CALLED TO HIGHER GROUND
A. G. M. F. - Fall 2013
Upon the passing of Fred Burfield, my thoughts strayed yet again to Hollyburn Mountain, where this man who embodied its pioneer spirit came to live and work. For several decades, he was the proprietor of a family-owned lodge located at 3000 feet (900 m) beside a small body of water known as First Lake. The fact so many people acquainted with these forested slopes regard him as a true mountain patriarch, speaks volumes about the respect he earned over his lifetime; the central part of which was spent on this regionally historic height-of-land.
Having been raised in West Vancouver, I eventually became a regular on Hollyburn during the late 1950's, when spending time up here meant a great deal to me. Since then, cherished images of these woodlands have repeatedly come to mind, prompting bouts of nostalgia for those eventful days when my friends and I rambled around a summit we referred to as: ‘The Ridge’. Being here was revelatory for me thanks to people I encountered, impressions left by landmarks associated with Hollyburn’s history, and seasonal activities, especially those of wintertime. In short, I was taken with a lifestyle adopted by successive generations of recreationists whose dedication to practical ideals produced a multitude of log cabins interspersed around an established ski camp. A not-to-be-forgotten part of British Columbia’s coastal mountain heritage, Hollyburn holds within its bounds the inimitable charm of a bygone era. Lately, musing about this summit inspired me to jot down details of a period when so much of my adolescence was spent roaming this peaceful place. I entitled the resulting reminiscence: “Youthful Days on Hollyburn Ridge”. (See also "Youthful Days on Hollyburn Mtn – 1960’s (Part 2)"
Painting of "Mildew Manor" by my mother, Rosemary Flower
As for me and my pals, we were four adventurous lads building a cabin (#214 - “Mildew Manor”) just off the old ‘ski-out’ - not ten minutes away from Burfield’s Hollyburn Lodge. Why we opted for spending time on Hollyburn was simple. Being up here allowed us a lot more leeway to gad about on our terms than any other place of which we knew. As callow youths with a yen for weekend escapades, we figured our plans were doable with very little censure since the usual limitations applied to juveniles weren’t strictly enforced ‘up the mountain’. Hollyburn was a laid-back place, free of stringent norms, where individualism prospered, free-spiritedness trumped hidebound conformity, and rules were few and occasionally ignored. Yet, there was never a sense of disorder. If anyone exhibited bearish behaviour or went too far, all it took to straighten things out was a word or two put in their ear by a few level-headed locals. This was the prevailing spirit of the times in which we sought to build our forest hideaway. As this enterprise progressed, the experience gradually instilled in us a deep-seated sense of satisfaction, for we had embarked upon a timeless endeavour, guided as it were by countless generations of other young men who toiled to build a cabin in the woods. In doing so, we’d stumbled upon something less tangible, the virtue of self-reliance; an admirable trait personified by a fellow named Fred Burfield.
The minimal oversight of our cabin-building project stands in stark contrast to the current climate of regulatory exuberance. Despite a haphazard approach, authorities never pestered us to keep them up to date on what we did or when, nor were our juvenile minds challenged with mounds of baffling paperwork. As it stands now, obstinate or unwary cabin owners who once harboured notions of blissful mountaintop oblivion, find dealing with officialdom barely beats coming to in a snowbank wearing nothing but long johns or being dragged foot-first through a dank patch of devil’s club.
As urbanites tired of the city’s restless dramas and obligations to deal with life’s daily dilemmas, retreating to the mountain meant hectic schedules could be put aside for a few days. Up here, life was free and easy, and since no one stood on ceremony, affiliations weren’t dependent on a person’s station in life. Professionals and working stiffs alike donned old clothes and headed for their respective abodes on the mountain; a destination, of which it should be said, had exceedingly humble origins. It all began with a few meandering pathways and a handful of crude shanties. Eventually, a network of trails would link some 300 cabins bearing unique names; each reflecting some aspect of the owner’s character or outlook on life. Factor in this mountain’s traditional outdoor activities, old-fashioned neighbourliness and celebratory night life; what evolved was a vigorous milieu of mountain lovers who still nurture their uncommon way of living on The Ridge. Of those who’ve ventured to Hollyburn, many have returned for the diverse reasons anyone who is drawn to nature and the out-of-doors might advance for seeking solace and purpose in the woods. So it was for the ‘Mildew Manor Boys’, who found a wide-open welcome here.
