The long history of Writing and publishing in the Whistler Valley
By Stephen Vogler
Whistler isn’t generally thought of as a home of writing and publishing. Granted, there are mountains of glossy brochures churned out every year extolling the many virtues of the resort, but I’m talking about writing that isn’t afraid to explore the real fabric of life in this place, to dig a little deeper than the paving stones of our shopping village. Surprisingly, however, there is a history of writing that has emerged from this valley, and its thread can be traced back to some of Alta Lake’s first settlers.
Alex Philip was one of the first raconteurs to settle in the area when he and his wife Myrtle built the Rainbow Lodge on the shore of Alta Lake in 1914. Along with some newspaper articles about the surrounding area, Philip wrote three novels in the 1920s and early ’30s while living at Rainbow. One of them, The Crimson West, was the basis for the first talking movie filmed in B.C., which premiered in Victoria in 1931. One can only imagine the peaceful setting Alex would have enjoyed while writing those books. There was no electricity, no TV and no village bars to frequent. (Although it is said there was a fine still at the old Alta Lake townsite, now known as Chaplainville, where those so inclined liked to gather to watch it drip. Ah, but a little moonshine never hurt to lubricate one’s literary leanings now did it!)
Alex Philip’s novels truly express something of his experience of this Coast Mountain valley. Sure, they are rather formulaic Western romances, but all three have a common thread that speaks both of the writer and the place he inhabited. Each of them begins with the main character in the city (Vancouver) where his life is mired by the hectic city pace with its accompanying greed, hypocrisy and inequity. In The Crimson West, the young Donald McLean has been "arrested in a low gambling den!" The Painted Cliff begins with Peter nearly being run over by a liveried chauffeur after collapsing from hunger in the street. And in Whispering Leaves, the financially successful Bruce Arlen is sick of the "hurry-scurry of Vancouver’s busy streets where tired, impatient humans jostled one another." All three heroes promptly leave behind the city for adventure in the Coast Mountains where they regain their health and integrity, win the heart of their beloved, punch out their adversary and literally ride off into the sunset.
This may not be the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but Philip was competent in the fiction genre he was writing, and left behind some beautiful descriptions that capture the feel of the valley to this day. In Whispering Leaves he writes:
"Fall came and the first frosts that stole into the valley touched the wooded flanks of the mountains with a crisp stroke that transformed the poplars into yellow plumes, the vine maple and sumach into a red flame of embers dying there. Only the black growth of conifers, fir, hemlock, pine and spruce, kept their stalwart green. The hills and valleys became a fine mosaic, an ancient tapestry woven with parti-coloured strands."
One gets a sense of the land speaking through the pages, as though the place itself finds its voice in the people who made it their home. The trappers and prospectors the Philips met in the area also found their way into Alex’s fiction. The following passage in The Crimson West could easily be a description of John Millar, who enticed the Philips to the valley in 1913:
"The race of mediaeval hermits is not dead. The spirit that led the first pioneers into the forest guides others there to-day. There are men whose souls long for a place untamed, who yearn to breath the wild free air. They want a home straight from the hands of the Creator, unspoiled by man. They may be trappers, who brave cold and hardships to clothe milady in warm furs; they may be prospectors who search out the hidden gold for others to use. Whatever they may be, these hardy men blaze the trail for others to follow."
And others certainly did follow, lending a somewhat prophetic quality to Philip’s words. Both John Millar and the fictional John the trapper in The Crimson West moved north towards the Cariboo because the valley was getting "too thickly settled," a sentiment that is alive and well among many departing residents today.
Bill Bailiff, one of the trappers and prospectors who remained in the valley, was also a writer and renowned story teller. Following an argument with his foreman while building the PGE rail line, Bailiff simply walked a few miles further up the line and settled in the Alta Lake valley. From his small cabin at Scotia Creek, Bailiff wrote poetry and later a history of the Alta Lake area which was printed in the Community Weekly Sunset, Whistler’s first community newspaper. His piece on the state of the environment and local forestry is particularly poignant and, in terms of the entire corridor, rings as true today as it did when it was written in 1956:
"The lakes are littered with logs and debris, and what was once considered one of the prettiest places in British Columbia is fast becoming a barren wilderness... At present the benefit the community achieves is very low in percentage to the total value taken off... The independent mills that relty (sic) on an open market for their logs are being squeezed by the monopolists. This is going to have an adverse effect on our economy.
