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Author Podcast: Stephen Vogler

abstract:With the 2010 Winter Olympics coming to Whistler, BC Canada next February, listen to long-time resident, musician, journalist, author and poet, Stephen Vogler who speaks with BookBuffet today on location in his home town. Stephen is a quiet blend of determined talent. He's a two-book author who's beautiful coffee table book, Top of the Pass: Whistler and the Sea to Sky Country (Harbour Press) tells the history and shares the majesty of his mountain community, "where gravity drives the economy and the lifestyle." Whether you're an enthusiastic sports person or not, you'll be interested to hear how a remote village catering to honeymooners and hippies became the decades' top North American ski resort with an international community of residents and visitors. The bonus of course, is that you'll be ahead of the media hype on the town hosting the next Winter Olympics.


January 04, 2009

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  • PART I: Growing up in Whistler: The Wild West
  • PART II: What It Takes (and what you give up) To Become A World Class Resort Destination

Coming Soon:

Links to browse: The Whistler Museum pioneer photos

Interview Transcript

BB: This is Paula Shackleton podcasting for and today I am speaking with two-book author, poet, journalist and musician Stephen Vogler. Stephen’s writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Explore Magazine and been aired on CBC Radio. His first book is titled Whistler Features and his second book is titled Top of the Pass. Stephen is a long-time resident of Whistler, British Columbia – home of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and he writes about what it means to live in a thriving, evolving mountain community where gravity drives the economy and the lifestyle. Welcome to BookBuffet, Stephen.

SV: Thank you.

BB: Stephen I understand that your family moved to Whistler when you were a child and that you have lived there your whole life. You and your wife Peggy have three children, and a home on the far shores of Alta Lake, which I know faces opposite the panorama of mountains that includes the two ski mountains that the world will soon become acquainted with in the Olympics in February 2010. What has it been like growing up in Whistler, and what is it like to raise a family here today?

SV: It's an interesting community on all accounts. It has changed so much from when I was a child growing up when there were only about 500 people here, and it was kind of a hippie, ski-bum town. So it has been a constant evolution of the town coming into its own. Going from there to adding the village, a tourist centre and Blackcomb Mountain. The change just goes on, and people who have been here for five years say, “Oh it’s changed so much since 2003,” and it’s just that kind of place. It’s a changeable place. So I think my children growing up here now—I was twelve when we moved here—but they were born here. So they are very acclimatized to this valley, and everything seems normal, I think to them.

BB: Whistler is a curious blend of personalities. It’s the only place I know where the first measure of a person is made by the number of years they claim to have been a permanent resident of Whistler, and the second yardstick is the number of days they spend skiing, snowboarding or mountain biking – as though those two things denote an infallible superiority that newer members of the community or visitors should respect. It’s like a sense of tradition mixed with intense competitive spirit and a little snobbism thrown in.

SV: Yeah. Well, I think that all of those things don’t matter at all really. I try to avoid that, the whole, “How many years have you been here?” It’s more about the spirit of the place. You know, some people arrive here, whichever winter it was, whether it was 1967 or 2005 and they just kind of click with the place. It feels right with them, and they want to stay. It has more to do with whether you click into the vibe than any numerical value.

BB: Right. I haven’t actually watched the television program Whistler but my kids tell me that it’s pretty bad.

SV: Yes. I saw a few episodes.

BB: [laughs] Maybe you should be writing for them!

SV: The first episodes were done down in Langley, so it was very disconnected from the place. But in the second season they came up here more, and, yeah, they haven’t called me yet. I’m still waiting by the phone.

BB: Well Stephen your first book, titled Whistler Features was published in 2000 by Tilting at Windmills, and it’s a compilation of some of your previously published articles that first appeared in the local newspaper, the Pique Newsmagazine. Whistler Features has illustrations and paintings by local artists Cristina Nick and Hugh Kearney – it’s a really lovely book. I enjoyed reading this book because the 16 essays really capture your unique perspective on Whistler’s mountain culture and the dichotomy people here face in balancing the inevitable march of progress and the metastasizing development and commercialization, with attempts by some to try to hold onto as much of the natural world and character and traditions as possible. I’m going to read the title of a few of the essays listed in Features and I want you to speak about them.

