We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
– George Bernard Shaw
Everyone knows Toulouse. He's the little naked guy with the long skis and the huge grin in the infamous Toad Hall poster. The unflappable start coach and masseur who mentored two generations of Canadian downhillers on the World Cup circuit. He's the ski instructor who so successfully guided and entertained Prince Charlie and his two boys during their Whistler visit. The silver-haired hipster who astounds everyone at yoga class with his flexibility and good-natured jibes. He's an icon. A legend. A Whistler elder who redefines the term "senior" every time he steps out his door.
But does anyone really know Toulouse? His wife, Ann probably does. And his two grown kids — Nikolas and Mariah — most likely have a sense of the man behind the smile. But for the rest of us, he remains a bit of an enigma. I've known Terry Spence for nearly 40 years. Not well, mind you, but our paths have crossed and entwined frequently over the last few decades. And yet I've never been able to find out exactly who resides behind that perpetually happy grin. So I thought I'd dig a little deeper.
"Me? You want to do a story about me?" He laughed. Dismissed the proposal. "You already wrote about me and Speedie and how the Toad Hall poster came together," he said. "Surely, there are others who deserve to be profiled." And then he listed half a dozen Whistler characters that he thought had more important stories to tell.
But I stuck to my guns. I wanted to put all the different segments of Spence's Zelig-like life together. Wanted to understand how a typewriter salesman working in southern Ontario in the late 1960s ended up living in an unheated logger's shack in the heart of B.C.'s Coast Mountains with a posse of ski-crazy hippies; how a Whistler ski bum with no prior racing experience became one of Alpine Canada's most effective sports motivators; how a relative newcomer to ski instruction was picked for the most high-profile job the WB Ski School ever handled. The guy was a magician. I was convinced of that. And I wanted to find the source of his magic.
"I grew up in northwestern Ontario," he begins, "in a place called Fort William — now part of Thunder Bay." He smiles. "It was a small community back then. But there was a really positive spirit in that town. People were passionate about sports and the outdoors — even in those days." He pauses. Laughs. "The Elks ran the Peewee hockey program, and we had three or four ski hills to choose from. Loch Lomond Ski Club was the best..."
But it was still a long way from Toronto and the province's business community. So in 1965, the young northerner decided to move south. "I went to work for IBM," he recounts. "Moved around a lot — London, Sarnia, St. Catherines. Anyway — one year I came across a guy in our office who organized ski trips to Europe. So on a whim, I signed up for the package." The destination that year was St Anton, Austria. And Toulouse had already decided he wasn't coming back.
"It took a while for my manager to realize that I hadn't returned from Austria with the others," he remembers. "But finally he was able to reach me on the phone. 'What are you doing?' he said. 'If you aren't back at work by Monday, I'll consider you've resigned.' And when I told him I wasn't coming back, he seemed really surprised. 'I don't understand,' he said. And I said 'you probably wouldn't,' and hung up."
The year was 1970. And Spence's short fling with the conventional business world was over. "I spent six months in Europe," he says. "Skied my buns off, visited Scandinavia and France and Switzerland... It was great!" But eventually his money ran out and he headed back to Toronto.
"I was living in a house with [future Crazy Canuck coach] John Ritchie, and I was working as a supply teacher for the local school board," he continues. Another big smile. "That's when I first heard about Whistler." Turns out his younger brother Peter had just come back from an extended tour of Western Canada. "He was pretty keen on the Coast Mountains," says Toulouse. "He told me, 'if you really want to go skiing, Whistler's the place.' And that was good enough for me."
So the two brothers packed up their gear, and along with their buddies Charlie Doyle and Ernie Adams, they pointed their car west. "When we finally got to Whistler," says Toulouse, "I was able to grab a bed at Murray Campbell's place." He grins. "As for work, ol' Dennis Waddingham had me slinging beers at the Boot Pub in no time."
