biking took off in the 1980s the local trail builders started what are today Whistler’s world-renowned mountain bike trails. Many of the earliest trails were built through the Emerald Forest despite it being privately owned land.

Dan Swanstrom scanning one of his trails in 1994. Dan was responsible for building many of the popular trails through the Emerald Forest. Whistler Question Collection.

The lot had been bought by Decigon Corporation in the late 1970s. As the area became more popular with mountain bikes, ‘no trespassing’ signs started to appear. There were additional challenges as well when a mountain biker broke their back in the early 1990s and brought a lawsuit against the landowners.

Decigon made multiple unsuccessful attempts at getting the land rezoned throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then in 1996, the municipality increased the minimum parcel size of land with the Rural Resource 1 Zoning (RR1) from 20 acres to 100 acres. This meant that parcels zoned RR1 could be subdivided into 100 acres at minimum. Trying to maximise their return on investment, Decigon came forward with proposals to develop the land before this change came into effect.

Their preferred plan was for high-density development on a small section of the land. Forty single-family lots with a total of 240 bed units were proposed for 20 acres. Under this plan, the remaining undeveloped land would be protected as parkland, therefore retaining many of the bike trails. This would require rezoning of the land and the municipality was reluctant to approve the proposal because the number of bed units exceeded the development cap.

WORCA president Al Grey appeared in the Whistler Question in 1995, discussing etiquette and maintaining trail quality as more and more riders were getting into mountain biking. Whistler Question Collection.

Decigon’s alternative proposal involved subdividing the entire lot into 20 acre parcels for six single-family homes with 36 bed units. This fit within the RR1 zoning restrictions, however, would be a huge loss of established biking trails. Local community groups Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) and Whistler Off Road Cycling Association (WORCA) were also very active in campaigning for the protection of the forest for the environment and recreation.

Between 1996 and 1999, Decigon, led by the Houghton brothers, was constantly in the media trying to garner support from the Whistler community and council. However, they could not come to an acceptable agreement with the council and Decigon became more and more outraged as the years passed. Most meetings were held in-camera – closed to the public – and rumours were swirling about an impending lawsuit against the municipality.

Then, in August 1999 it was finally announced that a deal had been made for the Emerald Forest lands. Unbeknownst to the community, Intrawest had been brought in as a third party to finally make the deal happen. In the three-way deal, Intrawest purchased the Emerald Forest lands from Decigon for an undisclosed sum. The municipality then paid Intrawest $1 million and gave them approval for an additional 476 bed units so they could develop two further hotels in the Benchlands, in exchange for the Emerald Forest.

There was some disappointment toward this agreement because it meant that Whistler would far exceed the development cap outlined in the Official Community Plan. However, the unique agreement succeeded in ensuring the Emerald Forest was protected in perpetuity.

Creating Whistler’s Parks: Rainbow Park, appropriate to expropriate

The Whistler Question wrote in 1980, “The Municipality has reviewed the opportunities in the Alta Lake area and without expropriation or purchase of private land property, the recreational opportunity in the Alta Lake area for swimming, especially a beach area for young children, is extremely limited.”

It was clear all along that more public access was required for Alta Lake and the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) had been looking into buying lots on the foreshore of the lake to turn into parks. When Drew Meredith became Mayor in 1986 the council started to think bigger than buying single-family lots, and Rainbow Lodge caught their attention.

Rainbow Lodge, where Rainbow Park is now located, had a long history of tourism. Myrtle and Alex Philip opened the popular vacation destination for summer visitors in 1914. Then in 1948, they sold Rainbow Lodge to the Greenwood family where it continued as a summer resort. In its heyday Rainbow Lodge contained over 40 buildings, including a main lodge, post office, stables and many cabins.

Rainbow Lodge and surrounding facilities, ca 1930. Philip Collection.

Rainbow Lodge was sold to Joan Saxton, a speculator from Vancouver, in 1970. Resort operations ceased in the early 1970s, however, people could still rent rooms and cabins on a more long-term basis. Disaster struck in 1977 when the main lodge burnt down during renovations, and by 1986 many of the remaining buildings had fallen into disrepair.

Whilst Whistler had gone through a period of booming development throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Rainbow Lodge remained rather unchanged. Joan Saxton said during the expropriation in 1986, “Pat Carleton said he wanted to get the town centre going, and then after that it would be my turn. They’ve down zoned me and put me off the sewer system.” In Saxton’s eyes this unfairly reduced the value of the land, and the RMOW and Saxton could not come to an agreement on purchase price.

