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Life after Whistler

A view of the valley from Salmon Arm

Former Whistler residents take more than their belongings with them when they move on to other towns – they take memories of possibly the wildest, most fun years in their lives. They also often take with them the frustration of being priced out of a town they had mentally claimed as home. For better or worse, Whistler tends to carve an indelible mark on those who live here – especially those who were part of its evolution from a dream to an international resort.

By Robyn Cubie

A week's break in the sleepy hollow of Salmon Arm was supposed to be spent bobbing about on one of the huge houseboats the Shuswap lakes are famous for. While many happy hours were spent contemplating life from the hot-tub on the top deck of our miniature floating motel, there was still time to track down three former residents of this area: Paul Burrows, Jackson Robertson and Bob Priest, who respectively worked in the political, social and business arenas of Whistler and Pemberton.

It happens that Salmon Arm has become a popular destination for ex-Whistlerites Pembertonians. There seem to be three basic reasons for this: retirement, the milder climate and, most importantly, the lower cost of living.

And just as Salmon Arm likes to honour a certain migratory bird with its Grebe Festival each May, so too do folk from the Sea to Sky corridor flock to Salmon Arm for their own special get-togethers. Take this month for example. Former Pemberton residents are meeting for a potluck lunch on June 17, and organizers expect up to 50 people to attend. Whisterites with the right connections can also get an invite.

But the first former Whistler resident I met up with didn’t move to Salmon Arm for any of the above reasons. Former manager of Tapley's Pub, Jackson Robertson, was reputed to have declared Salmon Arm "The Valley Of Gorgeous Women" prior to leaving Whistler in the fall of 1990 with his new wife by his side. She, incidentally, came from Salmon Arm.

I met Robertson in Salmon Arm’s Victorian pub, which is definitely more Pemberton than Whistler in terms of atmosphere, with its big pool tables, low lighting and small groups of chatting locals. The prices were most definitely not Whistler either – $2.50 a pint on that particular Monday night. Drinks were ordered and we get straight to business.

"So why do they call you Action Jackson?" I ask. He grins and replies carefully.

"Well that depends on what you're talking about."

Robertson is typical of many a Whistler "local" in that he first came to the resort on a ski holiday and ended up staying.

"I turned up here in the winter of 1980 from Thunder Bay, Ontario, and had such a good time I just stayed on, working two jobs," he recalls. "I bartended at L’apres before it became Dusty’s and worked the door as well, along with 16 other guys. It was the only place to go in those days."

After the snow melted, Jackson headed back to Ontario for the summer, then loaded up what he could get on his Harley Davidson and returned to Whistler. The resort was beginning to pick up speed in its development, with the opening of the liquor and grocery stores in the village, as well as the Mountain House Cabaret (now Tommy Africa’s), Tapley’s Neighbourhood Pub, the Longhorn Saloon and Club 10 (now Maxx Fish). Robertson scored himself a job as bartender at the Mountain House.

"Skiing, chasing girls and drinking beer was life back then and the village was growing rapidly with crazy lineups at the door," he says. "The boss was cool with us drinking on the job and no one thought anything of you leaping over the bar to go dancing with girls or to break up a fight."

However, he says skiing was his number one priority, everything else came second.

"A group of us called ourselves the SST or Silly Ski Team, and we were real trail blazers out in the backcountry," he recalls. "Not a lot of people were going where we went in those days, such as running Burnt Stew, Flute and the backside of Oboe."

Robertson says a new breed of skier was emerging and his friends were always raising the bar, at times to their peril.

"I blew my back and knee out several times and once required eight stitches in my ass after falling down a 10 to 12 foot hole on VD Chutes and then had to ski out. Yeah, 1982 was definitely my best winter of skiing."

But the job Action Jackson became most well known for was managing Tapley’s Pub, a post he held from the winter of ’82 until 1989. He says he took particular pride in organizing social events to support the Canadian ski team, which he says in those days "was always hurting for money."

Robertson’s legacy is Tapley’s annual fund-raiser during World Cup downhill week in Whistler, when members of the national team run the bar.

"The fund-raiser of 1989 was an amazing event with Rob Boyd winning gold and Tapley’s raising more than $14,000 for the team. Margo Kidder, who was Superman’s Lois Lane, presented the cheque to the national team."

