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Surviving the shoulder season

Seven steps to fighting the doldrums and courting chaos

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"The steelhead is from Lois Lake, the duck is from Yarrow farms, and the mushrooms are from Ponderosa," says Araxi Chef James Walt,as we eye the locally-sourced, five-course menu. It is 2 p.m., the rain is pounding down outside, and Whistler Village is damp and quiet. Inside Araxi, James and his crew are preparing for yet another busy night serving mainly locals, many of whom are taking advantage of the 30th anniversary, $30 menu. The price is right for the cash-starved.

For the last fifteen years, Araxi's has been sourcing its ingredients locally, notes James. "In '97, the farmers were struggling. . . now, they're bursting at the seams," he says, citing Pemberton growers North Arm Farms, Rootdown Organics, and Across the Creek as "supplying 100 per cent of our salads" and other produce, to not only Araxi but nearly all eateries in the Valley. I turn back to the menu. BC Albacore Tuna Tataki, says one dish. That sounds delicious. And it's basically six bucks.

Yet while I and others enjoy Araxi's fine dining service — a quick glance around reveals at least a dozen locals recognizable by face, clad in the attire of a Canadian tuxedo — others struggle to make ends meet during the off-season's snailpace.

The Hunger Games: provisions for provisional labour

Whatever our intrepid weather gurus say — and they have promised much this season — chances are the merry month of May will be wet and dreary down to the last drop. May is the heart of the shoulder season. Diehard parkrats and manic backcountry skiers take to the alpine, with corn snow and superhero slush enticing the rest of us when the sun fights its way through the overcast grey. The month of Taurus and Gemini is when Whistler's ski shops swap out their planks for bikes, storing away the iron and wax for chain lube and torque wrenches. The star sign of this bullish month gives way to the double-identity schizophrenia of late May, when sun once again promises to grab ahold of June by the nards and shake it loose into summer.

The shoulder season is offside for the winter game, the big break between the two influxes of sports addicts. The transient snowkids and powderhounds, if they haven't already left, now flee Whistler, leaving their tiny rentals and staff-housing encampments for the incoming flood of rubber tire enthusiasts. Apartments abound. It's also a time of stretching budgets to the limit. Many businesses offer off-season specials worth taking advantage of; for others, the shoulder season means loss of employment. The results are tangible: the Whistler Food Bank has seen an increase in visits from 1,800 in 2010 to over 2,900 last year. The Food Bank ended the year $22, 000 in the red, with most of the food budget spent in the first three months of the 2011 fiscal year, explains Lorna Van Straaten, executive director of Whistler Community Services. Though numbers have begun dropping in early 2012, the food bank is calling for increased support from the community in food, money and volunteers.

"Since the [2008] recession hit, the food bank has seen a dramatic rise in the number of people accessing our services, says Sara Jennings, food bank coordinator. When businesses struggle, residents also struggle as there are less jobs to go around, and people's hours are cut. The busiest periods for the food bank are the shoulder seasons, spring and fall as there is less work in the resort. However, for the first time in four years, the numbers have started to go down at the food bank. This is most likely due to the increase in business in Whistler this year. As businesses do better the food bank sees fewer people."

Feeding the need—of the lowly-paid and precarious labourer

The shoulder season is a strange study in contrasts. While fine dining and off-season deals might be on the radar for some, others struggle to gulp down a regular meal. The struggles of the offseason mirror the increasing gap between rich and poor in our society as a whole, which in 2011 hit a record thirty-year high, according to a December report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). According to Van Straaten, Whistler's lowest-income families and those with addictions and mental health issues are the long-term users of the food bank. However, most users need the service only one to five times to get "through a short rough patch," says Jennings. About half of the overall users are newcomers to Whistler, with the majority (67 per cent) being males between the ages of 20 to 29. Only about a quarter are unemployed and seeking work; a third are underemployed, putting them in an ever-growing category of what economists call "precarious labour."

