Opinion » Alta States

August musings — moms, memorials and four decades of Whistler life

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"All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better."

Philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson

It was a proper send-off. Almost a Viking funeral. My mother would have loved it.

Picture it — a crispy hot day in the North Thompson Valley. Flowers and bushes droop in the 33 degree heat. Even the ancient cedars that dominate the forest here look parched. In the distance, fat cumuli spin lazily 'round the Trophy Mountain peaks... building and dissipating like the breath of a restless dragon.

You can already feel the electricity building in the air — it's virtually crackling with static. There'll be a thunderstorm in the valley later in the day... a light show of epic proportions. But it's calm now. Perfect for the ceremony about to unfold.

In the foreground, four men paddle a small boat up the Clearwater River. Their strokes are sure, powerful — there's an easy coordination to their movements that speaks of many hours on the water together. It's a rhythm that can't be taught. Only lived... like a language. And the brothers' craft makes swift progress upstream, their helmsman a master of the riffs and back-eddies along this stretch of the river.

Meanwhile, the brothers' spouses, their children, their cousins and allies and friends have begun to assemble on the north shore a few hundred metres downstream. A red-tailed hawk soars above the gaggle of humans — an avian witness to the unfolding pageant below. He dips his wings once, circles and then flies away.

The shore group is solemn. But not grave. Smiles shine through the smattering of tears and there are lots of hugs and kisses. There's also a sense of anticipation in the air. Everyone knows this is the last goodbye, a generational changing of the guard. The four sons and their spouses are now the family elders. And their children? Well, they're the adventurers now — the travellers and scholars and artists and athletes that their parents were before them.

Strange to think how unprepared we always seem to be for these moments... still, there it is. And there we are. Marking the occasion.

At a word from the helmsman, the paddlers increase their effort, one-two-three-four, and the boat surges into the main current — seeming to stand still for just a moment — before it spins around and starts to rumble downstream toward the assembled group.

The craft speeds up. Paddles are set aside. Each man takes a double handful of his mother's ashes from the proffered bag. As the boat nears the mourners, the four brothers sink their hands into the river. More tears are shed — and a final farewell is offered to the woman who bore them and fed them and suffered the slings and arrows that only a mom of four sons will ever know. A flood of gray/white particles follows the boat as the brothers slowly paddle to shore.

My mother, as I recounted a few weeks back, was quite the feisty character. Indeed, she was a bit of an acquired taste. You see, not everyone could handle her energy-bunny buzz. But Suzanne's generosity and big-heartedness were legendary... as the stories recounted by friends and family on the shores of the Clearwater River that day so amply indicated.

What really struck me about these tales, however, was the dominant role that the outdoors — and skiing in particular — played in her life. And just how much she infused her sons with that love of outdoor play.

Every story, it seemed, revolved around some kind of adventure that the speaker had shared with my mother. Whether touring the streets of Paris, or tackling the slopes of Aspen — cross country skiing on the trails behind the family home in St Ferreol-Les-Neiges or paddling the vast river system north of Georgian Bay — Suzanne, it turns out, had been both inspiration and prod to countless individuals in her vast and extended family.

Of course, her sons had taken Suzanne's sporting skills for granted. I mean, it's not like we didn't appreciate what she could do. It's just that we kind of expected it. We even teased her about it from time-to-time — as in: "C'mon old gal, can't you keep up anymore? Seems like you're slowing down in your old age..." So cruel, I know... I don't think we ever realized just how vital a role she was playing in our own athletic development.

And that got me thinking about my own spouse and the stuff she was working on before she passed away in 2009. Wendy, you see, was fascinated by the role of women in sport — and mothers in particular. Her research at university had borne out what she'd already worked out intuitively: that a child's participation in sport is directly related to his/her mother's level of participation.

In other words, a physically active mother will inspire her own children to be physically active. Doesn't matter one bit what the father does — and this was the striking piece in Wendy's research — a child's involvement in sports is entirely dependent on the mom's level of activity.

Amazing, eh? You can have a pro athlete as a dad, but if your mom's a couch potato, you'll probably turn out to be one too. Conversely, if mom is keen on sports (and dad's the schlub), chances are good you'll be keen too....

Such findings have profound ramifications for the ski industry. Don't you think? I mean, if my wife's conclusions are correct, ski marketers should be bending over backwards to accommodate young families (and young moms in particular). Instead, they're making it harder and harder for them to get involved in the sport.

And the future doesn't look much brighter. How can I put this? Of the eight late-teen and twentysomething Beaudry grandchildren — all of whom were taught to ski at about the same time they were taught to walk – none, NONE, is a regular ski-resort visitor.

An aberration? A weird trend unique to our family? Alas, no.

The research on this is clear. The ski business has done a lousy job of connecting with millennials. Just last week, the folks over in Aspen were bemoaning the fact that young families are not buying into the sport like their elders had. From food to accommodation, on-mountain services to ski and snowboard lessons, twenty- and thirtysomethings are simply not inspired by what's on offer at ski resorts today.

And that will eventually spell D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R for us all if we don't change our ways soon.

Who knows? Maybe it's time for ski marketers to eschew the urban-inspired, head-on-fire promotions and opt for a more nature-based (you know, sliding-on-snow-in-a-beautiful-setting) presentation that most young parents would prefer for themselves and their charges. Crazy thought, I know. But certainly worth a try... No?

Speaking of change, it was 40 years ago this week, that I first set foot in the Whistler Valley. Funny thing, too. I thought I'd missed it all. Toad Hall was already destroyed. Many of the hippies had moved on — to the Kootenays or the Gulf islands or the Columbia Valley even. And those who were left behind kept talking about "the good old days" with such nostalgia that at first it seemed to my teenage brain like Whistler Mountain was already passé. The year was 1973... and I was soon to learn just how wrong those first impressions were. Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Still, the one big difference back then was the passion that young people had for lift-served skiing. I can still remember my first full season on the mountain. Not yet 20, I skied from the first day I arrived to the very last day the mountain was open. Didn't matter how banged up I got — broken arm, sprained ankle, various concussions — I just kept coming back for more. Skiing wasn't just a sport for me. It was a way of life... and I wasn't alone. The town was full of folk like me.

The world has changed since then. And Whistler has changed with it. My kids — my nieces and nephews, their friends and acquaintances — simply don't view this place with the same wide-eyed wonder that I once did. The beauty of our surroundings, it would appear, has been obscured by the scale of development boomers facilitated in the intervening decades. As for the cost of entry, well, it's simply out of reach.

So is there a way back? I'm not sure you can ever go back. What about a way forward? I'm not sure of that either. All I know is that it's going to take incredibly strong leadership at all levels for Whistler to develop into a viable (and truly sustainable) 21st century mountain town. Are you up for the challenge? I know I am.