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A Winter Wonderland
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A Winter Wonderland
  Whistler Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton ...

I was anxious to see the snow so we didn't dilly-dally on the way to Whistler like we did last summer. I don't get to see more than an inch or two for a day or two living in Vancouver and being a Montreal native, snow isn't snow unless it's at least two feet deep.

Here it was December and the start of the Squamish Highway at Horseshoe Bay, 12 miles from Vancouver, looked the same as it did in the heat of an August afternoon: The trees were British Columbia's perpetual evergreen, the sky overcast and the road a grubby gray -- its banks slightly littered with aluminum empties. But I knew, as we reached for Whistler 60 miles away and climbed the 'Sea to Sky' highway, the air would turn crisp and cold, icy white branches would begin to bend low, and like magic, all the debris would be swept under a rug of ivory snow. Without a doubt, the visions were carrots dangling in front of my nose.

Merrily we rolled along the scenic route past the wondrous artistry of Howe Sound and the Coastal Glacier Range, appreciating nature's natural beauty. I remembered last summer, how we stopped every ten minutes to take pictures of the stunning views and how upset I was because the vista points were on the wrong side of the road going and the sun was in our eyes coming home. I remembered, too, how we took every detour the signs recommended. Detours to beautiful government campgrounds.

There are three to choose from between Horseshoe Bay and Whistler -- Porteau Cove, Alice Lake and Brandywine Falls.

The first en route was Porteau Cove. Fewer than 15 miles from Horseshoe Bay, the 44 sites, they told me, stay full all summer long.

Alice Lake was busy, too -- everyone of its 95 sites bristling with young families.

The third park was Brandywine Falls, named after a bet of brandy against wine between surveyors over the falls height. It too, was full.

These parks do not take reservations. They are on a first-come-first- serve system. All I can say is, " Get there early! " Unless, of course, you're traveling in the wintertime. In the wintertime, you can choose to your hearts delight because, I noticed as we drove by: they were empty!

Still, no matter how visually attractive or low cost, primitive government parks are not for everyone. That's why we checked out two private campgrounds on the highway as well: Klahanie Campground and the Whistler KOA.

Klahanie Campground, about 2 miles south of Squamish ( the only real town en route ), has full hookups and a licensed restaurant. Hiking, mountain climbing, fishing and the Shannon Falls keeps Klahanie busy during the summer.

KOA, on the other hand, is busy all year round. Since it's only just a little over a mile from the Village, it quickly fills with the RV'ing ski nut or someone like me who simply craves a genuine winter's scene. Thus, the slight lull that comes after an active summer vanishes at the first sign of snow. Also, besides the regular services expected at a modern R.V. resort, it offers free shuttle service to the Village and an outdoor hot tub to soak your exhausted body after a physically challenging day on the slopes.

When I called for reservations a few days before the young lady told me it was snowing.

" I'm looking out the window and I see the snow fall ", she said excitedly. " It's my first winter in Whistler. It is so beautiful! Everyone here is on a high. The Village is full of energy and excitement. The winter season is here! "

I was anxious to see the snow. This time, I hardly glanced at the concentrator building at Britannia Beach just past Porteau Cove.

Britannia Beach is the location of an underground mine that is open to the public between May 14th and Labour Day. ( The mine ceased operations in 1974. ) The B.C. Museum of Mining has an enormous selection of mining artifacts on display. The mine was once the largest producer of copper in the British Empire. Winter or summer, you can't miss the only remaining concentrator building in North America: The giant structure hangs on the side of a hill.

It was hard to ignore the next possible pause: Shannon Falls -- a 100 foot tumbling waterfall, and then minutes later, Stawamus Chief Mountain -- a flat and sheer solid rock that tempts hundreds of mountain climbers every year.

The falls dropped to a roaring crash below as usual, but the granite wall was bare of the ropes and crawling mountaineers that were out in droves a few months ago. Incidentally, Stawamus Mountain is the second largest monolith rock in the British Empire, second only to the burdensome Rock of Gibraltar.

