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Insider’s Guide to Whistler

Museum collaborators reveal favourite local haunts



The question, always, for a traveller, is how to get the best sense of a place. Immersing yourself as long as possible is not always practical. Checking in with the concierge or the Visitor Information Centre isn't going to reveal the real dope. Reading the guidebook that everyone else is reading isn’t going to lead you to the undiscovered gems.

You need an insider, a brilliant guide, you need to cut straight to the heart of a place. That way, you can layer their vision across what your eyes take in – create a composite of realities that takes you a little deeper, beneath the surface. It’s subjective, sure. But it’s the Insider’s Guide.

Whistlerites have no shortage of visitors popping by, to take advantage of prime-located spare bedrooms. But what of Whistler do they make sure their guests see?

This was what I wanted to know recently when a friend from my pre-Whistler life came to visit. I wanted to play the host. I wanted her to have an amazing time, for this trip to be right up there amongst her other adventures, yachting in the Baltic Sea, trekking across Iceland, riding donkeys into Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, developing a taste for mutton in the yurts of Mongolia. Most of all I wanted to reveal enough of this place’s charm that she would be seduced, that she would understand why I would forsake my home for this place, why I would consider never going back.

I needed some real locals. Whoever they might be.

At the Whistler Museum, they have been grappling with this very question: "What makes a local?" Curator Kerry Clark explains: "As a holiday destination, Whistler tends to be transient. People come and go on a regular basis and the high cost of living discourages many from staying long-term. I think that the word ‘local’ is a contested term in Whistler."

Museum staff came up with a unique approach to exploring the issue – a medium well-suited to investigating and showcasing different perspectives. Photography. Twelve Whistlerites were briefed with disposable cameras and a single mission: Show Us Your World.

Clark explains: "We chose as broad and representative a cross-section of people as possible, but we didn’t want to give them too much direction. We wanted them to be creative. We wanted them to take us on a tour of Whistler, within the realm of their day to day existence."

I asked several of the exhibit participants to take part in a second mission: Give Me The Scoop. After establishing their local credentials, I wanted to know what their favourite places were, both to visit themselves and to reveal to others. By the time I tracked the operatives down, my friend had legged on to the next chapter of her adventure, taking with her memories of my take of Sea to Sky iconic experiences: a through-hike from Madeley to Rainbow Lakes, wild blueberry-picking and bear-dodging along the alpine and sub-alpine trails, brunch at the Wildwood, a dip in Alta Lake from Rainbow Beach, people-watching along the Valley Trail, an intro to rock-climbing at Rogues Gallery. We went further afield – hiked the Squamish Chief and celebrated with micro-brewed beers; took a float trip along the lower reaches of the Ashlu; made a mandatory stop at Timmy Ho’s to study the strange phenomenon of Timbits; swam at Brohm Lake. And we’d still barely skimmed the surface.

Beautiful, was her verdict. One of the most beautiful places yet. That was my first mission accomplished.

The second? To satisfy my own curiosity. What is the Whistler Local’s Tour? I got different versions from four of the Museums’ 12 photography participants, and began to really appreciate that within the bigger macrocosm of Whistler, exist thousands of microcosms. A Local’s Tour of Whistler reveals as much about your tour-guide’s own passions and perspectives as it does of the place itself.

Tina Symko

Tina Symko is a river-girl. A board director at AWARE, and on staff as a Sustainability Co-ordinator with VANOC, Symko arrived in Whistler on an eight month research stint, as part of her Masters program over six years ago.

"A couple of people in my grad class kept pushing me up here. I think they knew I’d connect with Whistler."

To complete her Masters in Environmental Management, Symko wrote the Crabapple Creek Water Management Plan, and that was enough to get her hooked.

"I went back to the city to write my thesis, and then came straight back."

It was a no-brainer for a person who declares their passions to be, "anything green and alive, anything outside, the environment, recreation…."

Not only has she found a place redolent in the things she’s passionate about, she’s finally found herself surrounded by like-minded people.

