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Colin Pitt-Taylor: Keeper of the stories

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In this fast-paced, modern world of ours, we tend to compartmentalize social functions. Thus, the local museum (and/or the library) becomes the official “institution” to warehouse community memories. And in that respect, Whistler is no different. But like any small town, there are countless unofficial memory-keepers at Whistler who cherish and preserve what they believe is important about the history here. Whether Florence Petersen or Bob Barnett, Toulouse Spense or Rob Boyd, we are blessed in this valley with a surfeit of individuals who value the quirky, kooky tales that made this place what it is today.

And it doesn’t really matter how these tales are manifested. Old skis or old pictures, long-ago stories or obscure memorabilia, Whistler residents have always shown pride in their roots. But even among these folk, Colin Pitt-Taylor stands apart.

He’s not a big self-promoter. Nor is he a success-at-all-costs entrepreneur. And he would rather listen to someone else’s stories than tell his own. But for nearly 40 years now, Colin has been welcoming locals and visitors into his kitchen and making them feel comfortable with his down-home décor and vast photo collection on the walls. Consider his most recent dining venture, the Riverside Junction Café. “It’s like he’s inviting us into his home,” says a long-time Whistler patron. “You get a sense of intimacy at the café that you don’t get anywhere else at Whistler. Maybe it’s because Colin has been around for so long. Maybe it’s because he still truly believes in this place. Whatever. I wouldn’t go out for breakfast anywhere else…”

Quite an endorsement. But given a local clientele that includes the likes of Peter Alder, Hugh Smythe, Brad Sills, and a host of past and present Weasel Workers, the Riverside is indeed a unique Whistler institution. And more than anything, it is Colin’s quiet charm and easy-going smile that makes people return to the café time after time. “I think I live in one of the greatest places on earth,” says Colin in his most matter-of-fact tone. “Just look around you. The potential for playing outdoors and having fun is virtually limitless at Whistler. Why would you ever want to wear a frown around here.”

Vintage Pitt-Taylor. And it’s not like he doesn’t walk his talk. “Look,” he adds. “I’m turning 60 this year, but I feel like I’m 40. We have this incredible network of trails. It’s right there on our doorsteps. Every day of the year, I try to get outside for two or three hours. Whether mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or even hiking, I can step outside my home in Function Junction and be on a trail in a matter of minutes. Fantastic!”

Colin was raised in Rosemere, a bedroom community of Montreal, and like many of his generation, he was struck by wanderlust in his early 20s. “I spent a year and a half travelling through the U.S.,” he recounts. “My brother lived in Vancouver, so in the summer of 1971 I decided to go visit him.” An avid skier, Colin had already heard rumblings of this new, remote ski area called Whistler Mountain. But when he got to Vancouver, he realized just how close it was to town. “So I went up to check that out too.”

There wasn’t much at Whistler in those days. A base lodge, a parking lot and a gondola up the south side of the mountain pretty much made up the ski area. But Colin was taken with the place immediately and decided to explore employment opportunities here. “The first place I stopped at was the Cheakamus Inn,” he says. “John Reynolds was working at the front desk that morning.” He smiles. “It turns out he was looking for a cook and I was looking for a job.” It was a marriage made in Whistler heaven…

“It was like being part of a big family,” says Colin of his time at the Cheakamus. “It really wasn’t like work at all.” He laughs. “We’d get up early in the morning, prepare breakfast for the guests and then we were free to ski until 3 in the afternoon, when we’d come back to fix dinner.” He stops speaking. Sighs with pleasure (and just a little bit of nostalgia). “Skiing here in the early 1970s was just amazing,” he says. “It snowed and snowed and snowed…”

