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Astride Spricenieks – Life is what you make of it

"People who love sports are much happier in life..." - Astride Spricenieks She's sharp and witty and curious and fun. She's candid and feisty and totally in love with life. Truly.

"People who love sports are much happier in life..."

- Astride Spricenieks


She's sharp and witty and curious and fun. She's candid and feisty and totally in love with life. Truly. If I can manage to exude as bright a light as Astride Spricenieks does when I turn 86 years young, I'll be totally jazzed...

But it's not like she's living large. Despite the popular cliché of Nouveau Whistlerites flaunting their multi million-dollar trophy homes for all and sundry to envy, Astride's modest way of life represents a much different side of 21 st century Whistler. And a not entirely enviable one at first glance. Single and dependent on limited retirement funds ("I never worked long enough at one job to get a good pension," she says with a disarming laugh. "So I'm poor."), Spricenieks lives a near-monastic existence in a humble little condo she rents on the shores of Alta Lake.

Did I say the condo was small? It's miniscule. Indeed, my presence in her living room almost overwhelms the space. Here is how I describe it in my journal:

"It's the mountain equivalent of a nun's cell. Ten-by-ten living/cooking space on the ground floor, sleeping loft above. Material possessions are few; everything has its place. It's almost like living on a boat. So tidy. So simple. And then I sit down and drink in the view: the north-end reed bed of Alta Lake almost lapping at her back door, further west, the bold lines of Rainbow cutting a pyramid-shaped hole out of the sky. "I'll stay here forever," she says. "I don't need anything else. I love this place." And suddenly I understand.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

"You have to meet my mom," Dharma Bum mountaineer Ptor Spricenieks told me last spring as we sat on a narrow ice ledge high above a steep Oisan face. Our feet virtually dangled in space. Funny subject to bring up before a big descent I thought. But then I knew how close he and his mother were.  And I was intrigued. I mean, here was this single, older woman who had embarked on such a fulfilling life-changing journey at Whistler that she was still a resident 17 years later. He continued: "She'd make a great Alta States subject, you know. Besides, I'm sure the two of you'll hit it off. She's a pretty special woman, that lady..."

Okay. So most of us hold our mothers in high esteem. But this is different. Ptor and Astride have this mutual admiration thing going that is entirely unique. Maybe it's their shared sense of adventure. Or the fact that the two of them have always marched to the beat of their own drum. Whatever. Both are risk-takers - intellectually and physically. Both are spiritual seekers. "But Ptor is much more advanced on that path than I am," says his mother, a subtle dash of parental pride discernible in her Latvian-inflected tone. "He's way ahead of me..."

Indeed. And for the next few minutes we compare notes on various teachers and paths and ways of seeking esoteric states. And it hits me again - even harder this time - this isn't just any old-age pensioner I'm spending time with...

As we share a pot of tea and a dish of chocolates (Astride's sense of Old World hospitality is so hardwired as to be nearly instinctual), I can't help but draw physical comparisons between mother and son. At first glance, they're nothing alike. Tall, square-shouldered, big-hearted and big-handed, Ptor wields a commanding presence in any situation. He has something of the medieval knight in him; a hint of unbridled power that can be unleashed when needed.

His mom, on the other hand, is tiny. Almost bird-like in her light-boned way. In a crowded room, she'd be all but invisible. Still, there's no hint of vulnerability about her. You can sense her strength. Her independence. Strong hands and good muscle tone; no-nonsense haircut and practical clothes - clearly this woman shares more than just a name with her offspring.

And the more I look, the more the similarities become oh-so evident. I mean, catch Astride in profile, and you easily see her son's bone structure in her face. Same raptor outline. Same strong nose and chin.

"I came here because of this apartment," she tells me suddenly. "I was ready for a change from Ontario, you know, and I was looking for a town in the west where I wouldn't need a car." A smile slowly spreads across her time-textured features. "I'd been here before in 1989. But Whistler wasn't for me. You see, I wasn't interested in skiing anymore."

Fortunately for her, she adds, her son didn't agree with her assessment. "He phoned me up one day," she recounts. "He said: 'the town is changing. I'm leaving. But I've got this great place to stay. You should move in here.' So that's what I did..."

Whistler is a heck of a long way from the Latvian capital of Riga on the Baltic Sea where Astride was raised prior to World War II. "I had a great life with parents who let me live," she says of her early years on the continent. "I grew up very independent."

It was an active life, she says, particularly in winter when she indulged her passion for figure skating. "I skated outside almost every day," she recalls. "On Sundays, I skated for 12 hours. I did some competitions too." Another smile dances across her features. "I was a strong skater with not a lot of style," she confides. And sighs. "But those were the years when everyone wanted to skate like Sonja Henning. And she was all style..."

But style would count for little before the onslaught of one of the most gruesome wars in human history. And like so many others of her generation, Astride would feel the full brunt of that conflict. For Latvians though, the Second World War was just the beginning of their woes. When the Russians invaded the country in 1944, Astride's family became landless refugees. "It was tough," she remembers of her five-year exile in Germany. "There were a lot of extremes. Fear. Poverty. Hunger..." She stops speaking for a beat. "But it's what you create for yourself that counts. We had fun too in those years. We did lots of sports. I even started thinking about becoming a sports teacher one day."

Astride immigrated to Canada in 1949. "We had three choices where we could go," she says with just the hint of grin. "Australia was too far, England was too, well, you know, too boring - and that left Canada." She arrived in New Brunswick with $2 in her pockets, a nearly-empty suitcase and absolutely no English. "It was a little bit frightening," she admits. "But it was also exciting. Here was a whole new life before me."

Absolutely. She'd been in Canada for barely a year when a girlfriend convinced her they should move to Mont Tremblant together and become chambermaids there. "I'd done a lot of cross-country skiing in Latvia," she tells me, "and I'd been introduced to alpine skiing in Germany. So I thought: why not?"

For those readers who aren't familiar with Canadian ski history, let me put her decision in perspective for you. What Whistler is to North American skiers today is what Mont Tremblant was (and more) to ski culture 60 years ago. Although she didn't know it at the time, Astride was moving to one of the coolest addresses in the country.

"We skied every day," she says. "Life was so simple - so much fun - much easier than the poor ski bum life of today. We had room and board, free skiing, and lessons if we wanted them. We even got to close the hills with the ski patrols at the end of every day."

She also remembers outings with legendary ski school director Ernie McCullough. "He was amazing," she says. "He could ski anywhere! He could do anything he wanted."

Astride spent two years working in the Laurentians - first at Mont Tremblant Lodge and then at the newly-built Devil's River Lodge on the other side of the mountain. "It was a small hotel," she explains of the latter. "But we had incredible guests. Exceptional people - opera singers and counts and politicians and millionaires." She pauses. "We were encouraged to mix with the guests in those days. It was like one big family."

After going on to McGill University and finally earning her phys ed degree - "I worked at the Hotel Chantecler in Ste. Adele serving those nice KLM pilots to pay my school fees," - Astride would eventually settle down in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. First came a job at the Y, then a teaching opportunity in a local school, then marriage, then Ptor (whom she calls Peter). She hit the wall sometime in the late 1960s. "It was a spring day," she remembers. "Peter was three years old. I woke up that morning and realized that there was more to life than teaching in a smelly old gym. So I quit."

She's been doing her own thing ever since. As for her life in Whistler, she wouldn't change a thing. "I totally accept what is," she asserts. "People are very friendly here. Very helpful." She laughs. "I'm very busy you know. I play bridge. I play scrabble. I walk. I read a lot." She sends one last smile my way. "I love being 86," she concludes. "I'm looking forward to making it to 96..."