"Transients tend to have the lowest paid jobs and have their hours cut first," says Jennings. "However, we also do see a lot of people coming to Whistler without the resources to meet their needs while they look for employment."

This of course raises larger questions: what level of "resources" — which is to say, cold hard cash — are now necessary for the ski bum to weather a season in Whistler? Is it still feasible to depend upon lowest paid, transient labour as the frontline workforce at a world-class ski resort? Can Whistler expect transient workers to sink thousands of dollars to live here, only to receive minimum wage in a position fraught with precarity — and possibly ending with a trip to the food bank?

It is possible that Whistler is in for a labour crunch. In fall 2011, the lack of low-paid labour was evident for local business. Whistler's trends echoed those of the province's own findings, published in the B.C Labour Market Outlook 2010-2020, a joint initiative between BC Stats and the Ministry of Finance (Pique Sept 1, 2011).

Despite seeing fewer numbers in the early quarter of 2012, most troubling is that 25 per cent of food bank users have been in Whistler for three or more years, suggesting what might be a trend toward overall precarity — meaning less job security for previously resilient positions —in Whistler's seasonal economy. This is not surprising, given that Statistics Canada says that many eligible workers, especially youth, are no longer seeking work due to a lack of job growth, reflected in a fall of the overall participation rate to 66.5 per cent in February, the lowest since 2002. Derek Holt, an economist with Scotia Capital, predicts that the rate of job creation in 2012 will be half that of 2011, at 11,000 jobs per month across the country. How these greater, national trends will affect the resort bubble of Whistler will perhaps be most acutely felt over the next few months, as the food bank and other Whistler Community Support Services feel the pressure of the offseason. We won't really know, however, until the fall. If national trends play out here, then we might see fewer users at the food bank not because businesses are doing better, but because there are fewer transient workers coming to Whistler. These are the deeper concerns of the offseason.

But for the psyche that is wrapped in Whistler's long winter, May is a sigh of relief. Huddled figures running from bar to bar become strangely familiar. Friends from months past seep out of the woodwork like bloated worms on the sidewalk. Everyone who has made it through the dark, cold months has grown lumpy in the waist, though lean in the legs. Greetings are exchanged, summer plans made, and the great local tradition begins of eating, drinking, and taking in all the attractions Whistler has to offer — at quietly reduced prices. Welcome to Surviving the Shoulder Season.

Step One: Admit You're Bored

With options dwindling for the adrenaline junkies, boredom reigns. Traditionally, back before social media permeated every single waking (and sleeping) moment of the valley's denizens, local ski bums would devise new smokeable contraptions and then proceed to watch all seven seasons of Star Trek: TNG and/or the original series, available for free on these near-obsolete shiny disc things (known as "DVDs") that are, incredibly, still available today at the Whistler Library. Indeed, show up with proof of local residence, and you will find yourself in possession of a neat and new library card, which you may utilize to your heart's delight, partaking in the ancient socialist pastime of renting and returning free media. You can even take out tomes of words that are printed on dead trees called books. Just watch those fines — for unlike a download, you actually have to give it back. This dropping-off-thing works well for actually meeting people in the flesh — give it a go, and explore what it means to "get lost in the stacks."

But there are other things to do besides hole up and study the secondary characters of Star Wars (remember Admiral Akbar?) so that you can trounce your friends at the George Lucas edition of Trivial Pursuit... though, come to think of it, it's not a bad idea, and occasionally copies surface down at the Re-Use It Centre, conveniently located down in Function Junction's recycle and garbage depot. This time of year, the Centre is chock-full of end-of-season rejects, including the occasional neon Bogner one-piece that will have you perfectly attired for Gaper Day on Blackcomb, as well as hundreds of VHS tapes, which.... oh hell, nobody has a VHS player anymore.

So let's face it: you're bored.

