You can hear the sounds of grinding long before the baggy T-shirts and untamed beards come into view. Though well used and much loved the Whistler Skate Park is unassuming, tucked as it is behind a copse of trees along the Fitzsimmons River.
But that is all set to change.
On this sunny, weekend afternoon a steady stream of foot traffic flows through the park. A group of five skateboarders, ranging in age from their late teens to their late thirties, grind on the park's iconic snake run and bowl. A few small children fly along the edges of the park on their Razor scooters.
In the concrete plaza, two skateboarders are challenging one another in a friendly game of SKATE, which follows the same rules as the popular basketball game HORSE.
One skater attempts a trick and the next skateboarder must replicate the move. Then it's the second skater's turn to try something new, and the first skater must mimic it. If a skateboarder can't copy the trick, he is penalized with the letter "S." Each time a skater fails to copy a move, another letter is collected until someone loses by spelling out "SKATE."
The game is one of self-expression and it's common in skate parks everywhere, but how these skateboarders use the space for their tricks is unusual.
"This is a perfect example of why Whistler needs the new phase three," skate-park designer Jim Barnum says. "They aren't even using the park's current features."
Sticking to the ground rather than taking advantage of the park's vertical elements, like its quarter pipe ramps, skateboarder Jack Lemieux, 24, says the park lacks the street-style features that he prefers to skate.
These features include stairs, railings and ledges that are designed to mimic the urban atmosphere of cities, where the skateboarding movement picked up momentum in the 1970s prior to the prevalence of engineered skate parks.The Whistler Skate Park does boast a ledge line — its once-sharp edges now dulled from excessive use — but today onlookers lounge there to watch the action.
Observers should take some mental photographs while they can, because the park will be undergoing a major facelift starting this summer.
An $800,000 renovation project was approved by the Resort Municipality of Whistler earlier this month to begin construction on a new phase of the skate park. In addition to repairing and updating the bowl and the concrete plaza area, which were built in 1991 and 1999, respectively, the third phase of development seeks to make the park's design relevant in today's skateboarding world.
It's a changed world from the early days thanks in part to the rise in popularity of the X-Games and athletes like Tony Hawk — skateboarding, while it might never be considered mainstream is a global phenomenon with millions of followers making it a multi-billion dollar industry.
Across the globe and here in Whistler it is being embraced for its counterculture and celebrated for the diversity it brings.
GRINDING OUT THE DETAILS
"When this was built 15, 16 years ago, it was a big deal to skateboarders across the country," Barnum says, referring to the Whistler Skate Park's second phase. "This park was known across Canada."
For Barnum, a former Whistler resident, his pride is personal. As a local skateboarder, Barnum plus a group of passionate skateboarders, scored the funding for the second phase of the park in the late 1990s, and he eventually became one its designers.
"I didn't know it was going to be a career," Barnum says. "We (just) wanted a skate park."
The project encouraged Barnum to quit his job as a dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant and work full-time as a skate park designer. Today, the 41-year-old skateboarder serves as president of his successful company, Spectrum Skateparks, which won the bid to create the Whistler Skate Park's newest phase. The company has designed more than 160 parks worldwide.
"(There are) two legitimate, top-notch skateboard (design) companies in Canada and Jim is one of them," says skateboarder Lenny Rubenovitch, 32, who founded the Whistler Skateboard Association and has been working with Barnum to push the park's renovations forward.
Barnum's credentials and his vision for revamping the park are critical to the project's success, Rubenovitch adds.
The third phase of the Whistler Skate Park will transform the asphalt area closest to the Valley Trail, which currently includes a few wood-framed ramps, but is largely undeveloped.
In its place will be a new high-flow street park, with a combination of banks and bowls along with much-desired street elements, like stairs, ledges and step-ups. The third phase is expected to include about 15,000 square feet of skateable area, Barnum says. According to the most recent survey of the land, the first and second phases are about 14,400 square feet and 11,300 square feet, respectively. The total size of the skate park upon completion will be more than 40,000 square feet.
The park will also incorporate colored concrete, which Barnum hopes will keep the new section graffiti-free and be aesthetically-pleasing to passersby.
Landscaping will also play a bigger role. The designs call for the creation of a surrounding section of grassy areas and picnic tables so bystanders will have a safe viewing area and somewhere to relax, Barnum says. The old lights and deteriorating Whistler signage pavilion at the front of the park will be torn down to make room for the park expansion, and will be replaced with cleaner signage and a more welcoming entrance, Barnum adds.
The renovation is designed to make the area more visually appealing, according to Barnum, who notes that its prime location near the Audain Art Museum will be subject to pedestrian and bicycle traffic from tourists and locals alike.
Another one of Barnum's design goals is to maintain the flow and integrity of the park. Riders should be able to seamlessly transition from one phase of the park to another without serious difficulty, he says. Finding a balance to appeal to both beginner and expert skaters was also important.
