by Iain MacMillan, editor, in Fall 2013 issue
Dolan and a bunch of guys bagsied an old schoolhouse (that came with a hippie who lived upstairs) rooted atop the breezy Niagara Escarpment near Collingwood, while my Kingston Pound pooch and I’d settled in with 13 others in an old Victorian farmhouse in Ellicottville, N.Y. Dolan’s “Ice Station Zebra” had a tiki bar in the living room, four subterranean bunk rooms and a chemical toilet. My farmhouse had too many beds to count, heat on the first floor and was stumbling distance from town. Dolan, an old school chum, and I were pontificating the other day about our infamous seasonal rentals in ski country way back when. We’d finished university, found our first jobs, bought our first cars, so the next thing on the list was, logically, a weekend ski place to rent with friends. Over several winters of weekends, in different parts of ski country, we both managed to produce a lifetime of stories.
In one of those many Saturday night “It seemed like a good idea at the time” anecdotes, I fondly remember my buddies Ben and Jeremy (in his favourite Carmen Miranda outfit) tobogganed down the straight-run staircase in our farmhouse aiming for the open front door with Greg not far outside handstand-skateboarding on the highway. Ben and Jeremy didn’t make it across the flats to the threshold, but it didn’t stop several others from attempting the same feat on other weekends.
From his rocking chair that long since relocated with him to B.C.’s Kootenays, a still lucid Dolan one-upped me with one of his favourite stories, the night Ronnie joined Ice Station Zebra.
“It was late one evening when 11 of us were returning from the Captain’s Room in a ’70s Country Estate we called The War Wagon,” recited Dolan like it was the first time I was hearing the story. “We pulled into the drive-through at Mickey Ds, but it was closed, and there, directly ahead of us, was one of those full-size Ronald McDonalds smiling down at us.” Even though I knew what was coming next, I humoured the old man by letting him prattle on. “None of us remembers exactly how it happened, but a few minutes later Ronnie was hanging out the open side door and the metal peg of his broken foot was shootin’ up sparks on Hurontario Street like it was Dominion Day!
“We headed home the back way up past Scenic Caves and onto the escarpment.” I was about to interject with something about the weather and driving conditions, but there was no need. “We had gale force winds at that point and the snow was blinding.” I could faintly hear his rocking chair creak back and forth on the phone as Dolan continued. “We made it about halfway before running ‘asnow’ on the mother of all drifts, but luckily we were marooned near a farmhouse.” I’m surprised, as the decades separate the telling of the story from the happening of it, that a farmer’s daughter hasn’t entered the tale by now, but I do know that a farmer and his tractor did extract the boys from the drift and the weather was bad enough that they all bedded or floored down at the farmer’s.
“Of course, Ronnie was neatly buried before we asked the farmer for help, so extraction the next day was easy. He attended our big New Year’s Eve party and continued to be the centre of attention,” said Dolan, and then without a hint of irony, added, “before some low-lifes stole him.”
While Dolan drifted off, I couldn’t help thinking of a conversation I’d had with another friend Brad, who’s also done the ski cabin thing with friends—but in complete contradiction in his more good than evil kind of arrangement.
In an even earlier era than Dolan and me, Brad grew up skiing on Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver and graduated to Whistler, where he patrolled in the ’60s and ’70s. But it wasn’t until 1984 that he’d settled down in a group home seasonal rental that must surely be record-setting. “It was $500 each the first year,” Brad recalls, which seems cheap compared to this year’s rental of $1,400. But that’s the fascinating part—he’s still renting the same place every winter—30 years later!
Having not missed a single season, Brad’s been in the place the longest, but the group size remains a sporty 16 sharing seven bedrooms with the same landlord since his first winter. They still have dinner together every Saturday night, everyone has a season’s pass and it’s still BYOB policy (bring your own bedding). “What’s changed is the age range,” says Brad, which mirrors the growing ages of skiers everywhere I suppose. “It used to be 20s to 40s in on the cabin, and now it’s 40s to 70s.”
As well, what used to be cold beds from Monday to Friday has changed with the aging of ski country, but also with mobile phones and the internet, work is possible anywhere so why not at Whistler? Another astute observation Brad makes is that “there are no weekend warriors in their 20s…or at least not like there used to be. It was never a party cabin, though. No one tried to burn the place down during the second season.”
At this stage in my life coffee table tobogganing and chemical toilets sound a lot less attractive than good friends, good food and good skiing every winter weekend.
Tags: Ellicottville, Grouse Mountain, New York