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The consummate outdoorsman: Don MacLaurin 1929-2014

Nothing left on his bucket list after a lifetime of accomplishments
Delicate Balance Don MacLaurin spent 50 years caring for and shaping the natural environment, living and teaching sustainability years before it became the normø. Photo submitted

Don MacLaurin had no intention of letting his death get in the way of enjoying his wake.

With more than eight decades to his name, MacLaurin had a lot to celebrate and revel in the fullness of his life — husband, father, grandfather, forester, Rotarian, tireless volunteer, lover of the forests, visionary and shaper of Whistler's outdoors.

So four years ago, he and his wife Isobel hosted their own joint wake, partying until the wee hours with their friends and family, their simple pine caskets transformed into colourful works of art by Isobel and serving as makeshift bars, offering a little insight into the fun-loving pair.

"Yes, I can take it with me," declared a banner in capital letters on Don's casket, filled with bottles of wine and beer.

On Wednesday May 14, that very casket, also painted on the sides with his classic red 1951 MG TD, was lowered to the ground at the Whistler cemetery, surrounded by his beloved forest and more than 100 friends and family.

"It was a grand going away," said Isobel of the send-off of her constant companion of more than 55 years, sitting on the colourful painted deck of their Whistler cabin.

Just as he wanted.

MacLaurin died in Vancouver General Hospital on May 7. He was 85 years old.

His legacy stretches throughout Whistler, from summit to valley, in its high alpine trails and valley-floor forests — more than 50 years of shaping and caring for our natural environment. And, importantly, treading that delicate balance between forestry and recreation, years before his time.

"Don was living and teaching sustainability before the term was invented," said Whistler Blackcomb's Arthur DeJong, who called MacLaurin his mentor.

Put MacLaurin's work in the context of B.C.'s troubled history of forestry with the backlash to the heavy resource extraction to the preservation movement and his contribution becomes ever more important.

"Don was the bridge builder," added DeJong. "He was the guy who looked at both the economics and the ecology."

And that impact, that bridge building, collaboration, and his ability to see both sides and work on solutions, is seen from one end of Whistler to the other — the Whistler Interpretive Forest, the Ancient Cedars, the Musical Bumps, the Community Forest, Lost Lake Park, to name just a few.

"Don has had a huge influence in the whole valley — all the forests of the valley and how they're growing and how they changed and how they're doing so well," said his friend and fellow forester Peter Ackhurst.

MacLaurin was born in the Ottawa Valley in 1929, an only child. His father was a teacher at the agriculture college, forming perhaps the beginning of MacLaurin's lifelong love of nature.

Before graduating from the University of New Brunswick with a degree in forestry, he came to B.C. to work in the industry during his summers, travelling out on his motorcycle. After graduation he felt the pull westwards, taking a job in Vancouver with the B.C. Forest Service.

The MacLaurin's, who met at a dance in New Brunswick, married in 1958, settled in Port Moody and began raising their four children — Lee, Jill, Sue and Mark.

He later took a job with B.C.I.T designing and teaching courses in forestry, recreation and park management, distance education and knowledge network. He was there for 24 years.

"It was his two great loves in life — teaching students and outdoor recreation," said Ackhurst.

The MacLaurin's deep connection to Whistler began in the early '60s after finding a spot to build their weekend summer cabin here.

At that time, Whistler, like other communities in B.C., had very little say in what happened in logging around the community. MacLaurin was involved in advising the municipality on its forestry issues from the early '80s.

There was a plan on the books to log the south side of Whistler Mountain; the first thing people would see would be a huge logging slash driving up the highway.

MacLaurin, and the council of the day, fought back. They got an agreement to move that logging license to another area.

The same was true of the Ancient Cedars, near Cougar Mountain, also threatened with logging. That license too was moved, in part from MacLaurin's persistent persuasion.

Ackhurst explained that for a decade in the late '80s, early '90s, there were a lot of "make work" forestry management programs in the province.

MacLaurin was at the forefront, applying for grants and getting programs off the ground.

"They literally treated thousands of hectares of the young, second-growth forest in Whistler," said Ackhurst. "They planted. They thinned. They pruned all the branches off. They fertilized. All of the young forest that you can see in the Cheakamus, in the Callaghan, it's because of Don MacLaurin's work on behalf of the municipality. The interpretative forest was part of that."

Heather Beresford remembers the summer of 1988, the first summer Blackcomb opened up for tourists. She was hired as a nature tour guide and didn't know the difference between a hemlock and a fir, she joked.

"They hired Don as my teacher and he really helped shape where the trails were going to go and trained me," said Beresford, of a friendship that spanned more than 25 years.

"He was a natural born teacher and leader. He brought passion to everything he did."

For decades too, MacLaurin worked tirelessly on the Whistler Interpretive Forest — mapping and developing the trails like Riverside Trail, designing tours, helping people understand the forest and its importance.

The suspension bridge spanning the Cheakamus River is called MacLaurin's Crossing.

And then there was his work in the mountains — mapping out trails, building huts, finding ways to make it safer in the backcountry.

DeJong said MacLaurin had a hand in many on the gladed runs at Whistler Blackcomb.

"I would take my maps to Don's house and I would glean so much from a forester's eyes with a deep passion for ecology," he said of the idea of building experiences inside ecosystems rather than changing them.

MacLaurin would show him how to design the ski run in such a way as to retain the forest and keep it sustainable while maximizing the recreation in the area.

"We're seriously considering naming one of our next gladed runs after Don," said DeJong.

When asked of all the things Don was most proud of over this lifetime of accomplishments, Isobel didn't miss a beat.

"He was proudest of his family and then his commitment to forestry," she said, looking out over her deck, the 50-year-old memories of four young kids and two dogs splashing in the water on a hot summer's day play out in her mind.

"He never said 'if only.'"

She waves at the massive wall map in the kitchen, pins dotted all over the world to show where the MacLaurin's have travelled.

There was nothing left to accomplish, she said, after a lifetime of accomplishments.

Without even a hint of remorse, she said with a smile: "Our bucket was empty."