Whistler resident Chris Charlebois, 33, who owns the local skateboard shop The Sk8 Cave, was another major proponent of the park's renovations. Charlebois was also an avid contributor to design ideas for the new phase.
"It caters to a wider audience," Charlebois says. "The kids that are learning, it works well for them. For the technical skater that's really advanced, that's almost on a professional level, it caters to them, and then everybody in between."
Charlebois says the goal was to support different styles of skateboarding, including elements for both street and transition skaters.
"We just wanted something that [allows] everybody to enjoy themselves and didn't limit it," he says.
While skateboarding remains a male-dominated activity, Barnum hopes that the changes to the park will be more inviting to women, although it has always been a struggle for the industry.
"It's been very challenging to come up with things that will specifically draw women to the sport, as far as how we design the park," Barnum says. "We're just trying to design the [park] in a way that will draw anyone to the park and make anyone feel more welcome in the area."
The park's location in a high-visibility area is a boon to attracting new people to skateboarding.
"It's about the environment we create beyond the skateable features," he says. "Is there a viewing area, where you can walk up to the park, and kind of sit down and get a sense of what is happening in the park before you just barge in there and try and ride?"
GATHERING LOCAL INPUT
The final designs for the park came after an immense amount of feedback from local skateboarders, who shared their ideas at design meetings and on social media.
Spectrum Skateparks has been working on the park's design since last summer, but Barnum says including local skaters in the process is a no-brainer.
"User consultation is a big part of it," he says.
About 50 skateboarders participated in the first design workshop, where they were shown a variety of different options and existing skate park designs. After being divided into small groups, the skateboarders sketched their own ideas, presented their drawings, and then voted on one another's designs, using three red stickers to mark their favourite features.
"If you can only have three elements, what would those elements be?" Barnum asks the local skateboarders.
One of the workshop attendees was Dan Waugh, 38, who started skateboarding when he was kid, but lost interest as he got older. When he moved to Whistler about 15 years ago, Waugh says he regained his love for skating purely because of the Whistler Skate Park's bowl. He was eager to gauge what the future plans would look like.
"Everyone was kind of on the same page," Waugh says, noting that the high-flow street concept was popular. "Everyone kind of wanted the same thing for phase three."
Waugh was impressed by the overall turnout and the diverse group of skateboarders who participated in the workshop.
"From the little kids that have grown up here to the guys that have been here longer than me, it was cool to see," he says.
After encapsulating feedback from the first workshop in a new design, Barnum presented it at a second meeting to give skateboarders another opportunity to offer their opinions. From there, the design was posted on the Whistler Skateboard Association's Facebook page to garner more input.
"I think some of the posts have over 350 comments. There was a lot of communication online," Rubenovitch says. "The skateboarders have contributed significantly to the design."
Barnum says social media provides a different type of forum, one that can be more accommodating for people to voice their concerns.
"We got maybe a little bit more honest input online due to the anonymity," Barnum says. "I think also posting it online just gives people more of a chance to digest it."
Occasionally, the different style preferences from skateboarders sparked heated discussions about the future look of the park.
Rubenovitch says it's impossible to please everyone and skateboarders can be some of the toughest critics.
"I think it's stressful for some of the skaters," he says, regarding their heavy involvement during the design process. "Is it going to be a park that we're going to love? Is it really what I want? Is it going to meet my needs? Is it going to meet my style?"
The design phase is still ongoing, with minor modifications being made, Barnum says. The most recent design tweaks and photos posted on April 20 spurred about 130 comments on the WSA's Facebook page within 24 hours.
Above all, Rubenovitch says these social media conversations reaffirmed the park's importance to local skateboarders.
"It's a good example of how passionate and how much the skate park means to these individuals," he says. "Skaters spend a lot of time at the skate park."
Chelsea Callaghan, 28, spends a lot of time at the Whistler Skate Park with her friends, despite not riding anymore. She still considers herself immersed in skateboard culture and attended the open house for the RMOW budget presentation in February to show her support for the skate park renovations.
She describes how incredible it was to be surrounded by a sea of black t-shirts, worn unintentionally by the local skateboarders as a quasi-uniform, despite the slow pace of the meeting.
"We were bored, but it was a big eye-opener," Callaghan says, about witnessing how the municipality functions.
Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden was surprised to see the packed house for the February 25 meeting.
"Usually when we have budget open houses not a lot of people show up to them," she says. "And certainly not a lot of young people wearing Duke skate shoes."
The skateboarders were forthcoming with their ideas and expressed interest in how the funds were being invested.
"We had another open house two or three weeks later and that, too, was packed to the rafters with young people," Wilhem-Morden says. "Some of the people who were making suggestions about design could have only been 10 or 11 or 12 years old."
Barnum says the stereotype that skateboarders are uninterested or apathetic is false.
On a typical weekday morning, local skateboarders are sweeping the park with brooms to clear away any debris, he says. Every spring, skateboarders will grab shovels to clear out the remaining snow in the bowl so everyone can use the park, Barnum says.
