This rustic ski cabin community in Vancouver is the last of its kind

“For an acre in West Van,” Ivan Holmes says, leaning in to deliver his well-worn punchline, “we paid $125.” Ivan’s 87-year-old eyes sparkle, waiting for the predictable look of shock. He was only 14 years old when he and his friends made the purchase. As with any conversation in Vancouver these days, we had, within minutes of sitting down together, strayed into the topic of real estate. Around us, about a hundred revellers babble and stomp to the folk rhythms of a live band. Burger baskets and plastic beer cups litter the long, battered tables. We sit in the newly renovated Hollyburn Lodge, part of Cypress Mountain’s Nordic ski area above West Vancouver. Gatherings like this occur every Saturday night through the winter. Our modest surroundings belie the lodge’s role as the beating heart of Hollyburn Ridge’s cabin community, the last of its kind on Vancouver’s North Shore and an integral part of Canadian West Coast ski heritage.

All three of the North Shore ski hills had cabin communities at one time. Over the years the cabins have succumbed to fire, crushing snowpack, tree-fall, and neglect, but perhaps more dooming, to the pressures of residential development. Seymour Mountain had about 300 cabins and now has fewer than a handful. Grouse Mountain had about 100; now there are none. Hollyburn Ridge alone survives in any meaningful way, though it too has diminished from a high of more than 300 cabins to its current 102, plus the communal Hollyburn Lodge. Today, even those aware that the cabins exist are still inevitably surprised by how many lay tucked back in the woods—out of sight and out of mind for anyone but the odd snowshoer or black bear.

About 800 metres in elevation below us and only about 11 km southeast as the raven glides, the city lights of downtown Vancouver are a bright histogram set against a tanker-studded harbour. Though if we stepped out of the lodge into the snow on this February evening, all we would see would be the dark outlines of cedar and hemlock backlit by the floodlights of the cross-country ski track. Any noise is muted in that way peculiar to snowbound landscapes, insulating us from the outside world. We could be anywhere. But we are a half-hour drive from the centre of the largest city in Western Canada and an axe-throw from some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Just down the hill, home listings are predominantly in the $3-to-6-million range, and the closest piece of raw land for sale, a four-acre lot, is north of $25 million. Here, cabins can trade hands for less than the annual property tax on that four-acre parcel. There is a catch, of course: the land underneath most of the cabins is owned by the District of West Vancouver or B.C. Parks, and owners only have a “permit to occupy” that applies to only the cabin and none of the surrounding land. (Permits are transferable and can be sold or passed down.) And the cabins are typically old and rustic, can be reached only by foot, and can’t be altered from their original footprint. But, location, location, location. Where else could one find a bona fide cabin, a piece of history no less, this close to the city?

Back in 1944, when Ivan and six friends—the oldest was only 16—pooled their $125 (about $1,800 in today’s dollars), the area was already a popular ski destination. They were just poor kids from downtown Vancouver, inspired by a YMCA leader who had a cabin there himself. Each weekend, Ivan and his friends would take the streetcar down to catch a ferry to Ambleside. They then ran up the mountain (“ascending 2,600 feet in about 45 minutes”), carrying building materials to their land. Using only hand tools, they built a 28-by-18-foot two-storey log cabin out of yellow cedar logs. It had two stoves and was clad with six-foot-long cedar shakes, pulled from the 4,000 they’d split themselves. For instruction, they took measurements from their neighbour’s cabin.

There are records of cabins and skiing on the North Shore as early as 1895, but it was early-20th-century resource extraction that created access for recreation in the area. Extensive logging of the North Shore may have brutalized the landscape, but it also provided the paths and even the building materials for the first cabin dwellers. And it was logging and mining that attracted the Scandinavians, who brought with them the nascent sport of skiing.

