There's a hashtag out there seeing a fair amount of use. When you notice #pembylife in your social-media feeds, or even occasionally employ it as I do, you qualify to question what, exactly, it means. I'm still not completely sure, but after renting a cabin in Spud Valley for a few weeks I have a better idea. It mostly means, in the nicest possible way, #thisisnotwhistler.
After going from largely ignoring the place for a decade to making dozens of trips those 30 minutes north each summer for the past five years, if I was asked to list the natural, physiographic, agricultural, recreational and cultural waypoints I associate with Pemberton as a frequent visitor, I'd go with this: the proud Lil'wat First Nation presence; endless fields, farms, and fencelines; abundant produce, potatoes, hops, and chickens; grazing horses and alpacas; swarms of dogs, kids and strollers; trails crisscrossing watercourses and railroad tracks; mountain biking, paragliding, and bonfires; the mighty Lillooet River, Mackenzie Ridge, and Mount Currie; the cottonwoods, open-canopy Douglas fir forests and, me being me, snakes both preternaturally common and vanishingly rare. Not coincidentally, much of this is exactly what flies under the #pembylife banner. (I'll admit to it being myself and associates who are responsible for most of the snake photos.)
Although there are certainly shared elements, it's a very different list than I'd erect for Whistler. And indeed Pemberton is a very different place. Physically astride the Coast-Interior border, meteorologically and biologically influenced by both, this sensibility extends to many of its human inhabitants, who have one foot in Whistler's Centre-of-the-Canadian-Ski-Universe camp and the other firmly in the grassroots soils of the Pembysphere. Whether you work in Whistler and live in Pemby for reasons of affordability, lifestyle or extreme hippophilia (love of horses — couldn't resist that one), returning home each day offers de facto retreat: no tourists, quietude, and a town centre so empty after 6 p.m. that you wonder where the tumbleweeds are. When you live there even a few days, making the drive to Whistler suddenly seems like a trip to the big city. Conversely, dropping down from the last rise above Nairn Falls Provincial Park into Pemberton Valley feels a bit like a slowing of time, or at least a reason to relax the shoulders. Where hitting Whistler for many is a Woohoo let's party! proposition, arriving in Pemberton is like a sigh of relief.
There's more to this than simple removal or rurality. As farmers and home-gardeners alike know, Pemberton is more fertile and favourable to cultivation than any other area between the Coast and the Fraser Valley. In this respect it offers not only deep, rich, silt-laden soils and better weather, but what often seems a completely different climate. Some of this is due to its 200-metre elevation, significantly below our own Whistler Valley, which is a 670-metre mountain pass; some is due to being more of an east-west-trending system than Whistler's north-south aspect; and some is due to the way the mountains around it work to thin or re-route storm systems and create both heat-collecting and heat-holding areas. This is why Pemberton — with the almost 2,400-metre wall of Mount Currie visible from everywhere like some benevolent giant castle — often seems a fairyland of butterflies and cottonseeds, beehives, snorting horses, and organic, locally sourced everything. Even the language of conversation, salty as it often is, seems rooted in the realities of a different daily life than Whistlerites. Not that Pemby doesn't have its own occasional dark violence and a redneck undercurrent that flies in the face of the otherwise earthy pastoral vibe, but those are elements shared with all rural outposts.
For my part, it's the Pembysphere's biogeoclimatic uniqueness that attracts. As a transition area between moist Coast and dry Interior, the resulting floral and faunal overlaps benefit an incredible diversity of species, many of which haven't even been documented. For instance, Pemberton's recent status as the only known mainland location of the federally endangered sharp-tailed snake is a reminder not only of how limited is our knowledge of this unique ecosystem and the species that depend on it, but why it's important to make informed land-use decisions amidst the valley's recently accelerated development. With massive failures like the Okanagan as guidance, these should be decisions that aim to protect all habitat types and their overall connectivity in the landscape — a more sustainable attractant for those hoping to live there than, for instance, high-density housing that might erase the area's ecological distinctiveness.
Still it's the charming vignettes found nowhere else in the corridor that define the #pembylife tag. On a Sunday morning, car-packed from our Pemby sojourn for the return to Whistler, we drive through the town centre. Ahead a woman pilots a bicycle-type rig fitted with a large blue box on the front like an ice-cream vendor. Beside her trots a very furry animal on a leash. As she passes, we can see that this creature isn't the expected large, fluffy dog but a very wooly sheep.
We are the only people who look surprised.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.
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