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Settling spirits in the Callaghan

Spooktacular Story 2

If you pause for a moment in the Callaghan Valley, stop to reflect and soak it all in, you can almost hear the world quietly breathing in and out... if you listen closely enough.

There are snow-capped mountains, alpine lakes, waterfalls, old Western Hemlocks towering up to the sky, grizzly bears, wolves, black-tailed deer.

And a luxury wilderness lodge right in the middle of it all.

It's a haven for backcountry adventurers making their cross-country and skin tracks on high.

More than 30 years ago Peter Vandenberg was a young Whistler carpenter working on that lodge.

It was March. Still the thick of winter in the Callaghan, the nights drawing in fast.

The days passed in a blur of work and the nights offered a welcome respite.

Peter's temporary digs were a bedroom on the second floor. His friend Ken slept in the neighbouring room.

That March night Peter woke suddenly though no sound pulled him from his slumber, no nudge stole his sleep.

And there it was, in his room.

He saw it right away.

It was fuzzy, its outlines not quite defined. But Peter knew what he was looking at, though he had never really believed in ghosts before.

It was a man, dressed in white in a jacket with lapels, like a uniform. He moved when he saw Peter looking at him, turning back towards the stairs. Then he was gone.

Gone. In an instant. But not before searing himself forever on Peter's memory.

"That was just a moment in time, really," he says simply of what he calls the "spectre."

It didn't scare him, didn't leave him breathless and restless and worried.

It simply... was.

Peter didn't know the story at the time of the Callaghan's lost pilots. But he knows now. And he believes whole-heartedly that he saw one of them that night.

The night of the spectre's appearance was March 22, the same day that First Officers James Miller and Gerald Stubbs of the 409 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force crashed in the Callaghan Valley decades earlier in 1956, never to be seen again. Alive, that is.

They were on an instrument flying practice flight in a T-33 Silver Star, setting off from their base at Comox on Vancouver Island. They were supposed to be back on base within an hour and a half, keeping within a 160-kilometre radius of the air force base.

Bad weather changed everything. And for almost 20 years there was no sign of them.

And then... clues began appearing.

The canopy of their plane was found in 1974.

In 1998 the fuselage was found, about one kilometre from the lodge.

Two years ago, the remains of a helmet.

For Brad Sills, owner of the Callaghan lodge, the search for answers has been ongoing for decades.

Looking back to those early ski touring days in the seventies, when he was trying to find the best trails for the lodge, Brad believes he stumbled into a primitive camp — their camp.

He believes one, or both, survived the crash and what he found were remnants of the survival — a bench seat made out of a log, rolled back tins of sardines, and, most significantly, parachute chord tied around the trees.

If only he could find it again.

Brad feels their spirit there too. He wants to find the truth.

What went wrong that March morning half a century ago?

When the remains of the helmet were found, Sills couldn't help but head into the area straight away. It's close to the lodge and if anyone knows his way around the Callaghan, Brad Sills does.

It wasn't until he was out looking around that he realized he was by himself and nobody knew where he was. The president of Whistler Search and Rescue knows better than that. He called an employee, who told him he was close by, just held up behind a grizzly bear. No big deal, grizzlies are a part of Callaghan life.

Brad was down an embankment and spotted the road above. He scrambled up to get there, to get some idea of his bearings. He looked down the road, knew exactly how close he was to the lodge. Then turned the other way and there it was. A big female grizzly walking towards him, 60 metres away.

He quickly scrambled back down the embankment, scrambled on top of a large boulder to appear larger than life, took off his jacket to again give the appearance of size and watched the bear make her way towards him.

Gruelling minutes passed as he watched the grizzly step closer and closer.

It stopped at the base of the rock, three metres away. And stared.

Brad spoke to it, his voice level and calm, explaining that he meant no harm.

He knew he wasn't supposed to look the grizzly in the eye. But he couldn't help himself.

He held her gaze, heart hammering in his chest.

It wasn't a showdown. It wasn't a battle of wills.

Brad believes it was a silent communication.

"I know you," the bear seemed to say. "Here I am."

The bear slowly moved on. Brad's breathing returned to normal.

Minutes later his employee burst onto the scene, stick in hand, ready to defend his boss. Tension cut with comic relief. Reality restored. The moment passed.

But it lingers with Brad now.

He can't help but think it was a sign.

Keep searching down that embankment, away from the road, is how Brad interprets his fateful minutes with the grizzly.

The answers are there. They just need to be found.

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