You get the sense Betty Birrell, better known in biking circles as North Shore Betty, doesn’t look back too much, whether literally or figuratively. When you’ve been ripping up the trails of B.C. for close to 30 years, pressing on is the name of the game.
So when Birrell got a chance to watch the short documentary capturing her journey as a world-class athlete, mountaineer and mom, it gave her a new appreciation of all the things she’s accomplished in her “73 and three-quarter” years.
“I’ve never had this experience before,” she says of watching the Patagonia-produced, 12-minute doc that will screen June 24 as part of the Whistler Film Festival’s (WFF) Adventure Film Series. “I suppose most of the things I’ve done in my life, I’ve always kind of been under the radar.”
An accomplished mountaineer in her 20s who was reluctant to officially record her first ascents; a champion windsurfer who would avoid photographers in the water because she “didn’t like the hype;” no matter what Birrell did, it was never for the glory.
“It was about freedom, like all sports to me, so I was always a bit under the radar,” she adds. “So this [film] was a validation for my life, my involvement in sports and my role as a mother. It was very validating for me.”
North Shore Betty co-director Darcy Hennessey Turenne first learned of Birrell when she was assigned to write a feature story about her for Patagonia, and as an avid athlete and mom approaching 40, she couldn’t help but be inspired.
“After meeting her it was very clear she was worthy of a film, if not more,” she says. “She is just the most enthusiastic, positive-thinking, hard-charging woman I know. She’s such an inspiration to so many people, not only for doing what she’s doing at her age, but her mindset. She doesn’t let anything get in the way of her fun.”
But it wasn’t all fun and games for Birrell. The mountain bike scene of 30 years ago was of course much different than it is today, and for years, she was the only woman to be found on the North Shore’s trails. Although she admits to experiencing a few incidents of sexism and ageism over the years, “I now wonder if it was more surprise at seeing an older woman riding double blacks on my own,” she muses. “When I was in my late 40s and 50s, I could go into a new shop … to buy some gear and I would occasionally get, ‘Is this for you or your kids?’ Interestingly that never happens anymore.”
What makes Birrell’s athletic achievements all the more impressive is the fact she did it all as a single mom, juggling her many pursuits and a jet-setting career as a flight attendant to raise her son, Hayden.
“I did have family support and neighbour support because as a single mom, you just have to invent things and figure out how to make it work,” she says. “As your child goes through different stages of life that’s always changing, so you have to come up with new ways to make things work.”
In Hayden’s younger years, that meant bringing him along in her backpack on hiking trips. As he got older, Hayden joined his mom on the bike, and in the summers, they’d regularly set off on backcountry camping trips together. Eventually, Hayden evolved into a prolific athlete in his own right.
“In increments, I was able to start introducing him to more and more sports and then as he got older we started being able to do more stuff together,” Birrell recalls.
Since going live last month, North Shore Betty has racked up more than 600,000 views on Patagonia’s YouTube channel, and Birrell has marvelled at the response so far.
“People have told me in various sports that I’ve been inspiring to them so I’ve had this experience before, but nothing on this scale. This is just phenomenal,” she says. “It’s really great and a great feeling to be an inspiration to so many people. I’ve always felt we’re here on Earth to give back and make a difference to someone’s life, so to be on this scale is pretty amazing.”
WFF’s Adventure Film Series runs from June 23 to 25 at the Maury Young Arts Centre and Rainbow Theatre and features programs that will include both short and feature-length films, with a focus on adrenaline-fuelled sports stories.
North Shore Betty is one of six short films screening as part of the Mountain Bike Shorts program on June 24, starting at 6 p.m. at the Maury Young Arts Centre. For tickets, and the full program, visit whistlerfilmfestival.com.