SV: Ok that was written over a span of six years and published over six years ago, but I’ll try and remember.

BB: Oh, gee I hope I’m not putting you on the spot! Here goes… SPORTS AS A RELIGION.

SV: Oh yeah. Yeah. That’s always fascinated me, that topic. I actually did a piece for CBC radio on it. It’s not only Whistler, but also Western Canada and maybe broader than that. People approach sports here with this passion and discipline that is just beyond imagination. So I think it raises interesting questions in a sort of post church-going (to a large degree) world. I try to find parallels there in the way that people take their skiing really seriously. Or their mountain biking or what have you…

BB: It borders on fanaticism.

SV: Yes exactly. And some of those outdoor survival type races where you really see it go beyond any kind of rational logic, why you’d do that. And so that’s why I was curious. There is a real force there driving those people. So I explore that in that chapter and try to keep it humorous as well.

BB: Now of course, for people who don’t know Whistler might not be aware that we live nestled in between two native communities, the Lil'wat Pemberton Band and the coastal Squamish Nation. You wrote a chapter titled, HAROLD PASCAL. Tell us about Harold.

SV: Yes, well Harold was in the media for a time there, he’s passed away now. Back in the ‘90s and maybe earlier, he was really fighting for the rights of the Lil'wat people and bringing up really interesting issue up at Ure Creek, north of here near Lillooet Lake. And so I ended up interviewing him and I found he and his wife, Loretta as well really fascinating because they were re-connecting with their traditions themselves and connecting with things that were lost or hidden away for a time.

BB: Within their culture and language?

SV: Yes, and for the rights of the Lil'wat people, and all those things that had to do with residential schools and the reserves. So to walk around the Whistler Valley with them, where there had been many settlements here was really fascinating. He was the guardian of the Lil'wat burial sites. So it was looking at it in terms of where their people are buried in this place, which is a whole deeper layer in this place to life, as we know it now.

BB: Right. With the acquisition of the Callaghan Valley for the nordic and cross country ski facility for the Olympics and the land exchange, they now have a fabulous cultural centre in the middle of town; it’s a great addition…

SV: ...A really great addition to Whistler and nice to have that presence, because, as I said, that was over ten years ago that I wrote that and now to see [multiculturalism] becoming more accepted and a more mainstream part of life here is a great thing.

BB: A true integration of the communities. You have a chapter called “TRACING WHISTLER'S LITERARY HISTORY” and I wanted to read just one of the passages that you have from Alex Philip, called “The Crimson West”.

“Fall came and the first frosts that stole into the valley touched the wooded flanks of the mountains with a crisp stroke that transformed the poplar into yellow plumes, the vine maple and sumac into a red flame of embers dying there. Only the black growth of conifers, fir, hemlock, pine and spruce, kept their stalwart green. The hills and valleys became a fine mosaic, and ancient tapestry woven with parti-coloured strands.

SV: Isn’t that nice.

BB: So talk a little bit about the literary traditions and his being, maybe one of the first novels that was set here.

SV: Alex and Myrtle Philip lived just 500 meters down from where I live now, on the lake, on the West side of Alta Lake, and that passage you just read there goes to show how good writing lasts because we had a really nice sunny fall here this year and that passage describes what the mountainsides look like as the trees go through their different color [changes]. Yes, so he had some good passages. That was turned into the first talking movie in BC.

BB: Really? (See Royal Roads article on first talking pictures of BC)

SV: Yes and he was invited to the opening in Victoria. There are photos of him with the actors and actresses. It was a big deal. He was a writer of Western romance novels and he had his successes.

BB: Have you been through a town called Winthrop close to the border going through the Southern Cascade Mountains? Apparently The Virginian was the first western novel written in the USA [the author wrote it in Winthrop, Oregon] and so there are some interesting corollaries in the Western Romantic genre.

SV: I know Florence Peterson, a local historian, had told me that Alex Philip was really interested in that tradition. Zane Grey was a writer that he was really fascinated by…

BB: …and emulated his style.