Step Two: Becoming a Tourist in Your Own Town

It's time to take the strategy to what philosophers call the ontological level: you need to change your state of being to fight off the boredom. Luckily this overdeveloped valley is packed with alternative activities, many with an ecotourism focus, and they've all been engineered to entertain you whatever the weather. Heck, the bike park opens May 18. But until then, options abound, from Cougar Mountain's Wildplay Zoom ziplines and Monkido courses — where you climb around above the ground like a monkey through suspended obstacle courses — to getting out on foot and exploring the melting snows of Garibaldi Park.

No one has lived well in Whistler until they've stripped themselves down to their skivvies and flung themselves off a bridge with Whistler Bungee — an experience that I can proudly attest to as absolutely terrifying. Leaping headlong toward the cold river below makes an ideal first date for the newbie you've just picked up at the Longhorn Saloon. Or, if your date appears a tad more sedate (think Buffalo Bill's), grab that proof of local coolness (i.e., you gotta live here) and claim that 20 per cent discount at Ziptrek.

Ziptrek is like some elvish fantasy for you Lord of the Rings fans, or a slightly more perverse furry dream for those of you who dig Ewok battlescenes. Even getting to the ziplines puts some perspective on the size of the hemlocks and other Really Big Trees in this coastal temperate rainforest—ecological concepts that I actually learnt thanks to the edutaining dialogue from Dan, one of two guides for the escapade.* With platforms and bridges suspended a good fifty feet or more among lichen-draped canopies, the sheer strength of the rainforest is as impressive as what you're about to do, which boils down to clipping your corps(e) to a coiled steel zipline and hurtling through open air, wind whipping at your face, as you squeal with delight, the river rushing below.

A few adults appeared tied up in knots of anxiety — from what I could tell, thanks to the facial recognition software on my iPhone that scans for signs of nervous tics, these aging boomers were entertaining nightmares of the entire assemblage breaking loose, sending bodies splashing down into the waters below. To this end, may I suggest going on a tour with small children; at least on mine, our token Little Smiling Girl claimed first on every single zip, much to the confused look of concern/admiration from her parents.

If no children are available, a small guinea pig or sack of potatoes is useful as a test subject, for just as the comfort sets in, the ziplines become longer and steeper, dropping more sharply, until the guides have you hanging upside-down, arms open, legs splayed, embracing the full blood-rushing experience of letting it all hang out.

*Or at least I think his name was Dan. This journalist apologizes for failing to take notes whilst dangling from ziplines.

Step Three: Bathe in Public

If you haven't bathed all winter, you are a bear and/or a hipster who cannot peel too-tight pants off your scrawny leg limbs. Read no further: you be fit only for squatter camps and tundra wookies. But if you scrub and shave with some regularity, there is no finer escape than the exquisitely manicured Scandinave Spa, which offers a Local's May Pass for 99 clams. Besides the age-old tradition of late-season hot tub poaching, the Vida Wellness Spa at the Fairmont has private cabana rentals while the Four Seasons has a eucalyptus steam room, and there be local membership deals at Hidden Lodge day spa in Glacier Lodge. The offseason be a good time to soak in some peace and quiet.

The entire point of a hot/cold spa is to push the contradiction between the temperature inside your body and outside to the point where you enter into a blissed-out, dazed state of consciousness, otherwise obtainable only through psychedelic means or studious devotion to Hegelian transcendental dialectics (the latter not recommended for the bookworm weak). As I experienced hot flashes and cold sweats, I saw strange, geometric patterns dance across the treetops while the New Age music that cascades alongside the mesmerizing, cold waterfalls began to sound really, really deep.

For warm-blooded mammals, duration need not be extreme in any one environment — it's more about repetition than it is about extension (to put it in a Hegelese phrase designed to make you sound smart at dinner parties). After a cycle or two of the Russian-style steam bath, you should already be forgetting your next 42 To-Do Tasks. Remember, young Luke: silent you keep. Talking spoils the trip-out. Duck out to the fringes of the hot tub, and let the ears envelope the soothing sounds of water. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, as ultimately relaxing as the acoustic reverberation of ceaseless, flowing, H20.