Perhaps those city dwellers beguiled by the sound of busy streets imagine folks who set their sights on higher ground and rise above the fog are just a wingy bunch of loners who’d rather misemploy their time hunkered down in a forest shack than be charmed by city lights. After all, who in their right mind goes out in the bush to hole up in a dingy old cabin like some demented trapper? Well, Hollyburners do. For they are a rigorous bunch who believe traditions here are worth upholding and don’t mind roughing it a bit. In any given year, a staggering number of obligatory chores torment this beleaguered group. A partial list includes plenty of foot-slogging, brush-clearing, wood-finding, up-keeping, critter-proofing, junk-hauling, pack-bearing, outhouse-tending and snow-shovelling: labours often accompanied by a chainsaw’s asperous drone or the relentless thunk of an axe. Add to that an aching back, skinned shins, wet feet, even a pounding head, and you’ve got forms of exertion resembling work. Not the kind of fun fancied by the faint of heart.
The first person to welcome us into his home on The Ridge and treat us like family wasn’t Mr. Swanson, it was just plain Alex. The forestry official in charge of West Van’s ranger station wasn’t referred to with uneasy deference as Mr. Russell, he was simply Ted, and the folks who ran Hollyburn Lodge didn’t expect to be addressed as Mr. and Mrs. Burfield, they went by Fred and Ev. All these folks were beneficiaries of a rough-hewn nobility originating in the 1920s and ‘30s when old-timers like Oscar Pearson and his contemporaries literally laid the foundations for Hollyburn’s mountain culture. Having discovered the possibilities here, these men of vision seized an opportunity to implement their hereditary version of rugged individualism and community spirit.
I found the pioneering attitude and liberating ambience of Hollyburn Mountain irresistible, for it inspired an authentic mystique: easy to embrace, but difficult to define. Of course, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. After all, just about everybody who came here did so for the same reasons: to get away from the daily grind, pursue a ‘cabin lifestyle’, and partake of late-night merriment. Naturally, the four of us had high expectations. As far as fitting in, all we had to do was exercise a modicum of self-control, demonstrate an actual facility for bushcraft, and do our best to get along. No worries there. Virtually everyone we encountered extended their friendship and trust without caveat or concern. Being citizens of a common weal, bound by the vagaries of nature, “Mildew Manor” became our home in the woods. And, as luck would have it, being close to Hollyburn Lodge meant whenever any of us got fed up eating canned bacon, burned beans, or Dinty Moore stew, we’d head on over to visit Ev and her young daughter, Peggy, at their snack bar.
No doubt about it, food consumed in homey, cheerful surroundings had our grub beat all to heck. While stopping by the lodge became a regular habit of ours, we didn’t necessarily encounter Fred. As a lodge-keeper and man about the mountain, his day to day routine meant he’d be working away somewhere ‘Over There’. The fact is, Fred exhibited an enviable work ethic indicative of a commitment to Hollyburn and his chosen livelihood. It was evident to us right from the get go that this fellow displayed an authentic manfulness, as did the other older guys we had gotten to know. Not only were they at ease in the woods, but each of them possessed knowledge about the lay of the land we had yet to acquire. Being impressionable youngsters, we imagined such traits and insights were worthy of admiration, and of course, Fred’s ability to make a living on and from the mountain impressed us immensely.
Fred was a constant presence on The Ridge by virtue of a line of work he’d chosen to pursue practically every day. First Lake was his front yard and all the cabins surrounding it comprised his neighbourhood. Since he lived and worked here, Fred was either up on “Popfly” ski hill fixing something, making sure the log rental cabins were ready for occupancy or jostling with controls on his John Deere crawler, either hauling supplies or clearing snow. As soon as skiers began arriving, he’d busy himself attending to folks who came to avail themselves of his most important seasonal asset. But even when Fred was out and about, as long as he was in range, there was always a sure-fire way of locating him. It was just a matter of spotting his trademark headgear: a plain, flat cap tipped to one side. This signature item of apparel was just one more feature of the man who endeared himself to us. Whenever we’d bump into Fred, he knew who we were and always had time for a chat. Put simply, Fred wasn’t just our friend; he stood as a man whose outlook on life was, by any measure, worth emulating.
Obviously, much about this mountain has changed since Fred and his family made their home here. Today, strangers happening by on some bright, sunny day might look around the lake unimpressed and opine: “it’s surely scenic enough, but there’s really nothing here, just a deserted looking ranger station and a dilapidated lodge.” But that would sort of miss the point, for there’s more in this particular neck of the woods than eyes alone are able to detect. Since history is largely invisible here, unless they’re diligent history buffs, people unfamiliar with this place probably wonder what older folks like me picture in our minds when referencing Hollyburn’s past. Admittedly, apart from cabins along the trail visible to passers-by, over fifty years of forest regeneration has decidedly altered the landscape and repristinated sites once occupied by some two hundred other woodland abodes.