Moving on, we noticed that the road had been upgraded and reinforced in several places since our last trip. That's good, I thought, because the Squamish Highway has a habit of washing away in a few exasperating sections during spring thaws and heavy rains. It's the only glitch in an otherwise perfect scenario.

Just past Squamish the temperature dropped. At last, I could smell the snow!

Surprisingly, in my research on the history of Whistler, I learned that snow wasn't the original attraction. Whistler's first worth began in 1911 when a young Maine couple managing a restaurant in Vancouver was lured to the area by a colorful bush character with superlative tales about a dazzling lake that overflowed with fish. The attentive listener didn't need much convincing, however, because Alex Philip had always dreamed of owning a fishing lodge.

The following day he and his wife Myrtle trudged through the 18 miles or so of bush to see for themselves. When they finally gazed upon the magnetic Alta Lake from atop a summit, it was love at first sight. By 1914, along with Myrtle's dad and two brothers, who came all the way from Maine to help, they had built the Rainbow Lodge and became the first settlers of Whistler, British Columbia, then called Alta Lake, BC.

For the next 34 years thousands of happy vacationers spent peaceful times fishing, swimming, horseback riding and hiking at the rustic resort that eventually accommodated one hundred people. Except for the odd winter's skier, little attention was paid to the two mountains looming nearby -- London Mountain ( renamed Whistler after the whistling marmot that scurried about ) and Blackcomb Mountain.

Myrtle became famous for her cooking -- especially with the conductors and engineers on the PGE Railway that forged past the lake. All it took was the here-we-come-sound of the train's whistle to prompt Myrtle into preparing a scrumptious meal for the hungry crew.

However, it was her dedication to education that assured her a place in the history books: Her persistence built the first schoolhouse in Alta Lake in 1930. For forty years she stayed involved with the School Board. In October 1976, to honor their "distinguished citizen and pioneer" the newly and officially named Resort Municipality of Whistler called the brand new school house in the Village of Whistler: "The Myrtle Philip Elementary School. "

Myrtle died in Squamish in 1986 at the age of 95. Her husband Alex died years before at age 83. They had no children. The Rainbow Lodge which the Philips sold in 1948 burned down sometime in the late 70's.

So the merits of peace, beauty, fishing, horseback riding, hiking, swimming, even occasional skiing was known to the region years before international skiing fever took over.

But however abundant the fish, however pleasant the view, however attractive the air, things didn't change much in Whistler until 1966 when the mountain of snow began to make sense. And dollars. To be sure, skiing is a big and profitable business. And a very popular sport: there are over two million skiers in Canada alone!

Today, it is for the love of skiing that multi-millions have been spent: 400 million up to now. 18.5 million on a new gondola that has been called a technological miracle. ( The 10-passenger car can move up to 2600 skiers per hour. ) A 25 million expansion plan for Blackcomb. ( Including several Horstmann T-bars. ) And, a 50 million resort complex. These are just a few samples of the recent expenditures.

How perceptive were the skiers in search of a World Olympic sight to realize the potential of Whistler back in 1960? The group formed the Garibaldi Lift Company and hired Squaw Valley designer Willy Schaeffer as a consultant. His recommendation concerning Whistler Mountain received government support.

Construction of ski lodges and lifts began in 1965 and on February of 1966 the lifts were officially opened. Nevertheless, it wasn't until 1975 before a true municipality was formed: The Resort Municipality of Whistler. It was a unique undertaking. Sort of a fantasy playland with a real mayor.

Can you imagine over-seeing a cluster of quaint shops and restaurants with brick courtyards and walks enclosed by lofty resorts and inns and guarded by two snowy giants on either side?