SV: So it is really fun to trace that literary tradition which you wouldn’t have thought existed here. There were other writers as well. Bill Bailiff would write some journals and poetry – also quite well done. Another pioneer. And then on from there the local papers that I talk about with just quirky little neighbourhood stuff going on around the lake in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That was good fun to research.

BB: So the Whistler Question came out first and The Answer was the sort of parody that came out after?

SV: Yes almost at the same time, I believe, or shortly after. The Question was Paul Burrows who had run for council and didn’t get in, and so I think he wanted to air some ideas going on at the time when the resort had just been incorporated and the name [of the town] changed to Whistler. The Answer was more, your local squatters community looking at [issues.] The Question was stapled in the corner and…

BB: …an official looking thing, right? [Laughs]

SV: Well not very official. So The Answer was done by Charlie Doyle, Robin Blechman and others joined in along the way. But they created it out of the squatters cabin. People living just out in the woods…

BB: Is that the picture of the cabin in the book with the people on the roof?

SV: That was right near the [current] village [site]. Charlie’s was down right near the Olympic Athletes Village is now, down in Function Junction by the Chekamus River. It was an old trapper’s cabin, actually. And so they lettered The Whistler Answer. It was much more irreverent and kind of poking fun at the establishment. Not in an aggressive way, but just in an intelligent and humorous way, for the most part. But it was all hand written in beautiful script by Robin and it looked really good. They received lots of advertising. It was actually quite a professional little publication that had its day.

BB: Right, and then when did he Pique come out?

SV: In I think ’94 or just before that. The Answer was around for a few years the first time. Then they brought it out again around 1990 for a couple of years again and that’s where I first had writing published. It was there and it was Charlie and Bob "Boscoe" Colebrook was the editor, and he’s a fascinating character as well.

BB: So many interesting stories and people.

SV: Yeah.

BB: OK. What have we got next from literary history? Oh, I wanted to have you read a fun quote from page 124 about Whistler’s wild days and May Day Madness!

SV: So this is the long weekend in May where it was the turnover of the season, so almost like a farming community or a pagan ritual. Things would just get kind of out of hand.

The Mayday Madness celebration was another event that fully explored Whistler’s fascination with mayhem and disorder. Occurring on the long weekend in May, it celebrated the end of ski season and the transition into spring and summer. At the center of the festivities was The Great Snow, Earth and Water Race (a somewhat unruly event in itself), but apart from that one organized activity, it was basically a time to party and revel in drunken wildness. I remember sitting on the roof of the old Christiana Inn along with a couple hundred other people while the Cement City Cowboys played naked on the patio prior to the belly flop contest and completely politically incorrect Wet T-shirt Contest. Needless to say it left quite an impression on my thirteen-year-old self and helped cultivate my healthy appreciation of disorder.

BB: [laughs] There you go. There it is, your “healthy appreciation of disorder.”

SV: Yes you couldn’t help but gain that growing up here, at least in those days. I don’t know if that’s still true?

BB: No it’s true. My husband talks about “the good old days” because he’s been coming up to Whistler since 1968 as well, and he told me that you would go to the [Boot] Pub and someone would invariably stand up on the table and moon everyone and suddenly there’d just be a wall of beer coming at them. It was just absolute craziness and fun.

There’s serious and interesting story in Whistler Features as well called GARRIBALDI’S BARRIER, which I didn’t know about – I knew some of that story. Tell us about that.

SV: Oh yes. That really fascinated me because I remember it happening, I was about 16 when this little town south of Whistler, people I went to school with, they would come up there on the school bus. [It was] a really nice community, some lodges along the Chekamus River and it goes back as far as Alta Lake, Whistler did. In 1980 after Mt. St. Helen’s erupted in Oregon, the government decided that there’s this huge geological formation up there [behind Garibaldi Lake called] the barrier, which is half a mountain left standing [from an eruption] and the other half had tumbled down, and there are big boulders, volcanic boulders, in the area of Garibaldi but that happened in 1855. And so all the corridor the town had sprung up, the railway, the highway, all of it goes through beneath the barrier, but then they decided that they had to get rid of this town.

