By Loreth Beswetherick
Whistler has lost a legend — one of the old and colourful threads that form the eclectic weave of the town’s historical fabric.
Seppo Jalmari Makinen was found dead in a camper van in parking Lot 4 on the afternoon of Saturday, Dec. 4, two days before his 71st birthday. When and how he died is still a mystery.
An autopsy performed early this week has not revealed a definitive cause of death and the RCMP and the coroner are still trying to piece together what happened in the final days and hours before he was found by his friend Ron Ross. Seppo was last officially seen alive on the morning of Nov. 28.
Coroner Jan MacFayden said the next step is to wait for the microscopics and toxicology reports, which could take several weeks.
In the meantime she has asked that the body be held until she and an RCMP officer check out the camper one more time to see if they can put together the missing pieces. MacFayden said, because of background information, she wants to be very, very careful to make sure all bases are covered.
RCMP Staff Sgt. Frank Shedden said, while there is no evidence of foul play, police will continue their investigation.
"It is the RCMP mandate to investigate any death that happens outside a hospital where a patient hasn’t been sent home to die. We investigate up until the point it is determined there is no foul play."
Shedden said a Whistler RCMP officer attended the autopsy in Vancouver and there was no evidence of any trauma. The investigation is not criminal in nature. He said RCMP were alerted on Dec. 4 and had to break into the camper, which was locked from the inside.
But while his death may be a mystery there is no question Seppo touched the lives of thousands in his 70 years.
He was born Dec. 6, 1928 in Vyvorg, a town on the Finnish-Russian border. According to Garry Clifford, who was appointed executor of Seppo’s estate, the adventurous Finn set foot on Canadian soil on June 18, 1953 at Gander in Newfoundland.
He came to Whistler in 1964 and took Canadian citizenship three years later. Seppo was married twice and leaves a nephew in Alberta, a brother and two nephews in Finland and a niece in New Mexico. His family has been notified.
While locals will miss seeing his familiar face at his favourite watering holes, the ski runs Seppo cut with his logging crew on the flanks of Whistler Mountain will bear long-lasting testimony to his memory. So will the wide slash of a run on Grouse Mountain he carved with a team of Finnish loggers before moving to Whistler.
Sandy Martin remembers Seppo from the Grouse Mountain days when the Grouse Mountain chairlift company employed 49 fallers to cut runs. Martin said it was Eric Beardmore, one of 14 Grouse Mountain shareholders and owner of the Cheakamus Inn, who helped open the Whistler door to Seppo.
"When he first came to Whistler he stayed at the Hillcrest Lodge. He did the falling on Whistler Mountain. He was a tremendous faller and he would do anything for anyone."
Martin remembers the time Seppo dispatched one of his men to cut a run but the man ended up working in the wrong area. The joke was on him.
"The guy’s name was Jimmy and the run was named Jimmy’s Joker." Martin said it was Seppo who cut what was known as the Toilet Bowl — a rather "pissy turn" on the Dave Murray Downhill later re-named The Funnel.
Martin, who built and owned the Christiana Inn, remembers Seppo arriving at the bar one day with five railway spikes. "He hammered them in and that’s where the crew hung their hats." He also recalls Seppo describing hot tubs by the number of women he could get into them.
Martin said Seppo would regularly enjoy his post-mountain beer in village square. "He was always surrounded by tourists but I’m sure none of them could understand him," said Martin.
Seppo was instrumental in falling the yellow cedar tress that made up the foundation pillars of the old Roundhouse Lodge. His summer camp for that construction project was at the base of Glacier Bowl, below the T-bars. That too is now gone and is the site of a reservoir.
"He was a very kind man... very dedicated to Whistler Mountain. If you called on him to do anything, he would do it. He worked in all kinds of weather, anytime. You could wake him at two in the morning," said Martin.
"No-one believed in Whistler in those days. No one wanted to invest here back then. A lot of people don’t know what these guys did on Whistler Mountain. It wasn’t always easy," he said. "If it wasn’t for a man like Seppo, Whistler Mountain would never have got off the ground. He was a good man, a character."
Seppo’s life was one of peaks and valleys. It was at a low point he made headlines in the spring of 1998. The massive log house he lived in on Nesters Road was burned to a blackened shell. It was a place he ran as an informal lodge and where he enjoyed the company of colourful transients to whom he rented rooms.
The house itself was a Whistler landmark. Seppo built the place using recycled material including doors from Vancouver’s old city hall and flooring from the former Woodfibre bowling alley and gymnasium. It was crammed with old ski equipment, clothing, record albums, books, games and trinkets, many left behind by transients. The backyard was a crazy quilt of trees, shrubbery and rescued items including a fast food table and chair set and a car from Whistler Mountain’s first gondola. It all went up in smoke April 19, 1998.
The community rallied together and organized fund-raisers for Seppo at two of his favourite watering holes — the Boot and Tapley’s — but he was essentially left homeless. He had lost title to the house years earlier.
The community is once again coming together in Seppo’s name. A disparate collection of friends has organized a memorial service and party to celebrate the Finn’s life. It will be held Sunday, Dec. 12 at 4 p.m. at the Whistler Conference Centre. The venue will be free of charge courtesy of Tourism Whistler. The municipality has kicked in to help financially with the funeral and local restaurants and breweries are donating sustenance.
Proceeds from the sale of beverages will all go to a fund that has been set up to benefit the Whistler Museum and Archives Society. Paul Burrows, one of the co-ordinators of the event, said Whistler Mountain is also helping financially with the funeral and has plans for a commemorative plaque or cairn on the mountain.
The unveiling of a plaque will likely coincide with Reunion 2000 when employees of winters past will come together for a celebration in the spring. Burrows said it isn’t likely anyone coming for Reunion 2000 won’t have been touched by Seppo in some way. He said family from Finland may also be able to attend the event.
Burrows said Seppo’s fame as the Paul Bunyan of Whistler has spread world-wide and correspondence is arriving from around the globe.
A more private and informal affair will be held on Friday, Dec. 10 from around 3 p.m.. It will take the form of a pub crawl starting at the Boot where Seppo was a regular every Tuesday. It will wrap up at his other favourite watering hole, Tapley’s. Proceeds from this event will also go toward the museum fund.
Burrows, who is preparing a eulogy, said friends expect up to 500 could attend the Sunday event.
"He really touched the lives of thousands."