By Loreth Beswetherick
From the top of Sproat Mountain a primitive gizmo with a giant mirror bounces a signal down into every nook of the Whistler valley, including Pine Crest and Black Tusk.
The Sproat television repeater, from its Big Brother vantage point, has been sending out its signal and bringing first three, then two, TV channels into community homes for more than 30 years now. But, its days are numbered.
Long before cablevision or satellite dishes, the Whistler TV Society constructed the repeater in 1966 to bring television to the valley. The society, spearheaded by the late Walter Zebrowski, has been helping maintain the site ever since. A fee used to be collected from members of the society to fund the service. Members in turn used a special TV antenna to pick up three television channels — CKVU (Global), CHEK out of Victoria and KVOS out of Bellingham. A lightening bolt to the site, however, blew out one of the devices several years ago and now reception is limited to only CHEK and CKVU.
The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District took over funding of the service in 1975. The Whistler TV Society submits a budget for maintenance and the SLRD collects the taxes to pay for it.
But new technology, including cable and satellite, has usurped the need for the primitive television signal. No one knows if anyone is still using the old aerials to pick up the signals yet every taxpayer from the Pine Crest and Black Tusk area is contributing a tiny portion of their tax dollars to maintain the Sproat site.
Paul Burrows, who acts as caretaker for the society, said Whistler decided some months ago they no longer wanted to help fund the society through the taxes collected by the SLRD. "They couldn’t identify who was getting the benefit and they were looking to eliminate the paper work and save some money," said Burrows. It was agreed that the TV signal would die if one of two things happened: either the batteries ran out — which shouldn’t happen because they are solar powered; or the CRTC licence expires, which is due to happen Aug. 31 of the year 2000.
But, the location of the repeater is still proving strategic in the face of new technology. Shane Bennett of Whistlerweb.com wants to take over the assets of the society for a nominal sum to gain access to the site. Bennett has told the TV society he wants to construct an internet connect structure to offer a wireless internet and communication service to the valley. He said he would warrant continued TV service, free of charge, if he got the site.
At last week’s SLRD board meeting Bennett’s proposal was accepted, subject to a number of conditions including: that he continue sending the signal for free until the licence expires; that he obtains consent from Whistler council and electoral area D; that he accepts all liability for the site and that he accepts full responsibility for repatriation of the site. It is on Crown land, has never been surveyed and the tenure has never been formalized. There is a possibility the Crown may want the site back.
The SLRD’s Allison Macdonald said the district has been putting money aside annually in the event they had to close out the site. "There is currently about $15,000 in reserve," said Macdonald. "Once the TV Society is shut down and all the paper work is complete, those funds would be returned to the taxpayer."
The 1999 budget for the TV society is $4,223. Macdonald said that means each home is paying, on average, a couple of dollars per year toward the society.
The death of the Sproat signal will herald the end of another Whistler era. Burrows said the Zebrowski family still regards the Sproat Mountain repeater as a bit of a shrine to their late father, a Polish immigrant and World War II veteran.
"There is an element of emotion surrounding it," said Burrows. "The world has changed dramatically since the advent of the TV society."
Zebrowski and Jon Anderson constructed what Burrows said can only be called a Rube Goldberg device. They placed it inside two old fridges, put it on Sproat... and brought television to Whistler. Burrows estimates there were a couple of hundred members in the society’s heyday. He added the reception is still watchable but nothing compared to digital and cable TV.
When lightening struck, there was no one alive any longer that could understand the primitive technology and repair the system. That is when the repeater was left with only two channels. Burrows would charter a helicopter in the winters to go and shovel snow off the repeater with the help of other "civic-minded individuals." He said after this last winter’s severe snowfall the buildings are now in bad need of repair.
"You can see clear all of Whistler from that site," said Burrows.