The North Shore's pioneer skiers are hosting a final reunion

The mountains weren’t exactly calling, but they could hardly be avoided.

 “From wherever you live in Vancouver you’re bound to see this weird set of humps across the forest on the north side of your city,” muses Iola Knight, who as a young “Prairie chicken” moved to B.C. and effortlessly fell in love with its snow-capped mountains, dense forests and seemingly limitless opportunities for outdoor recreation.

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“I developed a very strong interest in mountains – in climbing, mountaineering, trekking, skiing,” Knight tells the North Shore News, from her home in Brunswick Beach near Lions Bay. “I learned to ski in Revelstoke when I was up there on a trip and I just continued on the local mountains.”

The first time Knight set foot on the North Shore mountains was in December 1941, “just after Pearl Harbour,” she notes, when one day during the Christmas holidays she ascended Hollyburn alongside a group of friends from school.  

Knight soon became smitten with skiing in particular, a passion she continued to exercise well up to her 90s, she says, adding that these days she remains an avid swimmer. But even though she doesn’t exactly hit the slopes anymore, her real infatuation has always been with the peaks themselves. “I really fell in love with the mountains,” she says.

Knight will be once again sharing her passion for the mountains and outdoor recreation at another iteration of the North Shore Pioneer Skiers Reunion on Wednesday.

Since at least the early ’90s, spearheaded by the likes of pioneer skiers such as Bud and Naomi McInnes, those who had established and enjoyed the cabin communities that once thrived on North Shore mountains have met every September in order to swap stories and photographs, relive memories, and commemorate their roles in helping to establish the North Shore as the outdoor destination it remains today.

WV woman continues to forge ahead
Iola Knight holds up a treasured photo of herself and fellow skier Frances Vajda on Grouse Mountain in the spring of 1946 - file photo Cindy Goodman, North Shore News

Alex Douglas wasn’t there for the early heyday of North Shore cabining and skiing which took off in the ’30s, but he’s been there for much of the time spent documenting it. A longtime ski operator and rentals manager on Mt. Seymour, Douglas helped take over organizing and hosting the North Shore Pioneer Skiers Reunion decades ago.

Douglas, who also runs the Mt. Seymour History Project, trades off hosting duties every other year with Don Grant of the Hollyburn Heritage Society. Together, the pair have accumulated decades of historical photos and artifacts that show people enjoying the hundreds of wood cabins that once dotted areas spanning Hollyburn and Cypress, Grouse and  Seymour, and beyond.

“I’ve got about 30 file boxes of newsletters, photographs, old ski catalogues, things like that,” says Douglas. “I had been a collector all my life – I had stamp collections and badge collections and things like that, so I guess it’s just in my nature.”

Fascinated by the mindset of those early pioneer skiers who “just threw a pack on their back and started hiking,” Douglas, along with Grant and others, have endeavoured to save as much history and connect as many people as possible from that period of time.

For two decades, Douglas has lived in one of the only remaining cabins on Mt. Seymour in order to accomplish his duties for the ski resort. It’s provided ample opportunity for him to discover and catalogue plenty of precious ephemera from that time as he’s explored the surrounding area.

“There’s old fire extinguishers from the 1930s, which are hand-pumped; there’s lots of dishes and pots and pans; but mostly it’s old maps – because of course a map tells you so much – maps before the road was even put in,” says Douglas.

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Alex Douglas holds a picture of Ole Johansen, Mt. Seymour's first park ranger who built the cabin where Douglas now resides as a ski operator and manager. Douglas is hosting the final iteration of the North Shore Pioneer Skiers Reunion next week - photo Paul McGrath, North Shore News

It’s with some trepidation and some relief that both Douglas and Knight announce that Wednesday's North Shore Pioneer Skiers Reunion will be the last one, at least for the time being.

After 45 years working on the slopes, Douglas will be retiring from the ski hill after this season, along with his role helping to organize the reunion. “Back in ’94 when I helped take it over … we could get upwards of 200 people out to the reunions. The last couple of years we’ve been down to about 30,” he says. “That’s just the reality of time.”

Knight concurs. “I feel in some ways, as the saying goes, it’s run its course.”

As the final reunion gets underway there’ll be plenty of reminiscing and lots of stories – about times spent hitting the powder after perfect snowfall, or moments spent idling away by the fire. Mainly, there’s been many friendships made, preserved and rediscovered during the reunions over the years, explains Douglas.

“It’s not so much about me,” he says. “I’m the winner at the reunion because I get to meet these people every year and hear their stories. That’s why I do it.”

As Knight reflects on the first time she stayed in one of those long-gone cabins near Cypress, she’s adamant that after getting that initial taste of those snowy peaks sometime in the early ’40s, it gave her the confidence she needed to really explore her own rugged and beautiful backyard – and make some lasting memories in the process.

“I wanted to do more,” she says, “and I did.”

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