Ultimately the question arises; does Action Jackson miss the skier lifestyle? Yes and no, as it turns out.

"It was time for change and moving to Salmon Arm to start a family was an opportunity to start up my own businesses catering at the J. Lanes bowling alley."

Robertson now runs the plumbing side of things for the houseboat firm I was holidaying with, thus proving to truly be a Jack-of-all-trades.

"I gave up catering because it was cutting into the time I could spend with my two kids and took up plumbing instead," he explains.

Robertson says he still misses the mountains and wouldn’t trade his time in Whistler for anything. In particular, the freedom of running the backcountry with friends.

"Skiing is the ultimate dance but you must remember the mountain always leads, and I have had the privilege of skiing with some of its greatest dancers."

The mountains also lured Paul Burrows from his respectable journeyman job in a Vancouver printing firm to being a "glorified ski bum" – i.e. ski patroller – in Whistler. But then again, he was no stranger to sudden lifestyle changes. English-born Burrows first came to Canada in 1960 with an impressive history of travel. Kidnapped by his father at age 10 from a boarding school in Ireland, Burrows and his brother were taken to Rhodesia, where they lived a life along the lines of a Wilbur Smith novel.

"The African chapter was a fascinating period of my life, learning to shoot wild game for meat and lions that were attacking our cattle," he recalls. "I learned all kinds of languages and became an interpreter in the army, specializing in African languages."

However the winds of change were upon Africa with the disintegration of colonial life and for that reason, Burrows chose not to return there after partially completing his journeyman apprenticeship in London.

"When I first applied for immigration status I was turned down. They said I was a drifter, just using Canada as a stepping stone," he says. "I bullshit my way in the second time and bluffed my way into the printing business, pretending I was fully qualified when I wasn’t."

Burrows’ first trip to Whistler – Alta Lake, as it was called then – was in 1965. He soon signed up as a volunteer ski patroller on the mountain opened that winter. He says when the offer came to work fulltime on the mountain he was quick to swap the printing life for a pair of skis and work alongside the mountain’s three other ski patrollers, including Hugh Smythe, now president of Intrawest’s Resort Operations Group.

"Another major reason for leaving (the printing job) was the unions," he says. "In those days you had to die or get an incurable disease to get out of a union and I was ambitious, wanted to get into management."

After a couple of years working on the patrol, Burrows took the job of safety supervisor with Grouse Mountain in 1968, following a fatal chairlift accident at that ski area. However it wasn’t long before he returned to Alta Lake. When the Resort Municipality of Whistler was incorporated in 1975 Burrows ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1975. The ink had barely dried on the ballot papers before Burrows was planning his next endeavour: launching the resort’s first community newspaper, the Whistler Question.

"I really thought there was a need for communication in Alta Lake so people knew what was going on. Too many were shut out of the issues going on in the election."

The operation could best be described as shoestring. Burrows ran the paper out of his basement in Alpine Meadows, brought an old Gestetner machine, rented a typewriter and hired a part-time typist. He was journalist, editor and producer, and his wife Jane handled assembly and labeling.

"It was very much a family operation and lots of hard work, but it was fun."

Two hundred copies of the first free issue were snapped up but poor sales of the second edition showed the public wasn’t yet ready to part with 25 cents for local news. Advertising would pay the Whistler Question’s way, but it took a while.

The newspaper business was just one of the many hats worn by Burrows during his time in Whistler. After selling the paper in 1983, he was elected to municipal council three times between 1984 and 1989. He was also director of arts for the Whistler Resort Association (now Tourism Whistler), a founding member of the Whistler Museum and Archives board, member of the library board and a Search and Rescue volunteer, plus he took on various roles in the local healthcare and education sectors.

Now in retirement, Burrow says he and Jane would have "dearly loved to build in Whistler," but the cost was too prohibitive.

"When I sit here and see what a nice place you can build here for the money it’s a joke," he says gesturing at the lovely surroundings of their new Salmon Arm home, completed last September. "There is no way we could afford to build this in Whistler using the same materials."

