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Whistler's longest local packs up after 50 years



Andy Petersen has been slowly packing up 50 years of memories of his life in Whistler — the tools from his work shed, the beautiful handcrafted teak furniture throughout his house, the keepsakes collected over a lifetime.

As it happens, Petersen's home was also a storehouse of other people's memories too. Tucked away in his crawl space, he uncovered boxes of photographs of strangers. Some photos were a little dated, but they were all in a similar vein — happy, smiling couples together in Whistler.

Petersen's widow, Florence, was a popular and longstanding marriage commissioner in Whistler, overseeing more than 1,000 weddings over the years. She was also the founder of the Whistler Museum and Archives Society and so knew a thing or two about the importance of preserving the past.

"She didn't just take one or two (pictures)," said Petersen. "There was at least 10 from each wedding. There must have been close to 10,000 photos!"

That's what you find when you pack up from a place you called home for almost five decades.

Petersen is Whistler's longest-tenured living resident, settling down roots here in 1968 in a prefab home that he built and rebuilt on Alta Lake Road.

Back then it was called the Pemberton Trail, the only road in and out of the valley. That's when it took eight hours by car to go to Pemberton, filling potholes and cutting down trees along the way.

To say Petersen has seen a lot of changes over the years would be an understatement.

In many ways, he is ready to say goodbye, at peace with his decision to move to Campbell River with partner, former Whistler bylaw officer Sandra Smith.

"I don't think I'll have a hard time about it; the neighbourhood is not the same anymore," he said with a fleeting wistful smile.

Back then they never locked the doors; they knew all their neighbours; they had a long-standing Thursday chicken dinner invitation at Myrtle Philip's house where they would play crib.

The people who are coming to Whistler these days aren't the same as they used to be — there's more money now, more hustle and bustle, more multimillion dollar mansions overlooking Alta Lake, and much more at stake.

"They live in a whole different way than we do," said Petersen.

Fifty years ago people moved to Whistler because it was fun, likeminded souls who fell in love with the lakes and the mountains, not to mention, the people who lived on the fringe, like the hippies living in squats throughout the valley.

But things change. Even the hippies.

"Now all the hippies up here, they're all capitalists!" laughed Petersen, who first came to the resort in 1962, a young Dane in his early thirties in search of... something.

Born in Als, an island in the Baltic Sea, in 1931, Petersen was raised in Germany. He later moved to Sweden to work and then made his way to Canada where he landed a job in Edmonton building service stations up the Alaska Highway. It could have easily been a life of moving from place to place.

Then, he discovered Whistler; it wasn't hard to get hooked.

And then he met Florence, who owned a cabin called "Witsend" on Alta Lake with four friends.

"We got married in '68 and then I couldn't run away anymore!" he joked.

Witsend met an untimely end in 1965 when a fire razed it to the ground. But the Petersen's liked the view from that side of the lake.

They bought the neighbouring property. It was $1,800. That first year the property taxes were $6 and the view... well, you couldn't put a price on that view.

It's the first thing Petersen sees every morning.

"When I came up that was all glacier, the whole year round," he said, referring to patches of grey on the side of Whistler Mountain.

While Florence kept her job as a school teacher in Burnaby, coming to Whistler for summers and weekends, Andy moved up permanently.

Work came and went, moving with the ebbs and flows of resort life. Petersen helped build the sewage treatment plant. He worked on the Rendezvous Lodge when Blackcomb Mountain opened in 1981. He worked on the conference centre and the Fairmont.

His talent is obvious. There's the teak sideboard in the dining area; the built-in teak bookcases in the office, the coffee table, the TV stand. All lovingly crafted with the same subtle hand of an expert carpenter.

Petersen, however, was destined for a new job in his later years.

Throughout the '80s he worked as the jail guard for the RCMP, a role he was in for nine years, a job that was much more than a job.

"All the members there, they were all young," he said. "They came right out of the depot and they all latched onto me."

The Petersens took the officers under their wings — welcoming the RCMP members and their families into their home, becoming de facto grandparents to their children.

At 86 years old, Petersen agrees that Whistler has had a hand in his long and healthy life. "I would say so," he mused.

Less stress, less rushing around, a much simpler way of life where the view was always changing across the mountain peaks were all part of the equation.

And there was one more bonus of laissez-faire mountain life compared to that of the city.

"I didn't have to have as many clothes," added Petersen. "You could go around in anything here!"