Child’s Play

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“Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body. But rather, to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming: WOW, what a ride!”

By Ron Betts in the December 2013 issue

13049_SC_v42_#3_features.inddBob Stowell, a 91-year-old patroller, offers some advice on how to grow old gracefully.

There’s a wooden plaque that hangs on the wall of the guide’s room at Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing. On it there’s a saying that often gets tossed around in one form or another, but not everyone is lucky enough to really understand its maxim. It reads, “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body. But rather, to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming: WOW, what a ride!”

There’s no doubt that Bob Stowell knows this mantra and is already thankful for his ride so far. And he’s still going strong, in fact so strong that his goal is to ski his age every season. That means that this year Bob is gunning for 91 days on skis. How many days did you get in last season?

When asked if he would get there, he replied, “At my age I’m not into long-range planning.” My feeling is that it would be a fool’s errand to bet against him.

Bob was born six days shy of Christmas in 1922, in the skiing hotbed of St. Paul, Minnesota, on the banks of the Mississippi. That same year Toronto won the Stanley Cup and Howard Carter opened King Tut’s tomb. It was also 14 years before the installation of the world’s first chairlift in Sun Valley, Idaho. That gave Bob time to perfect his technique by walking up and sliding down the riverbanks near home. This would have been the mid-’30s. Ski shops were a little hard to come by so you made do with what you had. Bob had barrel staves for skis and rubber inner tubes for bindings. Ski boots were whatever footwear you happened to be wearing.

The nearest skiing with a tow rope was in Northern Wisconsin, but the Stowells didn’t get there often. It didn’t matter because those early runs were enough to chart a course that would influence Bob’s life for the better part of 80 years, and still does to this day.

He moved his family to Whitefish, Montana, and eventually the Stowells settled in Prince George, B.C., where, since 1970, Bob has been a volunteer ski patroller with the Canadian Ski Patrol System (CSPS) at Purden Ski Village. The CSPS head office in Ottawa confirmed that Bob is not only the oldest active ski patroller in the country, but also one of the most involved, serving as the zone president for the Pacific North Division. “The CSPS has a minimum age to join; lucky for me they don’t have a maximum age!” joked Bob.

Make no mistake, when Bob Stowell is described as an active ski patroller, that’s exactly what he is. You won’t find him hanging around the patrol hut lecturing younger patrollers about the good old days or how easy they have it now; you’ll find him out on the hill, fixing ropes or snow fences, opening runs, running toboggans and, at the end of the day, he’ll still be there for final sweep. First chair until last lift—that’s how Bob rolls.

He has the work ethic common to people from his generation, people who’ve lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War. In fact, the biggest break Bob had from skiing was the four years he spent in the Marine Corps during the war, and the thing he looked forward to during his time in the South Pacific was skiing.

Bob recollected patrolling all weekend at Purden then driving to Valemount to ski with Mike Wiegele, who was operating out of the Sarac Hotel at the time, pre-Blue River. One memory that stood out was of a group of Texans they met on one of their trips. The Texans had the best ski gear money could buy. Bob and his patrol buddies were so embarrassed by their well-worn patrol jackets they turned them inside out, trying to look a bit more fashionable. It didn’t matter in the end because the Patrol boys skied the Texans into the ground and sent them home early. The Purden crew stayed out all day, bad jackets and all.

Bob doesn’t know how many more turns are in the cards, none of us do, and that’s what makes each day special—something that isn’t lost on him. I asked if in all those years he could identify a best day, Bob’s reply was quick and simple: “Some days are better than others, but I’ve never had a bad day skiing.” I asked if he still gets excited in the fall when the air starts to cool down, and he corrected me by saying that after June 21 the days are getting shorter and winter’s on the way. For Bob, there are only two seasons—ski season and waiting for ski season.

Author Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” If that’s true, Bob Stowell is 91 years young and getting younger by the day.

Ron Betts
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