The delicate zen of STFU 

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On a Saturday in early May, the Scandinave Spa's lobby and café are hopping. Sipping bevies both hot and cold, arriving guests chatter excitedly while those exiting mumble approvals, echoing the facility's top ranking on travel websites. Given this, there's plenty to talk about — at least between here and the dressing rooms. That's because not talking is Rule One in the spa's marquee outdoor hillside of hot pools, cold plunges, saunas, steam baths and solariums. Here you should hear naught but birds, bees and water.

The Scandinave ethos around silence is powerful and deeply held: "In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness." Yet herein lies a paradox: though contemplative silence works for some, it's unsettling for most humans, as we have an innate natural fear of quiet. As a result, despite being apprised of the Big Three at check-in — no confab, no photo, no phone — signing a veritable Vow of Silence, and a glut of signage reminders, people still can't resist the urge to yap. A cajoler, facilitator — shusher if you will — is thus required to help. This unique task falls upon the Spa Experience team, one of whom I'm shadowing to see how it all works.

Perry Atkinson began work here in November 2015. A mere 23 years of age, his demeanour is nevertheless that of a sage elder — softspoken, light-footed, attentive. "It's a pretty relaxing job," he says as we head out on one of the rounds he makes every 15 minutes. Not that there's little to do (to the contrary, he'll climb 4,000 steps in an eight-hour shift), but that his multifarious tasks can't seem hurried around guests. "Our job is to maintain the environment and atmosphere here so that everyone has (an) opportunity to enjoy it in the same way," he says

With up to 650 people passing through on a Saturday that's a tall order. For a month around Christmas, every day is a Saturday, requiring four to five Spa Experience bodies at peak hours. Beginning at 8 a.m., they'll adjust chairs, clear snow, and, most importantly, tend a sauna fire that takes two hours to reach temperature. They then monitor that temperature, stoke the fire, and periodically juice the rocks with a weak solution of balsam fir oil to keep the air breathable and smelling nice. Otherwise there's answering questions, collecting garbage, stocking dressing rooms, picking up discarded towels, fetching new ones for some, and, of course, shushing.

We don't get far before Perry steps over to some women chatting quietly outside the steam bath. He speaks so quietly I can't hear; already flushed, the girls redden further. At a hot pool, a pair of women brazenly talking out loud see us coming and silence themselves. Perry offers a smiling half-nod. A few steps later he flashes the universal finger-to-the-lips to a man gasping by the waterfall. And so it goes. Some days the task is endless, others intermittent. Only once has Perry almost gone an entire day without shushing, making it to 8 p.m. before a boisterous group arrived.

"When people first come here they don't necessarily want to be quiet. But if they become regulars they embrace and enforce it," he tells me. I've seen the ranks of guest-as-self-appointed-Spa-Experience-volunteer, shushing the slightest transgressions. Indeed I've been one.

"If we have to warn someone more than three times they're asked to leave — though that's rare," says Perry. "They need to understand the rules are nonnegotiable: they've signed a form saying they agree to be quiet and not use electronic devices."

The latter, in fact, is proving harder to enforce than keeping quiet. Self-regulation around cellphones seems even poorer, with endless creativity employed in sneaking them out in towels, robes, books — a veritable game of cat and mouse. "There's no way to catch everyone unless you stand by the door an entire shift," says Perry, noting that the younger selfie crowd is most problematic.

On another round Perry opens the iron door to the sauna furnace and uses a long pike to prod burning logs so he can push in fresh ones. The split wood comprises different types that burn at different rates depending whether they need to raise the temperature quickly or just maintain it. He records his actions and we move to the front, where Perry dilutes balsam fir water and we head into the 90C heat to pour it over the rocks. At the familiar hiss, a large man lying on the top bench sighs contentedly. Perry gives him a pass.

We climb up to the hammock zone, an overlook only available in the summer. Partially hidden, it's harder to police, and thus a cellphone-and-photo hotbed. We find none, but Perry visits a couple facing each other in adjacent hammocks to reiterate the silence fiat with great decorum. They hush, but their caught-in-the-act smiles remind me of something he'd said earlier: "If people aren't quiet it's not that they don't know, but that they don't want to be."

As we leave I glance over my shoulder and sure enough they're talking again. I catch their gaze and put my finger to my lips. Eyes wide, they zip it.

This is the first in an occasional series in this space on interesting and unheralded jobs in the Sea to Sky corridor.


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