Despite its changing nature, Hollyburn remains blessed with dominion to beguile. When dewy dawns of Summer herald a perfect day, or when Winter’s mystical mantle of snow settles on crowns of sombre evergreens, this summit’s allure is on display. From the late 1920s until the modern era of machine-groomed ski resorts, anyone enticed by winter sport was hard-pressed to find a better place for skiing by day and making merry by night than the vicinity of Burfield’s Hollyburn Lodge. However, reaching storm-bound cabins here was no easy task after frigid weather left these heights a solemn wintry white. Yet, every weekend saw dim lights piercing the gloom, as hunched figures trudged doggedly upwards through whisper-quiet woods, each hiker’s muffled footfalls ploughing narrow tracks left faint by falling snow.
Nowadays, it’s possible for anyone to acquire a sense of what The Ridge was and is about by logging on to Hollyburn Heritage Society’s website. What a great resource such repositories of memorabilia are for people who never experienced a landscape like Hollyburn in its heyday. Despite the loss of historic infrastructure - some destroyed, some relinquished - this mountain’s heritage survives in the collective imagination of present-day ‘Hollyburners’. While no longer extant for any of us to visit, Hi View Lodge, Westlake Ski Lodge, as well as other historic habitations nonetheless remain an integral part of this mountain’s notable past. Hollyburn Lodge - or Hollyburn Ski Camp, so-named by robust young Swedes who established it here - provided the impetus for expanding this mountain’s unique log cabin community. Though appreciably diminished, the numbers of surviving structures nonetheless represent authentic coastal artifacts worthy of both recognition and preservation.
For those of us who roamed this height-of-land during our youth, extracting from one’s mental labyrinth images of what once existed here remains a ritual pastime. Simply as a form of validation, it’s vital to acknowledge and remember for history’s sake structures crafted by pioneers who gave much of themselves to this placid scene. Even though just one of Hollyburn’s three original lodges remains (two others having been razed by fire decades ago), memories of The Ridge during the apex of its existence linger in the hearts and minds of those old enough to recall an earlier era. Even though significant landmarks central to Hollyburn’s pinnacle of activity have assumed the form of vacant shadows, the cabins, lodges and other missing features remain retrievable by way of personal anecdote and imagery.
That we are blessed by forms of technology enabling us to do what past generations would marvel at, is surely regarded with amazement by anyone inclined to contemplate the past. As previously alluded to, visitors familiar with the HHS website will likely have viewed winter photos of skiers out and about at First Lake or careening down runs over by Westlake Ski Lodge. To study these images of yesteryear is to discern on people’s faces keen expressions of unaffected delight. On Hollyburn and elsewhere, in the days before high-speed chairlifts superseded the simplicity of homegrown rope tows, most people were content with making do. For a decade after the end of World War II, people were still adjusting to peacetime and consequential changes wrought by rapid economic progress. Anticipating new beginnings, fresh bonds of friendship were enthusiastically forged at sites such as local ski hills where people assembled for collective activities. At these unelaborate venues, recreation usually lasted only as long as daylight allowed. Equipped with rudimentary, often vintage gear, skiers traversed enlarged clearings crudely carved out of the forest, thereby enabling folks to enjoy their solitary sport in greater numbers on more challenging terrain. Here, everyone merged into a scattered crowd doing their best to stay upright while veering back and forth on snow-covered tracts of stumpy ground, hemmed in on all sides by the dusky outlines of old growth timber.
Almost every skier on those relatively ungroomed runs came across as a mite awkward or unskilled by today’s standards, yet a certain air of elation permeated the atmosphere, producing with every breath a sense of exhilaration deep down inside. It was a peculiar sort of feeling bound to give a person pause to wonder if such good times would ever come again. Perhaps that’s why folks who skied within the confines of those primal slopes recall with fondness an activity that paradoxically combined the singularity of a solitary pursuit with the fun and fellowship of a collective activity: a pleasurable union difficult to replicate at today’s sprawling ski resorts.