Ski resorts in Canada for a winter weekend escape

After having first built a massive ski jump near Calgary (billed as the “World’s Most Spectacular”), a Swede named Rudolph Verne set out on a trip in 1922 that led him to found Hollyburn, the first lodge and commercial ski operation on the North Shore, one that more than 50 years later would become part of what’s known today as Cypress Mountain ski resort, named for the bowl—“Cypress Bowl”—between three peaks, Black, Strachan, and Hollyburn. Verne and a friend set out from Vancouver on May 17th, the Norwegian national holiday, to explore the wild far shore. Intending to go to Grouse Mountain farther east, they caught the wrong ferry and ended up in West Vancouver. In the 1926–27 Canadian Ski Annual, Verne recounts that visit: “We had discovered a veritable skiers’ paradise, eclipsing anything I had ever seen or imagined.”

Along with skiing, the Scandinavians brought the spirit of community and hospitality that was inextricable from their ski culture. By 1926, hundreds of Vancouverites would make the trek by ferry and bus, then hike for two hours, to ski and dance in the lodge. A typical Saturday might see 300 people. One Friday saw a thousand. On one weekend that a count was made, Hollyburn Ridge had twice as many visitors as Grouse and Seymour combined. A stream of “bug lights,” five-pound jam cans with a candle stuck through the side, could be seen making their way up the mountain at night. Even so, likely no one ever imagined that Cypress would develop into the second-most-visited Nordic ski area in North America and a downhill mountain that would, in futuristic 2010, be a venue for the Winter Olympics (an event that had only just been created in 1924).

It was a long way to trek, and places in the dorm-style lodge were limited, so building a cabin of one’s own was a natural idea. Over the years, all sorts had erected cabins on the mountain: loggers, writers, Depression-era squatters, even a Member of Parliament (Margaret Trudeau’s father had a cabin up there, and local lore has it that Pierre knocked on doors looking for their place).

This ski chalet is straight out of a Christmas movie

As I sit in the Lodge, chatting with Ivan, the band takes a break, and a couple of kids run past, giggling and clambering over each other like puppies. If Ivan Holmes represents Hollyburn Ridge as it was in its early days, the Gitt kids, Wyatt, 8, and Lucas, 10, would be the latest generation of Hollyburn cabin owner. Or, rather, the upcoming generation. True ownership goes to those who swing the hammers and shovel the snow, namely, their mother, Nerissa, and their father, Andy.

The Gitts have swung hammers right here in the lodge. Now owned by the Cypress Mountain ski resort, Hollyburn Lodge last year celebrated its 90th anniversary. Its survival owes much to a 20-year effort by the Hollyburn Heritage Society (HHS) to rally stakeholders to raise the $1.1 million needed to rebuild the lodge and to the fundraising and hands-on construction work by some 30 active members of the Hollyburn Ridge Association (HRA). Originally built as a temporary structure, it was not just a “sloppy assembly of scavenged boards, mismatched windows and rotting foundation,” as one long-time cabin owner describes it on the HHS website, “it was the sense of community and assembly that the Lodge represented.”

The lodge was the centrepiece for many community events, but there was also impromptu visiting, once referred to by Hollyburn locals as “bushwhacking.” “I went out for a walk once and didn’t get back for 24 hours,” says cabin owner Pete Compston, who is helping tonight serving food and still wearing the radio chest harness that tethers him to his job as a manager with Cypress Mountain. He stops more often than not to chat with the burgers’ recipients. He became a cabin owner 20 years ago, and though he considered himself a relative newcomer until recently, his encounters are always in danger of becoming prolonged visits.

Pete has the right temperament for cabin ownership here. Not only does he enjoy contributing to the greater good, he actually enjoys shovelling snow. In the past he’s even carved out banked toboggan runs and sculpted outdoor movie amphitheatres around his meticulously maintained 275 sq. ft. cabin, which is still much the same as it was when it was built in 1947. Shovelling is vital here; cabins can be crushed by heavy loads. In big snowfall years, like the winter of ’98-’99, some weren’t even able to find their cabins, skiing right over them. All part of the Hollyburn experience as far as Pete is concerned. Whistler, this is not.

