Flight was in his Spirit: The Life of Harry Burfield
First Tracks: The History of Skiing in Revelstroke
First Tracks: Whistler's Early History
May 21, 2014
Review By David A. Rossiter
Students of British Columbia’s past who wish to explore histories of outdoor recreation in the province are faced with a rather thin scholarly literature. A 2011 special issue of BC Studies on park history, edited by Ben Bradley and Jenny Clayton, and Mark Stoddart’s Making Meaning out of Mountains (2012), provide points of entry into a vast and fascinating topic, but leave readers looking for more. While academic attention has not yet been sufficiently stirred to create a wide-ranging scholarly treatment, amateur local historians such as Stephen Vogler (for Whistler) and Francis Mansbridge (for Hollyburn) have stepped in to fill a void and provide detailed and intimate portrayals of places and peoples shaped by the pursuit of recreation in the province’s varied and rugged terrain. Three such works published in 2012 illuminate key aspects of the history of skiing in British Columbia: Marion Ann Burfield’s memorial treatment of her famous father, champion skier Harry Burfield; a history of skiing around Revelstoke published by that city’s Museum and Archives; and Florence Petersen’s detailed account of the peoples and activities at the settlement of Alta Lake prior to its transformation into the resort municipality of Whistler beginning in the 1960s. Although each book focuses on its immediate subject, taken together they suggest common themes around which a more robust academic literature on the history of skiing in British Columbia might be developed.
Marion Ann Burfield’s volume dedicated to her late father Harry details the influence the champion skier had upon the development of the resort landscapes of the ski industry in British Columbia. Born in Revelstoke in 1915 to parents involved with railway operations, Burfield moved around the province several times throughout his life, following first his parents and then later opportunities offered by mountains and snow. In the early 1930s in Nelson, he took up alpine racing and ski-jumping and experienced considerable success at competitions throughout British Columbia and the US Pacific Northwest. Then, for two decades following the Second World War, Burfield and his young family occupied a prominent role in the development of the Hollyburn Ridge area above West Vancouver as owners and operators of the Hollyburn Lodge (now part of Cypress Mountain Resort). By the mid-1960s, the Burfield family had moved to the Kamloops area to participate in the development of skiing at Tod Mountain (now Sun Peaks Resort). Until the time of his accidental death in 1971, Burfield spent all of his energies either on his skis or in efforts to get others outside and sliding on snow. To present this story, Marion Burfield chose a coffee-table-style book, with text captions contextualizing reproduced archival material such as letters, photographs, race results sheets, and newspaper clippings. The overall effect is attractive and accessible, although the heavy reliance on the presentation of primary materials leaves much interpretive responsibility with the reader. A benefit of this style of presentation, however, is that it rewards a close reading, particularly by those with some knowledge of the broader history of skiing in British Columbia. For, while this book is clearly about Harry Burfield, the materials used to tell his story show that his exploits and enterprises intersected with many of the people and places key to this history.
One such place is Revelstoke, Burfield’s birthplace and site of several of his successes on skis. With First Tracks: The History of Skiing in Revelstoke, the Revelstoke Museum and Archives has provided an accessible and attractive overview of a century of skiing in and around the mountain town on the edge of the Columbia River. From Scandinavian immigrants on “Norwegian snowshoes” in the 1890s, through the ski-jumping craze of the 1920s and 1930s, to the rise of alpine skiing in the years following the Second World War, this volume demonstrates that skiing provided a steady recreational outlet for the working class citizens of a town more well-known for its role in the mining and rail industries. It also highlights the role of Revelstoke as a ski destination to which “ski trains” from Vancouver travelled for competitions and other events during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. While its status as a destination faded in the late 1960s, due in part to the rise of Whistler, which provided people in metropolitan Vancouver with an easily accessible mountain resort, local skiers carried on and worked to keep ski operations financed. Interestingly, this volume has been published as Revelstoke has once again become a destination with the opening of the extra-locally-financed Revelstoke Mountain mega-resort.
While Burfield’s biography and the Revelstoke account both deal with the foundational role of skiing in shaping people and place, Florence Petersen’s First Tracks: Whistler’s Early History addresses the half-century of non-ski activity that took place around Alta Lake prior to the formation of the Garibaldi Lift Company and advent of the ski resort of Whistler Mountain in the 1960s. As such, Petersen’s volume explicitly addresses a topic that the first two volumes considered in this review only imply: ski landscapes, and the people who created them, were frequently in some sort of relationship with those involved in natural resource extraction or land development work. The most detailed and least-glossy of the three books, First Tracks begins by meticulously tracing the lives and spaces of the early trappers, miners, loggers, and small-scale farmers who connected the valley around Alta Lake to the settler societies and economies of the Lower Mainland in the first decades of the twentieth century. Petersen then moves on to tell the story of the many fishing resorts opened around the lake and valley from the 1920s through to the 1950s, as well as the arrival of Vancouverites looking for summer “getaway” properties beginning in the 1930s. Through her narrative, then, Petersen exposes the gradual evolution of land use over a half century: a remote valley known mainly by First Nations, prospectors, and trappers in 1900 came increasingly into the orbit of metropolitan Vancouver as transportation links and middle class affluence (among a host of other reasons) drove the early settlement of Alta Lake into the recesses of time and made way for the international destination resort of Whistler.
Whistler might be considered the present apex of the development of skiing in British Columbia. However, beneath that peak lies a lot of bedrock waiting to be exposed. While each book reviewed here has a different subject of immediate focus, taken together they suggest at least three themes that might be pursued by scholars interested in undertaking the excavation. First, Burfield’s story (reinforced by the Revelstoke volume) highlights the interconnected nature of ski development across the province: people, organizations, and events connected disparate and distant places. Second, all three books highlight relationships between urban spaces and ski landscapes: urban connections to sites of skiing are clear in these accounts. Larger towns and cities provided skiers, ideas, materials, or financing. Finally, the histories considered here are largely local and regional in nature; they are stories of development done largely for the benefit of local and regional citizens. However, each of the main ski operations highlighted in these volumes has become strongly international, either in ownership or the make-up of skier visits, as we have moved into the twenty-first century. These common themes demonstrate that the very valuable local histories that have been produced over the last few decades could be drawn together into a scholarly study (or a series of them) that places consideration of recreational land use in the province on equal footing with that of resource industries such as forestry and mining in our efforts to understand the development of society and environment in British Columbia.
Bradley, Ben, and Jenny Clayton, guest editors. 2011. “Provincial Parks.” BC Studies 170.
Mansbridge, Francis. 2008. Hollyburn: The Mountain and the City. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press.
Stoddart, Mark C.J. 2012. Making Meaning out of Mountains: the Political Ecology of Skiing. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Vogler, Stephen. 2009. Only in Whistler: Tales of a Mountain Town. Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing.
Flight was in his Spirit: The Life of Harry Burfield
Marion Ann Burfield
Kamloops: Rikkur Publishing, 2012. 167pp. $29.95 paper
First Tracks: The History of Skiing in Revelstoke
Revelstoke Museum & Archives
Revelstoke: Revelstoke Museum and Archives, 2012. 203pp $45.00 cloth
First Tracks: Whistler’s Early History
Whistler Museum and Archives Society, 2012. 205pp. $20 paper