"One bright spot looms on the horizon — Garibaldi Park. It is to be hoped it escapes the ravages of fire and as time goes on it will become one of the attractions of British Columbia, a veritable oasis in the desert."
The Community Weekly Sunset which published this piece was like a window looking directly in on the community of Alta Lake in the late 1950s. The banner across the top read, "As the Sun Sets Each Tuesday This Paper Is Published For Fun." Reading through the old issues, you can’t help feeling like a snoop, as though you’re peering in on people’s lives through an open window or reading through their personal mail. People’s travelling habits were chronicled in the "Comings and Goings" section:
Jack Biss of Van. to visit Bea Russell for the weekend.
Dave P. visited at Parkhurst Sunday
Water commissionar Hairfurst to city on Mon. eve. Shopping?
Surprise item... Oly didn’t go to town last weekend.
Alex G had to go to Van New Years Day, we do need an LCB store here.
The parties and drinking activities were always well chronicled. The issue following the Fall Fish Fry and Dance read:
"After the kids were in bed things became rather hazy but I do remember that Fran brought a can of Beans for mixer. Bunty slapped somebody’s face. Fred went to sleep on four chairs, and we all ran out of mixer. Everyone agreed that a better time can not be remembered."
The Sunset Weekly was a forum for all of the community (pop. 48) and its visitors to express themselves. All were encouraged to share their thoughts on the back of the paper and leave it in the Alta Lake Station, where it would find its way into the following issue. Poetry was a prominent means of expression in those days. When the Community Club wanted to raise money to buy a reel-to-reel tape recorder for its dances, the editor of the paper wrote a poem that went on for months until the $200 was raised. Here are the first few stanzas:
The old record player must go
But the thing that we need is dough
I’m telling you honey, recordings cost money
We’ve priced them all, that’s how we know
We played the old records
At the Valentine hop
But the old record player
Was really a flop
We do need good music
Cause we all love to dance
And we’ll have good music
If you give us a chance ...
Around 1960, The Alta Lake Echo took over from the Weekly Sunset and the sport of skiing began to creep into the local lore:
"Winter sports at Alta Lake have mushroomed into a major baggage problem for the P.G.E. and all of us concerned with local transportation of same. No one is complaining though, I suppose because it all seems to be so much fun. Like when ronny Newton sprained his ankle and like when Mu Burge ruined the Tobogan run by gouging a rut with her face. Both are recovering slowley. The old Alta Lake sport of drinking seams to be dieing out or perhaps the extra energy put fourth on these other activities is dulling the normal drinking effects in any event no News Years casualties were noted."
After 1961 the small weekly papers seem to have disappeared from the valley and nothing replaced them until the arrival of the Whistler Question in April 1976. Published by Paul Burrows, the Question began as a two page, photocopied and stapled newsletter. With the recent incorporation of the resort municipality it kept people abreast of the many changes going on in their town and provided a forum for letters and advertising. The first editorial stated:
"We guarantee at least 15c worth of news and views every week and sometimes a whole lot more. We hope no issue is too hot nor controversial to be printed — items submitted will merely be edited for good taste and length as space allows."
The Whistler Answer which emerged the following spring prided itself on having none of the above concerns. The entertaining and irreverent bi-monthly was published by members of Whistler’s squatting community, including Charlie Doyle, Robin Blechman, Bob Colebrook and Tim Smith. Charlie recalls that in the bad snow year of 1976-77 they were writing letters to friends who had migrated south and decided instead to write one open letter — thus emerged the Answer. The ads for the first issue were easily gathered in one afternoon and after a four day and night bender of laying out the paper (the first six or seven issues were all hand written by Robin) it was taken down to Claude Hoodspith in North Vancouver for printing. Claude, who published the Citizen Shopper which eventually migrated to Whistler, was so impressed with the amount of advertising they’d scored that he immediately offered them all jobs with his paper. The whacked out hippies just laughed at him and went on to publish the Answer for another four years.