The RMOW had the land appraised twice, and then went to the Provincial Government where they received permission to expropriate the land for public interest. In 1987, the 43.2 hectare (108 acre) parcel of land on Alta Lake was expropriated for $367,000.

The lakeside cabins at Rainbow Lodge. Philip Collection.

If the owners had been living on the property the expropriation process may have been more difficult, but the Saxtons lived in the city and rented out some of the remaining cabins. Many of these buildings were in rough shape and had to be demolished when the area became a park. Three of the cabins were preserved for historical value, however, and you can still see these in Rainbow Park today.

Three remaining guest cabins at Rainbow Park. Photo courtesy of Jeff Slack.

The park was quickly developed, opening for public use during the summer of 1987. Early improvements to the property included creating a pedestrian crossing over the railway, building up the marshy pathway which was often flooded, and clearing vegetation from the sandy beach. Open wells that had been used for the lodge were filled in, the parking was cleared, and picnic tables added. The beachfront and facilities continued to expand and the park quickly reached the goal of becoming the top beach park in Whistler.

While the council at the time believed the deal was signed and done, the story of Rainbow Park does not end there. In what would become one of the longest lawsuits the RMOW has faced to-date, the Saxton family continued to fight for further compensation. They argued that the land appraisals were not taking into account the size and development potential of the property.

In 2012, the decades-old dispute was finally settled with the judge ordering the RMOW to pay an additional $2.4 million to the Saxton family, valuing the land at $12,000 an acre, comparable to the value of the Nicholas North lands in the early 1990s. With hindsight, the land was revaluated to $1.3 million dollars, and the RMOW was required to pay the difference, plus an additional $1.5 million for unpaid interest.

While Drew Meredith disagreed with judgement, he said Rainbow Park was worth it even at $2.4 million. With the number of people enjoying the sunshine recently, I tend to agree.

Rainbow Park in September 1990. Griffith Collection.

Unforgettable Whistler Mountain Staff Parties

When I think of Whistler Blackcomb staff parties, I think of Mickey Mouse’s Christmas Album and walking around the Conference Centre collecting little trolls from the Christmas crackers. It was shocking to my 6-year-old brain that some of the adults did not want the trolls, and they travelled across the world with me when my family moved to Australia. Mickey’s Christmas album also came with us and it still comes on in December every year, much to my father’s dismay.

While it is hard to believe, some of Whistler Mountain’s other staff parties sound even better. The 1986 year-end staff party will go down in the history books.

At the end of the 1985/86 winter, Canada was coming out of the recession that had gripped the country throughout the early 1980s. Peak Chair had not yet been constructed but was going in over the summer and the competition between Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain was still in full swing.

After Whistler Mountain closed to the public for the end of the 1985/86 season, the lifts turned on again for a staff celebration. Ullr was happy and it had dumped with snow overnight so the celebrating staff got fresh snow all to themselves.

To get all the staff onto the mountain for the celebration, the gondola from Creekside ran for a few hours in the morning then closed once everyone was up. For the rest of the day, the Whistler T-bar and Red Chair were running unmanned allowing everyone to join the party. With absolutely no liftys, staff could ski down and hop straight onto the lift however they pleased.

Like the majority of Whistler Mountain parties back then it was a fully catered event. Booze and food were plentiful, with management flipping burgers and Pika’s overflowing with unlimited free drinks for all. Looking at photos from the event, the outfits scream 1980s spring skiing – Vaurnets all around, bright colours and spectacular goggle tans. With many people dressed up in costume it is unclear whether there was a theme or the costumes were just out to celebrate the end of the season.

L to R – Andrea Thompson, Scott Paxton and Erin Early in front of the Roundhouse during the 1986 Whistler Mountain staff party. Photo courtesy of Dave Steers.

Remembering the festivities, Janet Love Morrison recalled, “there was all this booze and so you’d have a couple of drinks and then you just ski down to Little Red, load yourself up with no liftys. It was pretty crazy.” Despite this, there were no serious incidents during the raucous party.

Whistler Mountain had a reputation for excellent staff parties, so much so that locals who did not work for Whistler Mountain paid for a helicopter to Whistler Peak so they could join the revelry!