Sweating in the dry sauna is what follows. Throw some water on the wood-burning stove and collapse on the baked wood benches. Breath deep until dry, and then sweat again. Go outside, shrivel the bits in glacially-cold water, and repeat. Again and again, until you see visions of Xanadu. Hours later, I found myself in a meditation room, body steaming, gazing with wonder at those little birds which flock around each spring, chasing each other with abandon... cute little birds... there they go... indeed, what the heck am I doing here? Am I on assignment? Who am I writing for?

Be prepared.

Hint — become a WORCA member (Whistler's singletrack mountain bike association, which kicks off its first Toonie this May 3rd) and partake of Scandinave Spa with all the grubby riders at the end of the summer in one orgiastic spandex send-off.

Step Four: Get Your Hair Cut and Get Naked

If the headmop has become so unruly that you cannot distinguish between the mirror and the mint edition, life-size poster of Chewbacca kept on the wall for reference purposes, then my wo/man, it is time to get your hair cut (at least if you want to keep that job: more on that below).

There are several places to hit up in this lovely locale, from Pique's Best of Whistler choices, Farfalla, The Loft, and Good Hair Day to a simple barber's shave at Black Comb Barber Shoppe. I play no favourites, save to mention that local stylists often operate out of private studios, such as that run by Amanda Steel, whose British grace includes thorough inspections by her cats of your new cut.

Once chopped, consider posing for some boudoir photography by Kyle Graham. Why not? Kyle organizes Playful Photo Parties, where everyone gets shot solo (or not) while hanging out and comparing lingerie. Kyle is no stranger to posing in the buff, having sat as a life drawing model for classes organized by Whistler Arts Council. Modelling nude, says Kyle, is an "incredibly liberating experience," and one that "boosted confidence."

"I find stepping out of your comfort zone is an incredibly positive thing," says Kyle, who credits his time spent behind the lens for piquing his interest in boudoir. "I like to show people that, who they really are [is] actually pretty beautiful. . . I want to express the idea [of] who we are naturally, with these 'blemishes' [as] unique, and tell a tale sorta' to speak."

Drop by the Love Nest for the frills. Remember, pictures are worth at least two txts.

Step Five: Eat Something Snazzy

May is the month of Dine-In Whistler, with a staggering 29 restaurants offering a variety of prix fixe menus between $19 and $49. For the most part, this is nearly cheaper than buying healthy, fresh food here in Whistler, and with high-end kitchens such as the Bearfoot Bistro and the Rimrock offering $49 all-inclusive selections, this is the time to gorge with gastronomic delight without completely emptying out the pocketbook. Many restaurants in Whistler are now offering '80s pricing (Kypriaki Norte) or half off specials (Mongolie Grill) — indeed, do check the Pique pages for listings. Getting through the seasonal slump is indeed easier if you can eat all you want at Nagomi Sushi for $30, or add to the legendary status of Sushi Village's tatami rooms with a $19 throw-down.

This year, Araxi is celebrating its 30th anniversary here in Whistler — that's right, the cornerstone fine dining of Village Square has been kicking it since they built the stroll in 1982. I was four; I remember it well.

To the credit of Executive Chef James Walt sophisticated tastes, Araxi is offering a five-course menu for the aforementioned dirty-thirty special. He plans to change it up every two weeks, sourcing mainly organic ingredients from local farmers in the Sea-to-Sky corridor and the Pacific northwest. Many of his dishes, he notes, conform to a 100-mile diet (the only ingredient that cannot be found locally is salt).