The Whistler experience wasn’t what the Gitts were seeking when they picked their cabin, a 20-minute drive (plus a 20-minute hike) from their home in West Van. “The kids went to a birthday party at their friend’s cabin in Whistler,” says Nerissa, perched on a bench in the lodge, watching her boys dance. “When they came back, they said that they’d counted seven bathrooms in the place. I told them, ‘That’s not a cabin. What we have is a cabin.’  ” When the Gitts got their Hollyburn place three years ago, it needed serious love. “It looked really bad, but it kind of called out to us,” says Nerissa. It had been abandoned for several years, and squirrels and mice had taken up residence in the few remaining bits of wall insulation. There were holes in the roof, and bush partiers had ripped off anything that could be pried loose and burned it in the stove. Even so, “the location was absolutely incredible, and it had good bones, though it needed more than just a facelift,” says Andy. “I spent two or three months just carting out garbage.” It was that kind of dedication that the District of West Vancouver was looking for when it put out an unprecedented call for bids on some abandoned cabins that were in danger of being culled from the herd. Wanting owners who would be active in maintaining the cabins, the district didn’t necessarily take the highest bids, but instead weighed the written applications. The extended Gitt family have proven themselves up to the task. Nerissa and the kids sledded their couch in through a snowstorm, baffling passing skiers, and, under the ruse of showing them the cabin, they co-opted relatives to help carry in the stove. And despite having joined the community so recently, Andy is now the president of the HRA.

This is where to go cross-country skiing this winter

In 1964, Ivan Holmes ran into a sticky situation when he went out to find that their cabin had been stolen—as in, there was nothing there but the window frames lying on the ground. The valuable cedar logs had proven too attractive, and thieves had carted them away. Typically, if a cabin gets into irreparable shape or burns down, no rebuilding is permitted. It took Ivan four years to get permission to rebuild, saved by the fact that he was still governed by the rules at the time of purchase back in 1944. Their plot was one of the few freehold lots below the District of West Van land. They owned the land, but zoning restrictions now require that three adjacent lots be owned before the owner can build anything new.

Freehold land or not, the ability to put up a cabin so close to the city has had a profound impact on those lucky enough to have had that experience. Another of Ivan’s generation, Richard Andersen, was 16 in 1949 when he built his Hollyburn cabin. Dwight Peretz, the classmate who talked him into the idea, was 18. Richard was athletic (and half-Norwegian), but had a form of ADhD back before it was recognized as such. Dwight was exceptionally bright, doing work for his doctor father, but had a medical condition that affected his balance. This unlikely team got a 99-year permit on a cabin site for $15, and every Friday evening for a summer, hiked up to have coffee with their mentor, Fred Burfield, at the time the private owner of Hollyburn Lodge, who explained what they needed to do that weekend to make their cabin a reality.

The 196 sq. ft. cabin, dubbed the “Alasker Inn,” still stands today, having survived a snow-crushed roof, a falling tree, and the multiple changing of hands. As does Richard and Dwight’s friendship. Until recently, the two octogenarians would still have lunch every week and reminisce about that time. With Dwight’s encouragement and guidance, Richard became a doctor. “Medicine gave me a life,” he says now. “I can’t imagine what my life would have been if it didn’t play out that way.” Dwight himself became a cardiologist, later helping save his friend’s life a second time, literally, when Richard developed a heart condition.

Richard’s not at the lodge this evening. Even with the paved road up the mountain, his legs will no longer carry him the 20 minutes up the trail from the parking lot. But he still cherishes that memory. “It was still the biggest thing we did in our lives,” he says from his West Van condo, “including our careers.” Things have changed since that generation. When Lucas and Wyatt Gitt are a little older, they may not have the opportunity to get the exact same experience as Ivan, Richard, or even their parents, but they will at least have something close.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of Cottage Life.

Featured Video