Almost every cherished memory I hold of First Lake attaches to a sylvan scene on Hollyburn’s forested slopes where lay a secluded retreat created in large part by the Burfield family. Once a person gained level ground by hiking a few miles up mountain trails, or by walking a short distance from the chairlift’s upper terminus (*), these sheltered environs felt about as far away from the city’s artificial atmosphere as anyone might wish to be. Without a doubt, were it not for the human touch and indefatigable spirit conferred on this place by folks like Fred and a few notable others, Hollyburn Lodge would be just a lifeless pile of weather-beaten wood ...if in fact it existed at all. (*The Hollyburn Aerial Tramway operated from 1951-1965)
Happily, with every passing year, this venerable old place affects and informs new generations of ridge-top ramblers who have come to appreciate its worth. As the historic name suggests, Hollyburn Ski Camp has, in no small measure, shaped the destiny of this familiar terrain. Almost ninety years’ worth of meaningful memories are woven into the warp and woof of communal interactions involving this grand old lodge. For lifesome mountain folk who understand its charms, this rustic edifice remains a cherished mountain refuge. To echo sentiments expressed so eloquently in Don Grant's film of Hollyburn Lodge: this place imparts to everyone the same welcoming warmth abiding in whatever place feels most to them like home. Herein exists a cheerful sense of embrace echoing countless hours of human sociability witnessed within its walls; the kind of hospitality so characteristic of the Burfield family.
Fred Burfield lived a long and productive life before succumbing to old age in 2013. With his passing, yet another mountain trail recedes despite our wishfulness to waylay the loss of each faithful human presence on this pleasant height-of-land. During his time on The Ridge, Fred endowed this mountain with a lasting legacy of service to others. The Burfield tenure bridged the years between the Nordic founding of Hollyburn Ski Camp and skiing’s contemporary counterpart as encompassed by West Vancouver’s Cypress Bowl.
Henceforth, the Burfield name will remain an integral part of what Hollyburn Ridge and First Lake means to those who appreciate its discrete history. Fred and his family infused these environs with a spirit that continues to animate anyone who in their heart considers this rustic meeting place a second home. Were the lodge a person, one might expect to encounter a wise old character of earthy charm and roguish mien spending his time happily greeting every passerby. As each new generation of hikers and skiers traverse well-beaten trails to reach this delightful dell, they’ll come upon a monument of weathered wood tempting them to reach out and touch a tangible symbol of Hollyburn Mountain’s remarkable past.
As an occasional visitor, whenever I survey the scenery around First Lake, recollections tend to eddy in the corners of my mind, then aging eyes conjure mental images of this long-standing lodge, First Lake, and its surroundings as it was in the yesteryears of my generation. Over there was “Popfly”, a foreshortened incline, where people from all walks of life joined a close-knit company of like-minded enthusiasts. Folks of every age and skill level engaged in a common winter activity, their days happily spent on a modest rise rarely more demanding than a busy, so-called ‘bunny hill’ at modern-day ski resorts. As for several hand-built ski jumps erected for long ago competitions, by my time all but one had vanished. The remaining structure - Jack Pratt Memorial - was teetering: well beyond repair. There was no denying signs our mountain’s diminution could be discerned by those who were prepared to see them, yet it was still a time when few people consciously considered the eventuality of change - that instinctively regrettable fact belatedly realized - that has since transformed the vicinity around the lodge.
But, all would not be lost. The good news for skiers - especially stalwart Nordic types - continues to be the existence of an elongated course over which robust aficionados of the sport still race; a downhill track little changed from those salubrious wintry days of the 1930s. After a stiff trek through fresh snow to Hollyburn’s crest, the skilful commence a long, invigorating run back to the lodge on routes still bearing historic names like ‘Romstad’ and ‘Mobraaten’...and let’s not overlook a certain trail just west of Hollyburn Lodge named ‘Burfield’.
Just south of “Popfly”, where in Winter it cut across the upper end of a frozen, snow-covered First Lake, exist sites where ski club cabins once stood; each perched precariously on a slope overlooking this unseen sliver of water. Many memories linger here. Whether sitting on a porch gazing westwards towards the skyline or assembled inside next to a cobblestone fireplace boisterously celebrating Christmas or New Years, who could have asked for more of a woodland retreat? On that score, there were likely late night wingdings held in those cabins on any given weekend. And is there any doubt that a few meandering locals would happen by on these occasions, eager to accept a measure of cheer from newfound friends?
Just south of those structures stood a latter-day ‘A-frame’ owned by the YMCA. It’s likely many a young lad spent his first overnight adventure bunking in that facility. I, myself, must admit to such dubious undertakings; once over on Grouse Mountain, and another time on a wintry weekend down at Westlake in a cabin then called Blue Gentian Lodge. Named after a nearby lake, this appellation evokes thoughts of birdsong, sunlight and gentle breezes, but in this instance, only served to disguise the dim, dispiriting mood within. Being cold, hungry and disconsolate practically the whole time didn’t fill me with an insatiable desire for roughing it in what seemed like an inhospitable wilderness. However, despite my misgivings about mountain life in general and those misadventures in particular - with their frigid nights and crappy food - I was left thinking perhaps yours truly was better off organizing life according to my particular needs. This, rather than letting a bunch of bungling adults unable to relate to what they were meant to be doing ruin it for me. Obviously I wasn’t put me off The Ridge for very long. In fact, it was only a short while before I realized that if given a choice as to how it was approached, this height-of-land could actually turn out to be an enjoyable retreat. On that basis, a landscape heretofore seen as grim assumed a more appealing aspect, and environs that once left me feeling apprehensive became an indelible part of who I thought I was when away from day to day life down the mountain. As I saw it, being up on Hollyburn represented the ‘best of both worlds’. Roaming around The Ridge combined the romance of real adventure free of inordinate adult supervision with the benefits of socializing with amiable grown-ups who occasionally invited a certain lanky adolescent to join their festive camaraderie.