With the savings on a menu that, if it were to be priced properly, would touch $79, this is an exceptional time to dress up swank and claim the playboy title — which is to say, talk to Araxi's restaurant director, Neil Henderson, and try his suggested wine pairings from Samantha Rahn's cellar selection. This might give a clue as to why Araxi scooped Best in Whistler from Vancouver Magazine for nearly the twelfth year running (Silver went to the Bearfoot; Bronze to Aura at Nita Lake Lodge).*

"For my own philosophy, " says Neil, comfortably clad in a grey sweater before donning his spiffy suit for the dinner session, "I match intensities of the dishes. When I look at the menu, I look at components of the menu that stand out and pull dishes in one direction or another, be it a spice or a sweetness, an acidity, that will affect the wine the most. It's not always the protein, it's not always the tenderloin or the fish — it could be the sauce, or a component of the sauce that makes the biggest difference."

Settling into the tall espresso tasse of the Smoked Roma Tomato Soup, Neil's suggested pairing of the Montes Alpha Chardonnay (2009), a Chilean white, heightened the smoky flavour of the soup's goat-cheese crostini. This was new.

By the time the main rolled around, I was happy not to be singing pirate songs in the coatcheck. But here two wines stood out as truly exceptional, and I began to grasp the Honest Truth of wine and food: like chocolate, it can be better than (some) sex.

Being a meathead, I went for the venison (which is deer — though according to Wikipedia, it can also be antelope, or wild boar). For this red dish, I was handed LaStella "Fortissimo" (2008), an Okanagan heavy-hitter that matched with equal strides the soft yet pungent aroma of the savoury meat. My partner-in-crime, however, had the steelhead; for her, she received a glass of liquid gold, the velvety, absolutely dangerous Treanna, Santa Lucia Highlands (2008), a Californian white that performed like an extraordinarily high-end Scotch, leaving the palette with a perfectly clean, near non-alcoholic finish. For desert, check the Elephant Island Framboise (2010), a raspberry wine that pairs ideally with the thin and long Almond and Raspberry Cake. Here, one can alternate between bites and sips, succulent yet tart.

* Save for 2009—which went to the Bearfoot.

Step Six: Spray Blood, Eat Guts, and Cannibalize

Frankly, there's nothing I like to do better when stuffed full of fine foods then saw people to bits, spray blood over their dismembered body parts, and wallow in their intestines. Apparently, so do a whole lot of you folks — as in, Lots 3 and 4, packed, wall-to-wall, judging by the massive turnout of 1,100 plus bodies at the 10th anniversary of the Heavy Hitting B-Grade Horror Film Festival last Halloween.

Which brings us to the ultimate offseason activity: shooting a horror film.

"Blood — fake blood — is all about trying different recipes until you get what you need," emails Feet Banks, erstwhile film columnist, perennial Spanish emcee, and one of the founding members of Heavy Hitting Films. "Do you want it thick and drippy, or something that will spray from a severed artery like a lawn sprinkler? Thick is best made from corn syrup, red food colouring, and a darkening agent like coffee grounds. Darkened V8 works for sprayable blood (make sure to back-light it for best visuals on camera). The problem with homemade blood is almost all of it stains clothes. You can buy professional quality blood powder from shops in Vancouver for about 250 bucks a kilo."

Indeed. Then there's the issue of who-wants-to-be-sprayed-with-blood, i.e., finding "actors."

"Vancouver is full of methed-out freaks who want to be in your movie and think it will be awesome to call you up at 4:30 a.m. to talk about your call-out," warns Feet (and it is a good warning: I concur). "Personally I like to work with people I know and like. The best films seem to come from groups of friends having fun together, not some poor fucker trying to wrangle a bunch of anonymous freaks just because he really wants a bestiality/glass-bottom boat in his movie. So the best bet is to be extremely nice to your cute friends. Good luck."

Step Seven (of the Sins): Foment Revolution

Now that the consumer options have been exhausted (along with your bank account), it's time to ask for that raise. Been here an entire season? Staying on? Heck, been here multiple seasons and still making the same wage? It might be worth asking the Whistler Chamber of Commerce for advice. Why not? The WCC supports the idea of providing incentives to returning employees. A novel, radical idea, I know, but one that seems to have some credence even among the capitalists, especially given what might be an increased labour slump in low-paid positions.