The local residents welcome tourists as no other town can. And why not? They exist for tourism! And the developers? They are having a heyday. Construction of condominium after condominium ( the first condo in Canada was built here in 1965 ), resort after resort, can't keep up to the demand. Suites are sold before completion! They need the rooms. In 1985 Whistler Resort Association began an international marketing campaign that today draws 35% of its visitors from out of the country.

So, what's the big attraction?

" 50,000 vertical feet of skiing unsurpassed in variety with everything from vast Alpine Bowls to the groomed runs that make every skier feel like an expert ", boast the ads. " North America's fastest growing year round destination. " " ... a hideaway from the city's cares ... a carriage ride pause ... a place to sniff the crisp, new snow. "

At Alice Lake, about 8 miles beyond Squamish, I got my first sniff of 'crisp, new snow'. It was just as I envisioned -- white powdery stuff, gently decorating branches and laying in clumps between the trees.

As we got closer and closer, the snow swelled and overflowed until it completely covered the ground. Overhead, the famous mountains sparkled with sunny ski runs and blue skies. Down below Whistler Village buzzed with satisfaction. We were only 90 minutes from Vancouver and it was a different world.

I was curious about the area that was part of the town's beginnings, so our first detour was to historical Alta Lake. For a moment, I thought we made a mistake as we slushed through ice and snow. But the weight of our 25 ft. Motorhome and our good all season radials climbed the hills and dips without a hitch. Only once did we spin and that was turning around in the parking lot at the beach in the fresh snow. The lake was steely gray and cold, calm and breathtaking. Not a soul in sight. Fluffy thick snow cloths covered the picnic tables. We ate inside our rig enjoying the privacy amid the snowy splendor.

After lunch we moved to one of the many free parking areas surrounding the village and explored the cozy plaza. It wasn't too busy. Most of the skiers were still on the mountains. We were about to leave just as they began their descent. Within minutes the roads were bumper to bumper cars.

Traffic officers appeared to direct the flow, helping us to move calmly and efficiently.

That evening the restaurants and pubs were jumping with revelers. We chose the peace and serenity of our campground. I was content just to walk in the snow. Above my head not one star was visible. Snow clouds, I suspected. Sure enough, I was right. It was snowing heavily by the time we got up -- 10:30 the next morning! ( We had slept for almost 12 hours! )

" It's the air ", said Ruth Buzzard who ran the resort with her two sons. " If things ever get to me, I just step outside and breath. It works every time! "

I took a deep breath and concentrated hard on the big white flakes as they fell silently and stuck to the ground. The earth was fresh and clean, the edges rounded, the harshness softened ... The only things missing in this winter's scene were the horses and the sleigh bells!

Suddenly, I got the feeling the horses were around the bend! ( Haven't the marketing people thought of everything to tempt me so far? ) The horses are the icing on the cake. As are the Arnold Palmer Championship golf course, the stocked lakes and the close proximity to Vancouver (one of the most beautiful cities in the world).

It is the mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb, that will attract the masses. For beautiful lakes and forested trails, great fishing and horseback riding, professional golf courses and 5-stars hotels are plentiful, but safe snowy sunny accessible skiing mountains are not.

Back at the village we peeked into the huge convention center. It was impressive. A high domed building with room for over a thousand people.

The acoustics were fabulous. I know, because we walked in on a rehearsal. A group of ski instructors were practicing for a welcome show performed every Sunday evening. A simple " Tea for Two" tinkled from the speakers as they danced in unison ( dressed in ski outfits ) in front of a giant screen that displayed the famous Whistler Mountain in the background.

What a clever and entertaining way to introduce the students to a week of lessons. The program, run by Whistler & Blackcomb Ski Schools is called Ski Esprit. I resisted the urge to sign up. I I also resisted the urge to spend another night, but only after I promised myself one more visit before winter was over for no reason other than meditation and relaxation. No pictures. No research. No questions. Just pure heavenly relaxation. Who knows, maybe next time we'll get stuck in the snow and I'll gain a whole new perspective.

For reservations in Whistler call the Whistler Resort Association at 1-800-944-7853.

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