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Keeping the flame alive

By Michel Beaudry Whistler women aren’t normal. They can’t be. Living in an environment largely defined by their male counterparts, they’ve had to reach higher, run faster and act stronger.

By Michel Beaudry

Whistler women aren’t normal. They can’t be. Living in an environment largely defined by their male counterparts, they’ve had to reach higher, run faster and act stronger. Yet they’ve also managed to leave an indelible imprint on the social texture of this place. Ever since Myrtle Philip moved to the valley back in 1914, Whistler women have played an inordinately large role in the every day affairs of this mountain community. And they’ve developed a flair that is distinctly theirs. Bold, creative, clever and funny, the women who set down roots here don’t take guff from anyone.

Consider Whistler historian Florence Petersen. Well into her 70s, the district’s former marriage commissioner is still a ball of positive energy. She’s been a homeowner in the valley for 51 years now — and has lived here full time since 1983. Citizen of the year in 1986, and the recipient of Canada’s 125 th Anniversary Commemorative Medal, Florence has given much of her free time — and considerable skills — to developing the social infrastructure that fledging communities like Whistler so badly need. And though she’s not convinced that all the changes wrought on her beloved valley have been for the best, she has no intention of moving away anytime soon.

“We all knew things were going to change dramatically when the ski lifts were built in 1965,” she says, just a little bit sadly. “After all, our summer paradise had been discovered. But nobody could have dreamed then just how big the changes would be!” She pauses for a moment. Sighs. “I wish sometimes we hadn’t been in such a hurry to ‘civilize’ this place…”

We’re sitting in her sun-drenched living room on the west side of Alta Lake. A simple post-and-beam structure erected in 1966 (“after my original cottage, Witsend, burned down,” she tells me) her current home probably boasts one of the most beautiful views in Whistler. An uninterrupted line of Coast Mountain peaks streams across her living room window — from Mt. Currie to the north to Whistler Mountain in the south. They say that at sunset, the sight of the alpenglow from here can make believers out of even the most cynical…

“There were five of us gals at first,” she says. “All school teachers — four from Burnaby and one from Armstrong, B.C . One of the gals — Betty Gray — had spent many summers working at a place called Rainbow Lodge high up in the mountains. And she convinced us that it would be a good place to buy a vacation cottage.”

And indeed it was. “We had a great time,” she says with a deceptively youthful look in her eye. “We were very popular at the community dances held every Saturday night at Rainbow Lodge, or in the school which doubled as the Community Hall.”

Her husband Andy laughs at this. “Of course they were popular,” he says grinning. “They were just about the only single girls around…”

But Florence won’t be put off. “Those dances were so much fun. Alec Greenwood (who had bought the lodge from Alex and Myrtle Philip back in 1948) had the best music on his Wurlitzer.” She chuckles. “In the school, the music was powered by a gas generator. Either we girls would get tired of dancing or the gas would run out…”

It didn’t take long for the five teachers to fall irretrievably in love with this remote mountain setting — especially given how much they paid for their lakeside cottage.

“The asking price was $2,500,” remembers Florence. “But the owners thought we were a pretty nice group of gals, so they dropped the price by $500. And when they found out we were going to pay cash, they took another $500 off.” She smiles. “So for $1,500, we got a fully furnished cottage, a clinker rowboat, a wharf and a stocked tool shed. That was a pretty good deal, even for 1955.”

And the girls took full advantage of it. “We’d spend much of the summer up there. But in the off-season we could only manage long weekends. You see, the train only ran three times a week. And we teachers needed to be at work on Monday morning…”

In those days, the trip from Burnaby to Alta Lake was a long day’s adventure. “We’d take the streetcar in North Burnaby at 7 in the morning, board a steamship at the foot of Vancouver’s Columbia Street, steam up to Squamish in time to catch the northbound train, and we’d get dropped off at Rainbow Lodge late in the afternoon. From there it was a long walk with all our gear back along the track and up to the cottage.”

At the end of a particularly trying travel day, one of the gals was heard to moan: “I’m so tired, I feel at my wits’ end.” Florence laughs. “So that’s what we named our place…”

Sadly Witsend burned down in November 1965 when Florence loaned it to a friend for a few days. Fortunately, the teachers had also invested in the lot next door (for the princely sum of $500 in 1956). And that’s where Florence decided to build her new home.

“I didn’t know I was going to marry a carpenter,” explains Florence, who’d just recently met her future husband. “Otherwise I would have never ordered a pre-fabricated home.” Still, it was Andy — a recent immigrant from Denmark — who oversaw construction of the new house. And it was still a big job.

“In those days,” says Andy, “we couldn’t drive here. So we’d park at Creekside and walk all the way to the lot with our tools and building materials and such.”

“But everybody pitched in to help,” says Florence. “In September ’66, we had a big building bee and got most of the house up in one weekend.”

Meanwhile, Florence was still working full-time in Burnaby. A popular phys ed. teacher and guidance counsellor, she was also a world-class field hockey player. When Alta Lake Road was finally pushed through to Rainbow Lodge in the late 1960s, Andy decided to move up to Whistler full time. Florence continued her weekend commutes until she retired in 1983 and was able to move north for good.

For some people, retirement means slowing down and taking life easy. But not for Florence. “I like to stay busy,” she says. “I like to get involved in things.”

One of her first “retirement” projects was launching the Whistler Museum and Archives. “In those days, Dick Fairhurst and Myrtle (Philip) were still with us. And they kept telling me: ‘Things have changed so much around here in the last few years. Nobody will remember us or what this place was like in the old days.’ So that’s when I said ‘OK. I’ll start collecting mementos and stories of the early years.’” She smiles. “And that’s pretty much how the museum was started...”

Florence is quick to cite a former Whistler mayor for his support of the project. “We have to thank Ted Nebbeling for a lot of this. He was a councillor at the time and he convinced his colleagues to lease the old municipal hall at Function Junction to us.” She pauses for a moment. “You know — Ted did a lot of great things for this community. Remember, we also have Meadow Park because of him.”

But one thing keeps nagging at me as we continue our conversation. Why didn’t she ever take up skiing? An elite athlete and lifelong health and fitness promoter, it certainly wasn’t because she couldn’t do it.

“Andy and I skied at Mt. Baker a few times when we first met,” she admits. “But in the early years, Whistler simply was no place for a beginner.” But there’s definitely more to it than that. And I finally get her to tell me the story.

“Well — I’d gone up the mountain with some friends and I was riding the upper T-bar,” she says. On the way up, Florence hit a bump in the track, lost control of one of her skis, and fell onto her back awkwardly. “I was stuck under the T-bar and couldn’t move. There was nothing I could do to extricate myself. I had really strained my back and I needed help to get back up.” She stops talking for a moment. Takes a deep breath as if the incident still haunts her. “Instead of walking up 10 steps to help me, the liftee kept screaming and swearing at me to get off the track. That’s when I decided that skiing wasn’t for me…”

She laughs. “I eventually got up and made my painful way down to the Red Chair. It was there that I saw Stefan Ples. ‘How come you’re heading down so early,’ he asked me. I told him and he said: ‘You’ll be back.’” Another pause. “But you know — I never did go back.”


Note: Florence Petersen’s recently released “History of Alta Lake Road” (a limited edition) is a must-read for Whistler history buffs!