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Shelagh Bridgwater: Following in her parents’ foosteps

It never ceases to amaze me how entertaining the “How I came to be living in Whistler” stories are.

It never ceases to amaze me how entertaining the “How I came to be living in Whistler” stories are. Whether following a dream, joining up with a lover, or simply dropping by for a holiday (and staying forever), the wild and woolly tales people tell of how they came to reside in this magical mountain wonderland — and the various challenges they overcame to remain here — clearly illustrate how appealing this place really is.

It’s part of Whistler’s DNA. Part of its identity as a resort community. For it is in these stories that one discovers the true nature of the people who call this Coast Mountain town home. Don’t you think?

One of the most compelling of these roots stories comes from landscape architect/resort planner, Shelagh Bridgwater. Although she and husband, Ryley Thiessen, have been living and working in the valley for the last five years, it turns out that this is Shelagh’s second stint as a Whistler local. Alas, all she knows of that first stay are the Bridgwater family legends she’s heard repeated over the years.

She laughs just to think about it. “I was only a year old,” she says in self-defence. “But those stories have been recounted so many times that they’ve become part of me.”

Like so many other Whistlerites, her roots are in Southern Ontario. “My dad worked with my Opa as a stone mason,” she recounts. “When the Ontario economy hit the skids in 1980, their business was really impacted.” But rather than throwing up his arms and giving up, Shelagh’s dad decided to move his young family west. “I was the baby,” says Shelagh. “I had two older brothers, Richard, 6, and Eric 8.” Another burst of laughter. “We camped the whole way across Canada (in an old Saab). My parents stuck me in the back seat, between my two brothers, in a vain attempt to keep them from fighting…”

Her dad, Martin, had heard that things were booming at Whistler. His goal was to start a small residential construction company here — and ski, of course. On arriving in the valley, the parents made a pact: whoever got a job first, went to work. The other spouse would stay home and take care of the kids. “Well, my mum got a job at Tamarisk pretty quickly,” says Shelagh. “So that left my dad with the kids. The two older boys were no problem — they were in school full time. But what was he going to do with me?”

You see, Martin wanted to go skiing. And staying at home with baby Shelagh was not part of his Whistler vision. “He found this day care on the Westside road,” she says. “But you needed to be toilet trained to get in and I was still in diapers.” Desperate, Martin resorted to what any self-respecting man would do in a case like this — he lied. “He gave them some sob story about being a single dad with three kids, and they bought it.” A quick giggle. “So there I was, a ‘regular’ at day care and dad got to go skiing.”

The family fell in love with Whistler. The mountains, the lifestyle, even the weather — it was everything they’d dreamed of. But the recession that had pushed them out of Ontario had followed them west. After a year of trying to make a go of it here, the Bridgwater clan realized they would have to relocate if they were going to make their western dream come true. “So my parents started looking around for places that were more affordable, but still offered the same kind of lifestyle.”

Enter Invermere. Located in the scenic Windermere Valley, on the west slope of the Rocky Mountains, this picturesque B.C. mountain town was everything the Bridgwaters had been looking for. A hugely popular summer destination with Albertans, it was only minutes away from the Panorama ski area. It had it all — great hiking nearby, water sports in Lake Windermere, and skiing to your heart’s content. And though it wasn’t exactly booming, Invermere provided Martin with the kind of business opportunities he was looking for.

The Bridgwaters had finally found their home. “I can’t imagine growing up anywhere else,” says Shelagh. “It was a really rich environment for kids. The whole valley was our playground. There was always some adventure to get involved with…”

Something of a jock — she skied and snowboarded and played basketball and volleyball and was a good enough figure skater to consider a career with Disney on Ice — Shelagh admits she didn’t have huge ambitions when she finished high school. “My only goal at that point was to join the family business,” she says.

But a stint as a snowboard/ski instructor at Panorama — and a life-changing ambassador exchange trip to Japan — got her creative juices flowing. In 1998, she enrolled at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology for a two-year course in landscape architectural technology. “I thought it was going to be a practical hands-on course,” she explains. “But it turned out to be more about design and drawing.”

And to her surprise, she excelled at it. When the University of Guelph offered a groundbreaking two years’ credit towards a full degree in landscape architecture to the top four graduates in her class, Shelagh jumped at the opportunity. Another to accept the offer was a young Saskatchewan farmer by the name of Ryley Thiessen. “It wasn’t an easy transition for us,” remembers Shelagh. “Here we were, two westerners walking into a class of 35 competitive people who already had two years to bond. We were definitely the outsiders.”

In 2002, Ryley and Shelagh (who were now a couple) graduated near the top of their class. And both agreed that the east wasn’t for them. “We’d had offers in Toronto and Calgary,” she explains. “But those cities would always be there. We wanted adventure.”

And they both agreed that Whistler was where the adventure was. Little more than 20 years after her parents had jettisoned their Ontario life for a new start on the Wet Coast, Ryely and Shelagh packed up their things and drove west in their turn. “We didn’t have anything set up,” she says. “We knew there were a couple of resort design firms based out of Whistler, but we also realized that getting jobs with them would be tough. Still, we just felt this is where we wanted to be.”

The “couple of resort design firms” in question included Brent Harley and Associates and Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners. Both firms had notched out sizeable niches for themselves in the very competitive resort design business. It would be a feather in any graduate’s cap to clinch an interview with either one of them. But to think of actually getting a job — and for two rookies at that: “That was a long shot,” admits Shelagh.

In a fitting tribute to their hard work and vision, both Ryley and Shelagh found work in their field — the former with Ecosign and the latter with BHA. “Sure — it’s a bit awkward at times,” Shelagh says with a near giggle. “But it’s business — you have to treat it professionally. And you have to leave office stuff at the office…”

Maybe that’s why she enjoys coaching figure skating to young kids at Meadow Park so much. “It’s what keeps me grounded,” says Shelagh. “I’ve coached at all levels — right up to high performance elite. But I constantly come back to the young ones — those who’ve barely seen ice before.”

Why? “Simple,” she answers. “They remind you to pay attention to the here and now.” She pauses. “The gift of working with very young children is that they help you put things in perspective. Know what I mean? They rekindle that spark of having fun no matter what you are doing. They constantly challenge you to keep things exciting.”

Still, she worries for her young charges. “Everyone in Whistler seems to expect that their kid is going to be a world champion one day,” she says. “That just seems like a lot of pressure for these three and four year olds… I think it is so important for kids to have fun while they learn. Otherwise, they never get to experience the magic in life.”

That aside, Shelagh maintains that her return to Whistler has been nothing but positive — especially since she and Ryley moved in to their new Spring Creek home in December of 2006.

“It’s kind of strange,” she says. “I always imagined that my dad would be the one to build my home.” A long pause. “But with the housing situation at Whistler, we knew we had to change our way of thinking. We were on the WHA list for about three years, and decided to wait till we found a house that we both really liked. When we saw our place we didn’t hesitate, we just bought it! And we love it… we now feel like we really are a part of this community.”