Just recently, Chamber members received a report from Heather Kennedy, Manager of Marketing and Communications for the Canadian Tourism Human Resource Council (CTHRC). It's a mouthful, but listen to what she has to say — as well as suggesting that the most efficient way to find new employees is to keep the ones you've already got (imagine that!) and to rehire the old ones (no training involved!), Kennedy emphasizes offering "extra incentives to returning employees" (her bold, not mine). And she writes, "Whether it's a higher wage, a promotion, non-monetary bonuses, or training for a supervisory role, they will feel encouraged to come back."

So go ahead and ask for that raise or bonus or free lunch or dishwasher supervisor position or whatever — the Whistler Chamber of Commerce said it was OK to do so.

Whistler Blackcomb, of note, has initiated an online renewal process that seeks to streamline the process of rehiring, and one would expect, increase the number of experienced employees returning for another season.

If unemployment haunts your game — and the numbers show that, even if food bank numbers are currently down, the offseason will be a tough one for many of us in terms of job growth and, most importantly, income growth — then there’s always mass revolt, Québec-student-style. Whistler politics always rears its head during the shoulder season; we all put on the Nice Face when the world is watching, and then, like the return of the repressed, act out our convictions and beliefs in local dramas once the spotlight is shut off. Rubbing my crystal balls (I got two for sale from the New Age store in town), I predict that old growth logging, the continuing operation of the asphalt plant, and the outrageously disorganized bus system — what happened to the principle of a single north/south connecting bus, I ask?! — will define this summer's community activism. I'd like to add to this list in the name of low-paid labour, and suggest those living here on minimum wage make their voices heard to our new Council: Whistler needs a long-term strategy to overcome lowest-income poverty in this town.

More than you can shake the moneymaker,

in fact. Here's a few more ideas to keep us all occupied over the next month or two:

1. Write (bad) poetry (about the rain) and present at a Creative 5 Eclectic.

2. Train hard at Meadow Park. Blind yourself for every boomer wearing spandex.

3. Learn how to climb or perfect that pinky-pull-up at the Core's bouldering gym.

4. Learn how to grow (legal) herbs by visiting Function's garden centres. Buy a gnome.

5. Volunteer with Whistler Animals Galore (WAG), Whistler Food Bank, or keep an eye on electoral fraud with Amnesty International.

6. Come up with a better bus schedule, and present it to Council. (Seriously, they could use this.)

7. Go to the Whistler Museum, and realize that the spandex boomers were at one point totally ripped ski bums who squatted in shacks and had hippie orgies. Repent.

8. Don't be afraid to get noisy when the situation calls for it—Resort Municipality or not, it's our democratic right to make use of public space for political action. (Oh yah!)

9. Pretend it's 1996 and hacky-sack in Village Square.

10. Visit the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (donation Mondays!) and realize that Whistler Village's few decades is but a blip in time compared to thousands of years of First Nations history.

The Infos

Amanda Steel / hair@amandasteel.com

Araxi / araxi.com

Black Comb Barber's Shoppe / theblackcombbarber.com

Farfallahair.com

Goodhairday.ca

Fairmont / fairmont.com/whistler

Four Seasons / fourseasons.com/whistler

Heavy Hitting B-Grade Horror Film Festival / heavyhitting.com

Hidden Lodge Spa / whistlerhiddenspa.com

Pemberton Farmers / pembertonfarmers.com

Playful Photo Parties / playfulphotoparties.com

Scandinave / scandinave.com

Whistler Animals Galore (WAG) / whistlerwag.com

Whistler Bungee / whistlerbungee.com

Whistler Food Bank / mywcss.org

Wildplay / wildplay.com

WORCA / worca.com

Ziptrek / ziptrek.com

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