"It’s amazing. I used to find that I could only talk about sustainability to people in my school program. Whereas here, it’s becoming a new language to everyone in Whistler. There were over 1,000 people at the David Suzuki presentation. There was a lineup that went from the doors of the conference centre out past Citta’s, and it was moving the whole time. And people weren’t just sitting there with their eyes glazing. It was an incredible audience that applauded every five minutes during the talk. It made me think, Wow! This is my town. These are real people, doing real things, and they really care about this."

Take the Tina Symko tour:

"First, we’re going to Citta’s for some afternoon refreshments, and to get rid of any inhibitions. Then we’re going to ride our bicycles over to the nudie dock."

A mandatory stop on Symko’s tour is a bike ride along the Valley Trail to Rainbow beach, blazing past the River of Golden Dreams, to watch the full moon rising over Alta Lake. Another favourite spot, perfect for sunset watching, is at the Fitzsimmons Creek fan, where the Fitz enters Green Lake.

"It’s not a busy spot. Sometimes when I’m pedalling past on my way home, I’ll see a few people there, or in the morning, doing yoga."

The last stop is to enjoy the best half-price Mexican food in town, at Gaitors, then to head downstairs to a Whistler institution, the Boot. "It can’t be torn down! It’s culture. It’s heritage. It’s Whistler!"

Symko’s passion for sustainability and the environment means she’s acutely aware of the impact new development is having. The major issues on the sustainability agenda, she says, are to create the most sustainable and green Winter Olympics ever, and to protect our remaining green spaces.

Probably a recurring theme in any local’s tour, even if you’ve only been here for a couple of years, is pointing out changes and new developments.

"That’s where the Boot was. There used to be wetlands here, but they built this new condo complex a few years ago…. When I first came here, none of this existed. It was a huge field."

Tim Smith

One long-time Whistler local has seen plenty of these kinds of changes.

"I can’t go to the Whistler Cookie Co anymore and that would have been one of the major stops," says Tim Smith, of the Tim Smith Guided Tour of Whistler.

Over his time in Whistler, Tim Smith has been part of several local institutions: the Blackcomb ski patrol, the Whistler Answer and the short-lived Alta Lake Wild Life Preservation Society, and the 16 Mile Creek renegade squat. That’s enough to give him the status to comment on Whistler culture, or at least its counter-culture.

"The whole area was my favourite place at one time," he said.

Smith arrived in Whistler in 1975 when the Eagles were a super-group, the train station was still operating, and there were less than 500 people skiing the mountain during the week.

"There was a line from the song Hotel California that goes, ‘Call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye,’" Smith explained. "That's the way us kids in our 20s saw it back then. We figured once the developers and promoters succeeded, and we were certain they would eventually, that this place would become something very different from what we had at the time. Pioneer towns don't stay pioneer towns; they either grow up or die.

"For Whistler, though, the verdict may still be out. You can't really say it's grown up yet, and one big landslide on Highway 99 or two or three years of warm, wet winters and cool, wet summers and it's back to Myrtle Philip's era."

The Tim Smith tour :

A hike up to Joffre Lakes – "It’s probably the shortest hike you can do right up to the tree line and it’s very spectacular. The chairlift assisted stuff is OK, but I work up there, so I’m not really motivated to go up there on my days off.…" – followed by a feed at Pasta Lupino. "It’s locally owned, it’s really good food and it’s reasonably priced."

Brian Finestone

The original plan for Whistler-Blackcomb Safety Officer, Brian Finestone, when he first arrived in Whistler in 1991, was to work for one winter, as a lifty. Thirteen years later, his family is still here, living in a basement suite and juggling day and night shifts to save on the cost of child care.

"We’d sampled other ski towns in B.C. and Europe and we always came back here because we liked it best."

For Finestone, becoming a local happens when you’ve been here long enough that you start to give back to the community. Having a child also contributes to that feeling of rootedness.

Finestone is embarking on a new adventure as the co-author of a guidebook of ski runs on Whistler and Blackcomb, which goes to press mid-September. Capitalizing on his intimate knowledge of the mountain within the ski area boundary, garnered from 11 years of hands-on (or boards-on) research, as a patroller, Finestone has compiled a comprehensive guide that includes more than 120 runs that aren’t on the trail maps. He’s lifting up the skirts of Whistler-Blackcomb and giving everyone a peek.

