"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."
– Dr. Seuss
First there was the Finn." That was the first sentence in the first freelance story that I ever sold on the international market. Now nearly thirty years old (dang! How quickly time flies), my little tale recounting the adventures of Whistler's indomitable telemark tribe first introduced Powder Magazine readers to a character "who looked just like a hobbit, but without the furry feet."
You guessed it — Finn Saarinen. With his big, round head, powerful squat body and unquenchable smile, the Finn did have an uncanny resemblance to Tolkien's fantasy folk back then. But make no mistake: the guy could turn his boards. And in the early 1980's — at a time when ski culture was stagnating and snowboarding hadn't yet pulled the cork from big brother's ass — well, Finn was the King of Freeheeling. At least in this valley...
And it made sense. Inspired by his Scandinavian roots and Nordic skiing background, Saarinen was one of the first in Whistler to eschew heel-pieces in order to tackle the mountain's gnarly slopes on traditional cross-country gear. And like the rest of the skiers in the Powder story — Dave Patterson, Jean-Louis Arsenault, Wayne Binmore, André and Peewee Jetté (to name but a few) — he soon discovered that the mind was far stronger than the equipment. "Can you believe the crap we skied on back then," he says. And laughs. "I don't know how many pairs of skis I broke during those years. I mean, one solid landing off a cornice jump and they'd explode..."
The Finn turned 60 this year. It was a momentous occasion. You see, the ol' fox has been a Whistler institution for nearly four decades now. Instructor, ski tuner, shop manager, pro patroller, heli-ski guide, carpenter, action photographer — even liquor-store employee now — Saarinen has done it all. He's had his ups and down's for sure. Survived tough times and difficult years. Regardless, he continues to sport the same unquenchable smile he wore when he first arrived here in 1974.
And how do I know this? Simple — we were rookie instructors together in Jim McConkey's Ski School that year. Two young ski racers from the east who were convinced they'd just died and gone to powder heaven, the Finn and I made it our business to ski Whistler as many consecutive days as we could that winter. Our adventures together on the mountain were legion. Our mishaps hilarious. For whatever reason, Diamond Jim had taken a shine to his two rookies and included us on his frequent forays into the backcountry. And we followed happily — if not always successfully. Our learning curve was nearly vertical that winter. Our fun meter was maxed out on most days. And that big smile? Well, as I remember, it was pretty much pasted on Finn's face all season long.