The old Answers have a surprisingly professional and creative look. The first editorial read: "For the few who feel this valley doesn’t need another newspaper I can only say... I agree. Lets call this a magazine." The first anniversary issue again looked at the role of the publication in the community: "The original concept was to provide the valley with a medium of artistic expression, (we all aren’t ski bums or land developers) with the hope that the direction of the paper would be directed by the contributions of the community."
Along with a healthy dose of gratuitous nudity and marijuana references, the Answer published fiction, book reviews, comics and plenty of quirky articles. Its take on the bureaucratic goings-on of the RMOW could be summed up in its October ’77 issue where the announcement for the building of the new village town centre was buried in a small page three story while Tucker, Dog of the Year, graced the front page. The Answer went out of business in 1981, but returned in 1992 for another two year stint. The inaugural issue once again stirred controversy with its nudity and drug references which garnered an article in Vancouver’s Province Newspaper, spawned the formation of a Mothers For Morality group in Whistler, and generally gained enough publicity to successfully launch round two of the Answer.
In the intervening years between the two incarnations of the Answer, The Rolling Whistler Review carried on the alternative publishing thread in the valley. Brought out by the brothers Vogler between 1986 and ’91, the irreverent review reared its head as a monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly and, eventually, whenever one of the brothers could corner a photocopier and a few hundred sheets of paper. Like the Answer, the RWR was a forum for local creativity, publishing fiction, book reviews, poetry and sketches. In an era of rampant development and commercialization in the valley, the RWR was never afraid to voice its opinions on the development community which prompted occasional defensive letters from local realtors. The third issue of the RWR, which somehow managed to be published as an insert in the Whistler Question, prompted the most controversy of all. An iconoclastic piece of fiction about the Virgin Mary prompted indignant letters from the Christian community and a phone call from one person offering the services of a cult buster from California!
Peter Vogler later published a book of his selected columns from the Whistler Question entitled A Whistler Life. Peter’s Village Voice column ran from 1988 to 1996, taking on all manner of topics and often causing a maelstrom of controversy and letters to the editor. A few of the comments on the book’s back cover show the range of reaction his columns provoked in the valley:
Vogler’s column ... "is the rambling of an unhinged, sick, pathetic, sweaty Neanderthal." John Berg
"I would like to give Peter Vogler a pat on the back. I would like to suggest we can the mayor and the whole city council and let Peter run the town. He seems to make a lot more sense than they do." Gordie Henson
A Whistler Life holds the distinction of being the first book to be written, printed and bound in Whistler, all hand done by Vogler.
Brian Smith, another contributor to the Whistler Question from 1986 to ’90, published a book of his photographs and "Questionable" cartoons entitled Whistler: Changing Images. Smith’s book succinctly and humorously captures the fast pace of change which Whistler experienced in the late ’80s.
Over the past 20 years, a handful of other books have also emerged from the valley. Anne McMahaon’s The Whistler Story is a well documented account of the various phases of the valley’s history and has been used as a source for many writers exploring Whistler’s past. John Bartosik released Whistler Blackcomb Country and Sea To Sky Country, two large coffee table books with his and other’s stunning photographs of the area. Both included an excellent historical overview by Glenda Bartosh, one-time owner of the Question. Bob Colebrook of Whistler Answer notoriety, published the Whistler Handbook in 1993, a compendium of background information for newcomers to the valley, a niche which was later replaced by the annual Whistler Survival Guide. In 1995, Florence Peterson, Sally Mitchell and Janet Love Morrison published Whistler Reflections, another historical account of the valley which provides great biographical sketches and anecdotes of early Alta Lake characters.
Today, the thread of writing and publishing is alive and well in Whistler with three weekly papers and more books likely to follow. But the stories that emerge in our papers today are still too close to us to fully appreciate — we take them at face value, believing that the facts they dish up matter a great deal. When someone looks back at them in a few decades they’ll see them differently, full of the peculiar quirks of our age that we’re still blind to — a published record of Whistler at the close of the century.