"A lot of people will be frustrated that we’re giving away the goods. But I’ve skied here long enough to know that there are no secret spots."

Finestone’s local’s tour of Whistler, though, won’t reveal any secret or semi-secret spots. If you want the dope on the mountain, he says, you’ll have to buy the book. Off the hill, he doesn’t spend much time in secret places. "I do what everyone else in Whistler does."

The Brian Finestone tour:

Test your relationship with your partner paddling a canoe together down the River of Golden Dreams; visit the dog beaches so you can see how much Whistlerites include their canine companions in their lives; take a trip to the top of the mountain, in whatever shape or form that fits the season; in the winter, any half-competent skier will be shown down the Blackcomb Glacier; and finally, "a stay in Whistler isn’t complete without a trip to Meager Creek hotsprings."

Feet Banks

Banks is Whistler’s one-man version of Siskel and Ebert, except you get the distinct impression that his "thumbs up" for the latest flicks can’t be bought. A Whistler resident for 16 years, Banks calls himself local.

"Every major influential event in your life happens after you turn 12," Banks reckons, so having moved here with his parents at that tender age, Whistler is the setting for all the major important events in his adult life.

"I hate it when people come to visit because you feel you have to show them everything," says Banks.

Any of us working front-line tourism and hospitality jobs have a natural aversion to play-acting as tour guides in our free time. Dutifully walking someone through the typical Whistler tourist attractions can be a turn-off. But, sometimes, a visitor gives you the chance to see something through the eyes of an outsider. And the eyes of an outsider are always fresh.

In the same way, your vision is freshened by going away.

"Every time I go away and come home," says Banks, "and drive past the Tantalus, I feel a huge weight lift off my shoulders…. Ahh, I’m home."

The Feet Banks tour : The skate park ("It’s something here that people should be really proud of"); one of the secret lakes he likes to chill at ("Even the secret ones are getting discovered, and if it’s a weekend, chances are someone will be there. There’s always someone at Loggers. Always hundreds at Lucille. I remember being a kid and being the only person there, with hundreds of little frogs. Now they’re all gone, because they’re the first to go when the biodiversity is being ruined."); a tour of the after-dark underworld ("Four bars in one night, and we’ll walk from one to the other. That’s so unique. To hit them all without having to drive anywhere.")

Fresh eyes and fresh energy are a big part of Whistler’s formula, according to President of the Chamber of Commerce, Brent Leigh. Says Leigh, "It’s a remarkable corner of the world, and people come here and they will until eternity, even if they’re skateboarding down the mountain when the snow is gone. It’s an institution in terms of tourism and you just want to keep it fresh and unique. I think we still have got a really incredible formula in terms of the resort being fresh for visitors. Between the true locals, the youth locals and the seasonal employees, the resort has a real, fresh ambience."

Curator of the Museum’s Picturing Whistler: Local Faces, Local Spaces exhibit, Kerry Clark believes the same things that turn Whistler visitors on to the place, are the special things for residents.

"You can always pare it down to the natural beauty of Whistler and the lifestyle it offers. Everyone is drawn here initially for a holiday or a season, because of the outdoors, the environment, the opportunities to recreate, the amazing people. And that’s what keeps people here. We make great friends. We love the outdoor lifestyle."

At root, we all share that common link with everyone who visits Whistler, for however brief a stint. But, as evidenced by the 300 photographs collected over a week in Whistler by a dozen individuals, there are an infinite number of permutations and variations on how to experience it.

For every person who’s making their home in Whistler, whether they fully own the word "local" or are still growing into it, there are a hundred quintessential experiences, a score of secret spots, and an endless array of "local’s tours" to be taken. And the best part of all might be the chance to share it. As Tina Symko said, as we ran through her hypothetical tour, "I need a day off! Someone come and visit me!"

Picturing Whistler: Local Faces, Local Spaces opens to the public Saturday, Sept. 11 at the Whistler Museum, 4329 Main Street.