The early 1970s were exciting times in the Whistler Valley. Hordes of kids — from Toronto and Montreal and Vancouver and, yes, Thunder Bay — where pouring into the little-known hamlet of Alta Lake. To ski, to party, to explore, to re-invent themselves far away from the influences of the mom-and-dad brigades. And Toulouse was on the front lines. Nearly 30 — just a touch older than most — he became something of a mentor for some of the less-experienced newcomers.
But it's not like he wasn't having his own adventures. "It was Chris Speedie who first invited me to Soo Valley," he explains. An old lumber-camp-cum-ghost-town at the north end of Green Lake, the Soo Valley complex had become the de facto home for a group of longhaired skiers who'd found a cheap solution to Alta Lake's notoriously difficult housing conditions by squatting in the derelict buildings. It might have seemed to observers like a romantic idea, says Spence, but the reality was far different.
"Living conditions were primitive," he admits. "How can I put it? It was very rustic. Especially in winter." He laughs. "I would sleep inside three sleeping bags! I mean, it was c-o-o-o-o-l-d — often the thermometer would slip to 20 below in January."
More laughter. "I shared this tiny little place — probably no bigger than 10 feet by 12 — with René Paquet. We each had a bunk. But there wasn't room for much more..." He pauses. Takes a quick breath. "We had this airtight woodstove and we'd pack it to bursting before going to bed. As soon as one of us woke up — usually because we were so cold — we'd throw a match into the stove. And WHOOSH! You know how those stoves work. We'd be warm again in 10 or 15 minutes..."
But life was still good. "We had no power, so we ran our tape decks off car batteries," he says. Grins. "And you know what? I learned you can play a heck of a lot of music before having to recharge the battery." As for lights, they used kerosene lanterns. "We weren't allowed to shoot beer caps," he says with a straight face. Because? "They'd shatter the lantern's glass chimneys." He laughs again. "And a lantern just isn't the same without its chimney."
They had no way of refrigerating their food either. "We had to keep everything in boxes under the ground," remembers Toulouse. "But the biggest chore was keeping the animals from eating our stores." Spence didn't own a car in those days. Few did. So getting to and from the mountain, he admits, could be problematic. "But we skied every day," he insists. "Sometimes we had to hitchhike. And that wasn't easy — heck, there was hardly any traffic on that road back then." As for getting back at night, he says that could be a horror.
"That's why Speedie and I would get our bikes out in February." This, of course, was long before the advent of mountain bikes. But two-wheeled travel was popular even then. So popular, in fact, that somebody decided to organize an annual bike race from Soo Valley to Pemberton. Only with a twist. "There were six beer stops along the way," he explains. "And you had to drain the full bottle before being allowed to continue." He tries to keep from laughing. Fails miserably. "It was kinda like our version of the GranFondo," he sputters. Such a different era...
And such different challenges. "There was no grocery store in Whistler yet," he says, "so we'd have to hitchhike down to Park Royal in West Van to shop at Woodward's. And then we'd have to hitch all the way back with our food." He shrugs. "Some people shopped in Squamish. But Woodward's had the best peanut butter."
Meanwhile, word was spreading about Soo Valley. About all the fun and positive energy and easy-going hi-jinx there. And slowly but surely, things started to get out of control. "We had some momentous parties there," says Toulouse. "Hallucinogenic drugs, copious amounts of alcohol — it was all part of the mix in those days." But so were accidents. "One fellow tried to cross the Green River on a log, fell in and drowned. Too drunk to swim. That's when we knew we had to cool our jets some."
But there were other signs too. "It got pretty wild there for a while," remembers Toulouse. "Strangers would show up from the city, you know, and stay around for days. People would just saunter into your cabin — whether they knew you or not." By the time the District decided to evict the squatters and destroy their shacks, the magic of the place had already long disappeared. It was time to find a new home.
Next week: Toulouse takes up massage and gets recruited by the national ski team.
May 24, 2013, 2:05 PM
Locals frustrated by damage to village; police log 17 cases of mischief over one night More...
May 24, 2013, 2:00 PM
Course to be announced at mandatory athlete meeting Sat. 6 p.m. at the GLC More...
May 24, 2013, 2:00 PM
Eight candidates were nominated for three positions on the Board More...