Now living on the Sunshine Coast, photographer and longtime employee of Whistler Mountain, Dave Steers, remembered another side of the event. “The skiing was amazing and it was the last time ever that you could lap the Peak and lay down tracks beside your last set.” Before the chairlift went in only a small number of people hiked the Peak so you could always get fresh tracks. Once the ‘weak chair’ to the Peak was built far more people began accessing the terrain.

For more about ski culture in the 1980s, visit Peak Bros: A Whistler Comic Strip 1979 – 1992 at the Whistler Museum until April 23rd, 2023.

Whistler Peak before the Peak Chair went in over the summer of 1986. Photo courtesy of Dave Steers.

Camping Inside Municipal Boundaries

The first official campground inside municipal boundaries was the KOA (Kampgrounds of America) Campground, on the land that is now Spruce Grove.

Before the campground opened, people who wanted to camp in Whistler stayed in their campers and cars in the municipal day skier lots and lift company parking lots at Creekside and Blackcomb Base 2, managed by Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain respectively.

In 1981, the official position of the municipality stated that campers should park overnight at the Alpha Lake Aggregates pit by Function Junction. However, this was a long way from the ski slopes and campers were found far more often in the lots close to the lifts. Extended overnight stays were accepted and, in some cases, welcomed in the parking lots. Blackcomb even installed hookups so campers had electricity while staying in the Base 2 parking lot.

Rows of campers staying in the Creekside day skier parking lot in 1981. Camping in the day skier lots was accepted until Whistler got an official campground in 1985. Whistler Question Collection.

Ruth Buzzard had purchased a 15.2 hectare property running along both sides of Fitzsimmons Creek, north of White Gold, in 1980. After a difficult approval process, the KOA Kampground, or Whistler Campground as it became known, finally opened in November 1985.

Whistler Campground billed itself as a year-round camping resort boasting a hot tub, sauna, pond skating rink, hook-ups and a free shuttle bus to the Village. To better cater to winter weekenders, the campground allowed visitors to leave their RVs in the overflow parking during the week for a discount, allowing visitors to drive to their campers each week without pulling them up and down the Sea to Sky Highway.

With the campground finally available, parking overnight became illegal in the municipal day skier lots. This was both to encourage campers to move to the campground and to allow plowing of the parking overnight.

Additionally, in 1984, an amendment was made to the zoning bylaw for Rural Resource 1 (RR1) lands which banned overnight stays. Initially the amended bylaw was not enforced because campers had nowhere else to go. However, once the campground drew the council’s attention to the zoning discrepancy, the no camping regulation began to be enforced on all RR1 lands, which included the municipal day skier lots and parking at Blackcomb and Whistler Mountain. Campers were ticketed and threatened with towing in the day skier lots, and gates were put up to prevent overnight campers from accessing the lift company parking lots. Unsurprisingly, it was not a popular decision to stop free ski-in/ski-out camping and letters of complaint were regularly published in the Whistler Question.

Whistler Campground in 1995 before the supreme court ruled that it had to be sold to Greensides. Whistler Question Collection.

With visitors still choosing to camp elsewhere throughout the winter, keeping the campground open year-round was not economically viable. In 1992, the Whistler Campground started to close for the winter. They were still busy the rest of the year, with the 151 sites regularly hosting more than 600 campers on summer weekends. When the sites filled up, Ruth and the campground team, including her sons David and Mark, would help campers find spots across their large property. There were even stories of enterprising campers setting up on the gravel bar in the middle of the creek when all the sites were filled.

Unfortunately, the campground wouldn’t last. In 1989, Vancouver-based developer Greensides Properties Inc. bought an option-to-buy on the property, giving them exclusive rights to purchase the land in the future. In the early 1990s, they followed through on their option deciding to go ahead with the purchase. Despite three appeals to the Supreme Court, Ruth was required to sell the land. According to the Whistler Question, the property was sold for 3 million dollars, plus 35% of the money derived from the redevelopment.

The picnic tables stacked after the closing of the Whistler Campground. Whistler Question Collection.

Greensides took over the property in 1996, agreeing with the council to run the campground throughout the summer. With a few approval setbacks along the way, the development of the Spruce Grove subdivision began in 1998.

Whistler went without a campground again until Riverside Campground finally opened in December 1999.