As the small town of Whistler, British Columbia, has welcomed a deluge of visitors for the 2010 Winter Olympics — wrapping up this weekend — and anticipates crowds for the Paralympics in just a few weeks, a snowboarding rabbi is trying his utmost to organize and mobilize a permanent Jewish community in this alpine village.
New York City native Chaim Shapiro, 27, moved to British Columbia two years ago, and he and his wife were keen on creating a vibrant Jewish center in Whistler, a two-hour drive from their home in Vancouver.
"We decided it would be a unique and challenging experience," says Shapiro, who estimates that as many as 70,000 Jewish tourists descend on Whistler each year. He's organized après-ski prayers, Shabbatons, a mobile sukkah on the back of a truck, Chanukah parties and Rosh Hashanah services. Last Chanukah, after the Whistler Municipality declared that no public religious displays were allowed, he persuaded some 25 hotels and stores to display menorahs in their windows.
He also helped arrange for the local grocery stores to start carrying Shabbat candles, challot and kosher food. Today, you can even buy kosher wine at the local liquor store.
Shapiro's dream is to buy a sizable house where Jewish visitors can be hosted, services can be held, meals can be catered, and he, Leah and their two children can reside — but that reality remains $2.3 million away.
"Our timing is great because the whole world is talking about the Whistler Olympics," he says optimistically. "Our plan is to make Whistler a place where the Jewish world will come, too."
Although, It's Not for Everyone …
The Jewish world is coming, but not everyone is ready to hop on a snowboard or don skis. My first ski lesson, some 13 years ago, saw me clinging to my ski instructor on a Banff bunny hill for kids and beginners, sinking my nails into his sleeve lest he try to escape.
His parting words are memorable to this day. "In all my years of teaching skiing, I've never seen anyone as afraid as you," he said flatly. That was it. I headed to the warmth of the clubhouse, removed those skis and never ventured back.
But after years of listening longingly to the stories of powdery snow and perfect conditions from skiers just back from the runs, I determined that there must be another way to experience the majesty of the mountains. I headed to Whistler recently to find out, and discovered that the answer was a resounding yes. Other options abound — many of them a whole lot safer than skiing and snowboarding.
Take snow-tubing, for example. With no skill or equipment required, the only prerequisite is that you can get your bum into the middle of an inflated tube and hold on. Gravity takes care of the rest.
At Whistler's Coca Cola Tube Park, which opened in 2006, you pick up your tube and board an escalator-like contraption that escorts you to the tubing summit. Here, you sit down and with a brisk shove from an attendant, you're off, hurtling down the slope at phenomenal speed — with no prospect of injury.
For a more serene glide down the mountainside alongside skiers and snowboarders, you can't beat the Sno-Limo for comfort, ingenuity and convenience. Just two years old, it's like a ski stroller for adults.
Strapped securely into a seat on skis, passengers are escorted down the slopes by their limo driver — an experienced skier who knows precisely how to maneuver the contraption in order to control its speed, angle and the smoothness of its commute.
The day I boarded, snow flurries were everywhere, a thick fog covering the mountains in a ghostly mist.
Still, Whistler Mountain was magnificent, and I relaxed beneath a warm blanket in the limo chair, enthralled by the speed, the proud evergreens, their branches heavy with pure white snow, and the remarkable agility of the many skiers we passed.
Trusting entirely in the skill of my chauffeur-driver, there was nothing for me to do but appreciate the scenery. And in a place like Whistler, that's not hard to do.
"We invented the Sno-Limo as a way to get our mom on the slopes, so she could see how well her grandkids were skiing," explains co-owner Guy Auger. "Research shows that at least 15 percent of visitors to Whistler don't ski. With Sno-Limo, these individuals can participate in on-slope, on-snow activities without learning any new skills."
A Better Way to Go Forth?
Some of the very best ways to travel through the snow are those that have been around the longest, like dog-sledding. Though not typically available in relatively warm climates like Whistler, local entrepreneur Bob Fawcett decided to give visitors a chance to experience this ancient form of transportation.
He opened Whistler Dogsledding in 1999 with a team of Alaskan Huskies, a cross-breed of huskies, greyhounds and pointers that function well in the area's relatively warm temperatures. Today, his team of 282 canines is slightly smaller than their Siberian husky counterparts, but just as eager to run.
While my 8-year-old and I cuddled up in the sled, our team of six dogs — all yelping and jumping with excitement — was harnessed. The driver, known in dogsled terms as a musher, hopped on the back, and with a single whistle, the dogs were off, tearing along a snow-covered path with energy that didn't wane throughout their 14-kilometer journey.
The air was crisp, and once their run began, the barking ceased and the canines focused entirely on the job of pulling their three-person cargo, kicking the snow behind them as they raced along a trail in the Soo Valley, 20 minutes from Whistler.
In the absence of gondolas, ski lifts and trendily dressed skiers, the surroundings were pristine, devoid of any human fingerprint. Mountains soared from the valley, while glacier-fed rivers tumbled over the rocks and lakes still wore their icy winter coats.
We bumped along the trail at terrific speed, and as the chilly breeze added a pink glow to our cold cheeks, I couldn't help but think that this story would trump all the skiers' tales, for one night, anyway.
For more information on Whistler, go to: www.tourismwhistler.com .