New adventures were hiding around every corner. And buddies to share them with were always available. “I remember one memorable overnight trip I did with Rene Paquet and a few of the boys back in 1974,” says Colin. “We left after breakfast one morning, climbed up to Singing Pass and made our camp early in the afternoon at the Russet Lake Hut. There was a full moon that night, so at 2 in the morning we climbed up to the top of Whirlwind Mountain — it was so bright you didn’t even need a headlamp — and waited on the summit for the sun to come up.” His face splits into a huge grin. A dreamy look floats across his eyes — it’s almost like he’s reliving that moment. “I still remember the run down like it was yesterday,” he says. “There is only one word to describe the descent to the cabin — it was out of this world! It was one perfect powder turn after another. It felt like it was never going to end…” But end it did. For that very afternoon they were back at work at the Chekamus, preparing dinner for their unknowing guests…

“That was just the way we did things back then,” he says. “You worked hard, you played hard — and you never worried about tomorrow.”

With a few exceptions — a short period in the early 1980s when he returned to Quebec to “follow my heart” (as he says) and a stint running a restaurant in Pender Harbour on the Sunshine Coast — Colin has been feeding and entertaining Whistlerites ever since. “I pretty much made the rounds of the local haunts before starting my own thing,” he says. “Besides the Cheakamus, I worked at the Boot, the Christiana and Isabelle’s (in the old Nancy Greene Lodge).”

But it was the launch of the Junction Café in the mid 1990s that really provided the impetus for Colin’s storytelling ways. Anyone who frequented the Function-based restaurant in those days can’t fail to remember the colourful décor on the walls. It was a virtual shrine to downhill ski racing —and in particular those balls-to-the-wall daredevils who would eventually come to be known as the Crazy Canucks. From signed photos to race bibs, candid snaps to press clippings, skis and event posters (even a couple of course flags if memory serves me correctly), the Junction Café raucously celebrated the past and present icons of Canadian ski racing — with a firm finger on the pulse of Whistler’s obsession with downhill and the Dave Murray course.

“I just thought it would be a fun thing to do,” says the long-time Weasel Worker.

Indeed — his 25-year love affair with ski racing has taken him all the way up the volunteer ladder to the point where he is now licensed by Alpine Canada as a technical delegate, the most powerful (and prestigious) position on a race committee. But don’t talk about prestige with Colin. He just does it to help out. “People ask me all the time — do you have a kid in this race?” Another hearty laugh. “And when I tell them no, they kind of look at me like I’m crazy. But I love doing it. I love watching the local kids come through and do so well. You know, people like Paul Morrison’s son. Heck, I still remember watching him in his first race. And now look where he is.”

It’s also an opportunity, he says, to see how Whistler stacks up against other western resorts. “In my role as a TD, I get to travel around B.C. a fair bit,” he explains. “And it’s great to ski at hills like Red Mountain and Panorama. But no matter where I go, I’m constantly reminded that Whistler is really on a whole other level. Frankly, no other place I’ve ever visited even compares…”

His passion for ski racing notwithstanding, Colin decided to branch out from that theme when he moved his restaurant up the road to Nigel Wood’s Riverside RV Resort and Campground. Maybe it was the times. Maybe it was the loss of so many old locals in recent years. But Colin chose a much broader (and in some ways, more compelling) subject for his new location. “The downhill motif was great for Function,” he says, “but I thought this would work better for Riverside.”

And it does work well. Whether it’s a picture of Andy Munster’s old squatters shack or Pierre Elliot Trudeau shaking hands with one of the valley’s most notorious outlaws — or even an impossibly young-looking Hugh Smythe posing with his Pro Patrol cronies — the Riverside Café is a working, breathing memorial to what many locals refer to as Whistler’s glory days. It’s a visual display, frankly, that anyone with even an inkling of curiosity about the place should catch. “That’s what I tell people,” says Colin with a barely suppressed grin. “I tell ’em — just come by and check out the photos. Oh, and while you’re here, you might as well order a little food…”

Never one to worry about the future much, Colin says he is quite happy with the way things are going for him these days. “I like what I’m doing,” he insists. “But for how much longer? I really don’t know. I don’t have a lot of long term goals.” He stops for a moment. Chuckles. “But you know — as long as I can keep getting myself outdoors and up those trails every day, I think I’ll be quite happy.”