Once the new phase became a realistic possibility, skateboarders rallied behind the Whistler Skateboard Association to fundraise, Rubenovitch says. An auction and fundraiser at local pizza restaurant Creekbread helped raise about $2,000 for park renovations. Aside from the money, the involvement from attendees and about 25 sponsors was overwhelming, he adds.
"We have a lot of support from the community," Rubenovitch says, noting that the turnout speaks volumes for a group that can be challenging to wrangle. "It's hard to organise skateboarders."
"I don't think any skate parks get built without push from the local community, whether it's the skaters or young parents that want to see a park, to see that recreation," Waugh says. "From what I've seen, the level of input, whether it's the Whistler (Skateboard) Association, or longtime locals, or young people...everyone generally seems to be involved."
During the weeklong World Ski and Snowboard Festival, the Showcase Snowboard Surf & Skate store teamed up with Monster Energy to launch another fundraiser, where participants could make a donation for the skate park renovations in exchange for a haircut from acclaimed Toronto barber Jon Roth.
"I actually got my haircut just so I could donate for the skate park," says Whistler skateboarder Ryan German, 22, who visits the skate park three or four times a week in the summer.
German says the renovations are much appreciated and overdue.
"There (are) so many cracks in this park, that it's kind of insane," German says. "Somebody definitely falls every day."
Wilhelm-Morden is quick to agree with local skateboarders that the updates and changes to the Whistler Skate Park are necessary.
"It's really in need of significant renovation. It's worn. It's dated," Wilhelm-Morden says. "It was about time."
German says emphasizing the skate park is a smart move for the town.
"People will go to Squamish before they come to Whistler," he says, regarding the choice between the Whistler Skate Park and the newer, albeit smaller 14,000-square foot Squamish Skate Park, which was built in 2006.
Wilhelm-Morden says she believes that the upcoming changes will not only benefit Whistler locals who swarm the park on summer afternoons, but will help generate additional tourism, too.
"With the rejuvenated skate park, there will be an opportunity to host significant events that ought to increase some tourism visitor rates," Wilhelm-Morden says.
The prospect of skateboard competitions has some locals looking forward to the future.
"I think that'd be great, to see a couple pro-skaters come here and be excited," German says. "An $800,000 park, that's like a world-class park, and they can have some crazy contests here if they wanted to...and they didn't have really that opportunity before."
The adrenaline skateboarders experience is synonymous with Whistler's core mountain sports like skiing and snowboarding. There is tremendous crossover between ski sports and skateboarding, Barnum says. He says one key difference is that skateboarding is a much more financially accessible activity compared to skiing or snowboarding, which require a costly investment in season passes and gear.
Although statistics are tough to find about Whistler's skateboarding culture and RMOW doesn't track the park's current usage, Rubenovitch sees Whistler as a big market for skateboarding.
Anecdotally, Whistler might have the highest number of skateboarders per capita in Canada, Rubenovitch estimates.
To accommodate an increase in skaters and transform the skate park rejuvenation into an even bigger project, RMOW is open to accepting grants or corporate sponsorships to increase the funding.
"The municipality is actively pursuing third-party sponsorships," Wilhelm-Morden says. "The skate park is, in my mind anyway, a facility that does lend itself quite well to the idea of corporate sponsorships."
SWIMMING WITH THE CURRENT
For many skateboarders, the Whistler Skate Park is more than just a place to grind. It's somewhere to spend time with old friends and meet new people who share common interests. It's somewhere a 36-year-old skateboarder can show his eight-year-old son how to ollie. It's somewhere teenagers pick themselves up after falling down, sometimes repeatedly.
"Skateboarding is one of the most challenging activities you can do," says Rubenovitch, who says people underestimate the amount of discipline it takes to be successful.
For other skaters, the park is a sanctuary. It provides an environment where people cast aside judgment. Material objects become immaterial. The focus turns inward, on the freedom of self-expression.
"Skateboarding defined me as a person. It taught me self-motivation," says Barnum, who started skating in 1984 after being inspired by an Archie comic that depicted a dazzling swoosh as the character skateboarded away in the last panel. "I wanted to feel that sensation."
In a town that showcases world-class recreation activities and the spirit of the outdoors, Whistler skateboarders wanted a skate park they would be proud to call home.
"It really speaks to Whistler's youthful, open-minded, forward-thinking way," Barnum says. "It really compliments and does Whistler a great service to have an awesome skateboard park."
It was also an opportunity for Whistler skateboarders to shed a perceived anti-establishment image by working with the municipality to rally support for the proposal.
Wilhelm-Morden says she's encouraged to see a group of locals, especially younger people, so engaged in the community.
"It will foster and encourage interest in civic affairs, especially when they see that their comments are taken seriously and they have impact," she says.
After Lemieux wraps up his game of SKATE, he pauses to look around the park, envisioning what the future holds.
"It's nice to have new features," Lemieux says of the park's rejuvenation. "Whatever it is, we're still going to have fun."