There were new developments afoot, too. Whistler was growing and one of the big landowners down there, MacDonald is his last name, can’t think of his first name right now, but he was about to develop, I can’t remember how many hundred units and another development, and so it became this fascinating tale – like all over BC – there are stories where towns have been flooded or shut down for this or that reason. Basically the people did not want to leave. But the government was adamant and the developers, of course, were irate about this because some of them had already underway and so there were court cases with all these experts called in [geologists and such]. It was fascinating to research it, because one person’s story would lead to another and the people trying to keep the town down there had put out a publication. So it turned into a two-part series and was good experience in research.

BB: Were you able to come to conclusions?

SV: No. It depends on who you talk to, is what I discovered, because councillors of the day in Whistler thought he [MacDonald] was just off his rocker and he was determined that it was about development being centralized in Whistler and they of course said, “No, it’s nothing to do with that.” But he had all his stories down pat, and it’s just hard to say what went on there. The danger is still there, as much as it was then. It was a beautiful place to live. I had friends down there. So it was just a strange, sad story.

BB: Interesting. Your latest book is a beautiful coffee-table book titled, TOP OF THE PASS published by Harbour Publishing in 2007, which is a beautiful coffee table book with photos by Toshiba Toshi Kawano and Bonny Makarewicz and the essays you write include aspects of Whistler and the surrounding communities in the Sea to Sky Corridor. Tell us how you came about putting that book together?

SV: Yes, I actually sent Whistler Features to Harbour Publishing House, because I had wanted to republish it, I had sold all the copies I’d printed myself. They decided not to do that, but when Howard White, the publisher read that book, he actually just came across it here at the book store and picked up a copy, and then I had met him up here at Citta’s after a literary event, and then when I phoned the following week, he said, “Oh yes, I just read your book, and I really enjoyed it, and we don’t want to republish but have you thought of doing something else?” They had done a series of those, sort of coffee table books, tourist guides and historic accounts of different regions in BC, the Sunshine Coast, the Tofino area, Bella Coola and various places. And so it went on from there.

BB:And how's it been selling?

SV: Good, really good. It's been out for, I think a year to the day, actually [Dec 6, 2008] or tomorrow, would be a year. Those kind of books have a lot of outlets. Locals really enjoy it. Tourists of course, to give them a sense of this place and learn a bit more about it and have the pictorial essay as well. What I really like too is that a lot of young people who are here for a season send a copy home to their folks to say, "This is why I'm here and I'm not at home with you guys."

BB: Oh that's great. I know you take a table at the Farmer's Market each summer. You must enjoy connecting with your readership.

SV:Yes, it was really fun. Well, locals again. You get to see everyone on Sundays at the market in the village. And then to be able to sell the book directly to people who are taking it home to Mexico City, Venezuela, France, Hungary.

BB: It's incredible. The world really does come here. It's so unique.

SV: Yes. That's what I love about living here.

BB: So Stephen, what do you strive for in your writing? I know you're working on a third project, and I am interested to hear about that.

SV: Yes. This is leftover material - well, not really. I shouldn't present it like that. It started with the fact that I had a lot more material than I could fit into Top of the Pass and Howard White, again offered me to run on a bit longer and delve into stories about some of the interesting characters. And I am telling it through the lens of myself growing up.

BB: So it's a memoir, told in the first person?

SV:Yes it is a bit memoir-esque. But then I just use that to go into other people's stories quite often. Whistler Valley of Quirks and Characters is the working title. So that's where my brain is wrapped up right now, and all the stories of getting to know this place and all the people. It's really fascinating how the stories kind of inter-weave. There's a real web of life here. I focused on the valley because people always talk about "mountain culture" and the sporting aspect that goes on up there [points]. But I find a lot of the really interesting stuff goes on right here at the end of the day. That's where a lot of the rich stories lie. I think. BB: This is fantastic. I think I've covered just about everything I wanted to ask you. [laughs]

SV:I've enjoyed it very much too. Thanks Paula.



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