Seven or eight years ago Burrows chaired the Mature Action Committee, which is aimed at building a retirement community in Whistler. He says the idea never gained the support it needed because it ran contrary to the youth culture Whistler was pushing – a situation he believes is a loss for the whole community.

"In a normal town losing the old people would be a disaster," he says. "But even Whistler will be unable to retain any continuity. You can not look forward if you have lost the ability to look back."

He says an even more serious issue is families being squeezed out of Whistler due to spiraling costs, and the overall shortage of seasonal worker accommodation.

"Whistler is in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg by not looking after those who make the resort what it is – the workers and young families," he says.

He cited the municipality’s recent refusal to back two employee housing projects as further evidence the resort is becoming the domain of the rich and famous.

"Whistler has become a commodity, traded like stock shares by Intrawest and everyone with money wants a piece."

So if that’s the case, what it would take to turn it around?

"A whole bunch of things – more land, more area, less density and a two-tiered building system that will allow the people who want to live there and raise their children to have affordable housing, which in turn would make everything else affordable."

Seeing Burrows’ huge appetite for new challenges and community involvement, it seems incongruous that he hasn’t thrown himself into local politics since moving to Salmon Arm last fall.

"It’s quite surprising but I am actually enjoying doing nothing," he says. A short silence follows. "Well I have written a few letters to the editor of the local paper, taken a Salmon Arm history paper at the Okanagan University College and may get involved with the economic development commission," he admits.

As for travel, Burrows says a trip to the South Pacific is on the horizon as well as the upcoming Pemberton get-together this month.

The man behind the reunion plans is Bob Priest, former owner and founder of the Pemberton Pharmacy. He says the first get-together two years ago was so much fun, the group decided to make it a regular event.

"It was like a family coming together," he says. "The people from Pemberton who now live in Salmon Arm used to work in everything from forestry to tourism, so it’s great to catch up."

Priest and his young family moved from Langley to Pemberton in 1964, before any paved road connected the small farming community to Alta Lake. Supplies for the new pharmacy had to be sent in by rail. The improvement to medical services provided by the pharmacy was well appreciated by the isolated community.

"Pemberton people were tremendously supportive and offered me the job of teaching science at the local school, which really helped when the business was just starting up," Priest recalls. "There were only around 190 people living in the village and 2,000 in the wider area, and Whistler was just a big sign in Creekside saying ‘Future home of the Garibaldi Lift Company’."

After selling the business some 10 years later, he worked as a relief pharmacist for 12 years. He says he and his wife Pat got to see a lot of the province, before finally settling in Salmon Arm.

And so would any of the three Salmon Arm immigrants move back to Whistler now? Robertson considered making the move back a few years ago but changed his mind after talking to friends who still live here.

"They pointed out how things had changed," he says. "If I had held onto some of the Whistler properties I brought and sold in the ’80s then it may have been a possibility but the property values are now way too high." He pauses. "And Salmon Arm is a great place to raise a family and the beauty of the place can be overwhelming at times, though it can’t be compared to Whistler where the beauty lies in the extreme and adventure."

Likewise Priest and Burrows says Salmon Arm is a great place to live, with its mixed aged community, strong volunteer base, and good range of leisure and cultural events. Priest points out that the communities of Pemberton and Whistler have changed so much, especially in the past five years, they no longer feel like home.

"We visited both towns to go shopping and there were hardly any people we knew," he says. "But there are still all kinds of people we know in Squamish."

Burrows says he realized years ago that he and Whistler were on divergent paths.

"My philosophy is anything in moderation and nothing in excess. Whistler is the opposite, whether you are talking about prices, or lifestyle or drinking or drugs or whatever."

The possibility of the Olympics coming to Whistler will only exacerbate the problem, he adds.

"Unless they remove the cap on expansion and allow the town to grow, Whistler will become so costly and out of the realm of the average person that it will become an artificial community and will self destruct eventually. That’s where it’s headed today. If the resort’s population topped 60,000 in the next 10 years I wouldn’t be surprised," he adds.

However Burrows says he will ultimately, in a sense, reside in Whistler again.

"We have four weeks timeshare a year in the resort which lets us catch up with all the gossip, scandal and innuendo." He pauses and laughs. "Plus two cemetery plots in Whistler – I like to plan ahead."




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