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Soul decisions

As Whistler gets busier by the year, some locals seek greener pastures

In a Jan. 12, 2023 letter to the editor in Pique, Ken Mason expressed concern Vail Resorts is “destroying the soul” of Whistler Blackcomb.

Mason first started skiing Whistler in the ’60s, he wrote, reminiscing about the simplistic earlier days of the resort.

“Life was great, and I was hooked on skiing, Whistler Mountain and Alta Lake, Whistler,” he wrote.

But over the years, that little upstart resort, powered by passionate locals, evolved into one of the largest ski-area operations in the world, and changes in ownership led to changes in offerings.

“It’s so sad to see all the things we used to have now gone, such as the hot-dog stand, outdoor barbecues, bands playing up top, amateur competitions, special events, etc.,” Mason wrote.

“It’s shameful how Vail Resorts has hollowed out our great resort. I used to have so much pride and connection to our hometown hill, and now I’m losing it and feel Whistler is becoming just another corporate town.”

That sentiment isn’t ubiquitous, but it’s also not isolated. 

Most complaints about an encroaching corporate atmosphere are made in the context of Whistler Blackcomb and Vail Resorts, but others say the vibe is extending throughout town. 

While there is justifiable praise for Vail Resorts’ support for local non-profit initiatives, criticism has typically overshadowed any applause. 

Locals are loud in voicing their opinions on busyness in town, or the lack of housing, and aren’t shy about using a favourite play-on-words to describe the Epic Pass and the Vail Resorts operation as an “Epic fail.” 

In early March, Mayor Jack Crompton attempted to squash these concerns at a State of the Municipality hosted by the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. In doing so, he quoted American travel writer Arthur Frommer: “‘Tourism does not go to a place that has lost its soul.’”

He later told Pique in an interview that looking to Whistler’s “good old days” is not productive, and instead, we should focus on the ingenuity of the present and feel excited by the future. 

Nostalgia is a persistent emotion, though. Mason and others reminisce about the days when Whistler Blackcomb executives could be seen helping out in the lift lines, and a burger and fries didn’t set you back nearly $30. 

While Crompton is grateful for what Whistler has been, he doesn’t share the view something irreplaceable is being lost. Rather, the mayor voices excitement for what’s still to come.

“We’re building something tremendous together,” he says.

“One of the tricks of survival is seeing the great benefit of a new contribution because you mourn the loss of friends who leave. There are new restaurants and businesses and people, but the geography is unchanging.” 

The mayor notes “smart tourism” is a priority for the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), and he acknowledges the importance of attracting visitors sustainably—meaning tourism that is both sensible for the environment and residents. 

At the same time, “if you don’t want to be a part of the tourism industry, this is a strange place to live,” he notes. “We’re purpose-built with the intention of being a British Columbia superpower, and we are. Visitation comes with living out that mandate.” 

Dave Clark, a longtime local known for starting the Whistler Half Marathon and producing Balding for Dollars, along with a long laundry list of other local volunteer contributions, echoes the same mentality. 

“Whistler has been built to be a busy place. In order to support all the businesses in town, we need to have a certain level of [activity],” he says. 

“We’ve got a great year-round destination here that we want to share with lots of people, and that’s ultimately what the business of the community is all about.” 

‘It’s just a lot of noise’

While Clark has no trouble looking past the hecticness in town, he and his family are relocating to Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast this coming summer. 

After 24 years in Whistler, it’s not a push out of town but rather a pull toward the ocean. He grew up in North Vancouver, and his wife, Wendy, grew up in Tsawwassen—so they feel they are returning to their roots. 

The Clarks moved to Whistler for the natural landscape and outdoor lifestyle—they stayed for the people. 

“There is far more beauty in the people than we ever would have expected when we first moved here; the unique characters and culture that is created by everyone’s personal investment in the community,” Clark says.

“It’s pretty unique that way.” 

For others, the lines and crowds were enough to drive them out of town. Kathryn Lord, a registered massage therapist who lived in Whistler for 27 years, said her frustration drove her all the way to the southern Interior. She now lives and works in Rossland. 

Lord felt stimulated by her work treating elite athletes—even Olympians—and recognizes she wouldn’t have had that opportunity in many other places. But she saw the resort becoming “a Disneyworld,” with what she views as superfluous additions like the Cloudraker Skybridge atop Whistler Bowl attracting many visitors. 

“It’s just a lot of noise,” she says. 

Lord feels like she has “gone back 40 years with the ski lifts at [RED Mountain],” but the trade-off is she has regained that “quaint, small-town” environment she initially moved to Whistler for when she was 22. 

The transient nature of the community seems to be an accepted part of living here. 

Crompton spoke about his own friends leaving town at the State of the Municipality. Those friends also relocated to the southern Interior, but the Sunshine Coast seems to be another top contender for former Whistlerites. 

Cheryl and Vincent “Binty” Massey packed up their successful pottery business and traded the mountains for the ocean after living in Whistler for 37 years. 

Both Masseys grew up in West Vancouver but didn’t cross paths until they met on Whistler Mountain at the original Roundhouse Lodge in 1980. At the time, Cheryl was visiting her friend who had recently moved to Whistler, and Binty was on a school break from the West Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham, England. 

The rest is history; the two bought land in Whistler five years later—the same year they wed, bought a puppy, and welcomed their son, Tyler. Being adventurous and dexterous people—Binty, a potter, and Cheryl, a basket-weaver—naturally, they built their own home. 

The Masseys’ property housed their 1,500-square-foot studio and gallery space, two brick kilns, and their home, which included a rental suite. 