Attending a boisterous backwoods bash on Saturday night was oftentimes the highlight of my week. Roaring on to the wee small hours in cozy cabins bearing names like Sky Tavern, Staggering Arms and Hangover Hut, these captivating affairs - suffused as they were in wood-smoke, cheap wine, warm beer, and the hissing glow of white gas lanterns - were rousing events I’ll likely never witness again. Since party cabins were usually packed with older folks eager to live it up, I’d withdraw to an inconspicuous spot - Old Chum rollie and Carlsberg ‘stubby’ in hand - while cut-ups in the crowd regaled each gathering with ribald jokes and jollity. Typically, these revelous soirées became an education in and of themselves, since there was always stuff going on I didn’t quite twig to. Sometimes I felt like a 1960's version of Candide: a tad slow on the uptake when it came to discerning the whys and wherefores of what it all meant. And, being that my ‘aha! moments’ were about as rare as snowstorms in July, I wasn’t exactly zipping along the learning curve of life.
Despite this dearth of acumen, any feelings of disquietude were quickly sloughed off since life’s restorative diversions came easily ‘up the mountain’. During summertime, that meant hoofing it along dry trails on sunshiny days. After a few strenuous hours of hiking or working up a sweat at our cabin site, there was no better way to cool off than swimming in fresh mountain water. Down by the lake stood a wooden tower with two diving boards. It was to this spot my pals and I would go to enjoy splashing about. Now, it must be said First Lake assumed an opaque hue best described as looking like well-steeped tea, thereby obscuring the bottom. Plunging in was always a tenuous act. Then, while wading back to shore with ooze squeezing between my toes, I couldn’t help wondering what microscopic organisms were wriggling around in that muck. Oh, by the way, if anyone recovers a cheap wallet with an old, blue five-dollar bill tucked inside, it’s definitely mine.
Tony, Bob, & John at First Lake, August 11, 1963
Immediately west of First Lake, adjacent to the Main Trail between the ranger station and Hollyburn Ski Camp, stood some ‘dorms’ or ‘bunk-houses’. For folks who planned to remain on the mountain over Saturday night, but didn’t know anyone with a cabin in which they could crash, rustic domiciles awaited. On the north side of the lodge stood more private accommodations. I refer to tiny log cabins once scattered among close-quartered evergreens; a source of memories originating from a time when those snug, little huts were home to folks who stayed on the mountain for more than one day. I bet Fred Burfield could have recounted a few sly tales about goings-on in those diminutive abodes. Sadly, only one hut remains, and almost every year, other heritage cabins are in danger of returning to the forest from whence they came thanks to deterioration or some weather event as was witnessed in the winter of 2012-13.
Looking back, I wonder if Hollyburn Lodge as it was and is would have endured if Fred Burfield hadn’t persevered over all those years. Would anyone be expressing wistful thoughts and offering heartfelt recognition for his time here if he hadn’t made this site his home for as long as he did? No one knows for sure, but what can be stated as a verifiable truth: we are all blessed by the fact that Fred and his family lent their lives to this place. In doing so, they gifted us, and an unknown number of other people who ventured here, with indelible impressions and matchless memories.
Finally, along with these personal impressions of life on Hollyburn Ridge, I can only reiterate what by now must seem obvious. If there is one name synonymous with Hollyburn Lodge and First Lake, it is that of Burfield. I count it a privilege having known Fred and Evy. They were high hearts on rough ground who infused these woods with goodness and character. For that, those of us who spent time here will be forever grateful. Given the foregoing, I have no doubt their daughter is especially proud of this heritage site and what her family achieved here over all those many decades. Could there be a better proof of lives well spent?
(L-R) Bob Tapp, Gordon Knight, Alex Swanson, Bert Baker, Fred Burfield, Hollyburn Ridge, June 2011
In June 2011, six of Hollyburn Mountain's best known pioneers celebrated the restoration of Fred Burfield's tractor/crawler.
By December 2014, all had been "called to higher ground".