“[Having a rental suite] was important for us to survive financially, but also to know we were providing accommodation for the long-term locals, who are the vital force of this community,” says Cheryl. 

‘The Whistler spirit’

While it might feel like the housing shortage in Whistler is at its apex, Binty says history would indicate this is nothing new. 

“It’s always been a struggle to get affordable housing in Whistler,” Binty says. 

Regardless of past, present, and future challenges in securing affordable housing in the ever-popular destination, the Masseys believe people have, and will continue, to find a way to live here.

“When you really want something, you make it work. That’s the Whistler spirit. There were people here who squatted and made it work,” says Cheryl. 

Binty recounts the dedicated Whistlerites in the 1960s and ’70s who “went up and built cabins in the woods.” 

“A number of our past notable councillors,” notes Cheryl. 

“And [longtime locals like] Andy Munster and Charlie Doyle,” adds Binty. 

The list of notable Whistlerites who once squatted includes former mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden and her husband, Ted Morden, who built a modest cabin along Crabapple Creek after their landlord booted them out. 

If it wasn’t the woods, it was under a staircase or in saunas, as photographer Carin Smolinski’s Living the Dream exhibit depicted.

Francis Deshaies, a Whistlerite of 28 years, slept under a pool table when he was in between houses. Deshaies, known as Frank, was one of many locals who handed over a $20 bill in the morning to Seppo Jalmari Makinen in exchange for sleeping in his log house, which operated as a casual lodge.

“[In Makinen’s house], you slept wherever you could find a spot,” says Deshaies.

Deshaies moved to Whistler at age 22 from Kingsey Falls, Quebec. It was a cross-country move few from his small town could imagine. His first job was at the Southside Deli, now known as the Southside Diner. He has worked and lived in a few different spots along the Sea to Sky corridor, but today he can still be found cooking and making people laugh in the Southside kitchen in Creekside.

Makinen’s house burnt down in 1998, but people’s dedication to finding a way to live in Whistler did not burn down with it. Nowadays, fewer people are content with using outhouses in the bush, but people continue to find creative ways to live here.

Mayor Crompton says housing is always top of mind.

“We are working with our building department to cut our permit processing times in half,” he says. “We need to continue to push, and we intend to continue to push.” 

The Masseys got lucky with real estate, but not everything about their Whistler life was easy. As Binty reflects on making a career out of his craft, he says he felt supported by his local commercial clients, including some prime hotels. At the same time, it was a struggle to get customers out of the village and to their home-based gallery in Alpine Meadows. 

“The municipality was not on board with having any home-based businesses like [ours]. Even though what we thought was an asset to the art scene in Whistler, the municipality never saw it that way,” says Binty. 

Part of their impetus to move to Sechelt was to join a larger arts community where home-based businesses and art studios are commonplace. 

The Masseys beam with pride as they reflect on raising their family and growing their business in Whistler. While they marvel at Whistler’s abundant opportunities for playing in the mountains and forests, they agree with Clark that the people and atmosphere are equally as special. 

“A melting pot of fun-seekers,” says Binty. 

“Care-free souls,” adds Cheryl. 

‘Your heart doesn’t leave’

One of their favourite memories includes the winter of 1998-99. On top of a powder-filled season, the Wailers played in February at the Longhorn.  

“It dumped two feet of snow [during the concert]. That night was so energized with so many local people. The music, the vibe, it was so memorable. It was a Whistler moment over the top,” says Cheryl. 

Deshaies has a plethora of stories in his back pocket, too. He has prepared pizza for Prince Andrew at the Rendezvous; lived with professional snowboarder, Johan Olofsson; and has cooked breakfast for comedian Chevy Chase. But Deshaies is arguably as legendary as each of the famous people he has come across.

He used to attach his discman to an amplifier while cooking at the Southside Deli. Pearl Jam, the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, and Frank Zappa were some of the preferred tunes.

“It was rocking,” he says.

Deshaies is all about ensuring everyone is having fun. But he equally prioritized, and continues to prioritize, supporting those around him. He believes kindness is integral to the ethos of Whistler.

He says Creekside used to be a place where everyone who lived there also worked in the community, and neighbours felt like family.

“The spirit is still a bit there, but not like it used to be in the ’90s,” he says.

While he says conviviality isn’t the same, it’s apparent he has maintained a generous demeanour and loves helping others out. No one goes hungry around Deshaies.

Cheryl believes they lived in Whistler “when it was cool,” but she and Binty agree the heart of Whistler will always endure. 

“Yeah there are high-speed lifts and more ants on the ant hill, but there’s still the same vibe,” Binty says. “When you get to the top of the mountain on a powder day, and you’re the first down something, you can’t beat it. That vibe is never going away.” 

After graduating high school, Binty spent a year in Whistler skiing and working in construction before pursuing further studies. He sees the influx of young people still doing the same thing. 

“Where are they going to go have fun? They go to Whistler. That hasn’t changed,” he says. 

Older Whistlerites also seem to be revelling in all Whistler has to offer. 

The Masseys’ former long-term tenant is the grandchild of 90-year-old ski instructor George Tjelios-Nicholas, who can still be spotted teaching on Whistler Blackcomb. 

While they don’t regret their move to Sechelt, they frequently return to Whistler to visit friends. 

The Masseys, like Crompton, endorse the age-old adage that change is the only constant. Whistler may be changing, but the consensus seems to be its essence is unwavering.

“Yeah, we moved out, but in some ways you never really leave,” Cheryl says.

“Your heart doesn’t leave.”