By James Snell
Seventy-year-old Dave O’Haire, capped in a felt hat with feathers, walks down a side-street in downtown Fernie B.C. He looks up through a tangle of electric cables and transformers to the mountains on the west side of Elk Valley.
“The great thing about Fernie is, whether you walk down a street or an avenue, or an alley, there’s always a view,” he says. “If you go to resort towns, you don’t see anything. In Whistler, you’ve gotta take a chairlift to see the mountains.”
O’Haire shares his story from a desk in the public library – his blue fishing vest illuminated by the afternoon sun. He has the eyes of a young man, even though he almost lost one while forking manure with his brother on the family homestead. O’Haire seems stuck in the sweet spot, somewhere between youth and old age.
Fernie’s original ski bum was raised in the bush country of New Brunswick, where his parents operated a network of fishing and hunting lodges, one of which was visited by Marilyn Monroe – at least that’s the legend.
“You had to book six years in advance just to get in,” he says.
O’Haire’s journey to Fernie, where he’s worked as a miner, logger, ski hill mechanic, ski instructor, and city councillor, was either destiny, or the upside of chance. It all began when a Canadian Air Force Chinook helicopter containing ski hill clearing equipment landed next to his father’s workshop.
“It was a great-big, double-bladed, ginormous-Jesus helicopter. Everybody could see it.”
Already a mechanic and labourer at age 12, O’Haire climbed aboard the machine. With the endorsement of his father, and an officer named Richard Kerr, he and his brother were whisked away to a nearby ski development where they were put to work picking rocks, clearing brush, and building a rope tow.
“By the time I was 16, I had the keys to the motor shed and could run the lifts,” he said. “I’d hitchhike to the hill on the weekend and be the first person there.”
Around the time of the Vietnam War, O’Haire’s family packed into a truck and moved to Livingston Montana. His charmed life was replaced by discrimination.
“They were going around emptying the small towns of people… for the war,” he lamented. “I was going around trying to find jobs, and the answer was, ‘Why would I give you a job, when all our people are gone. You’re not even from here. You just moved here. You must have money.’”
In the summer of 1968, carrying only $20, O’Haire returned to Canada.
“It’s a long walk from downtown Livingston – four miles – to the freeway,” he explains. “So late at night, I walked down to the freeway. I stood in the dark for hours. Sometime in the middle of the night I got picked up by a long-haul trucker.”
The universe – once again – threw the dice onto the craps table of O’Haire’s life. He ended up teaching skiing and working as a mechanic at Vorlage, a ski hill located in the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa. The next summer he got a job pouring concrete at the University of Lethbridge. He spent his days and nights thinking about winter – he had no problem communicating this to his boss.
“I’d tell the person I was working for ‘Now listen – I didn’t come here to marry you, or stay the rest of my life or whatever. When you see the first flurries of snow – have my severance cheque ready because I’m going skiing.”
O’Haire arrived in Fernie in the fall of 1970. The beauty of the mountains, ski hill, and people, took up residence in his heart. He has yet to evict them. He began working for “all kinds of people.”
“I had my own photography studio and I worked at the mines and in seismic,” says the avid Facebook user. “I watched Fernie grow from a two company town, to what it is today – and that’s a two-sided coin, because on one side you’re always gonna have the Queen. Some years you may have a buffalo or an oil rig. The Queen of the nickel in Fernie is wanting to be here – to be a part of the tourism industry.”
The tone of O’Haire’s voice changes to that of man speaking of his first love. There’s a slight shake in his hand.
“If you want to do something for yourself, be at the top of Polar peak before sunrise. Get to see the valley, and then, as the sun comes up over those peaks, it has an orange glow. The Alpenglow starts to take over the mountain, and you stand there, and let that cleanse you. That light, you can watch it go right down your pants. It can be so sharp – from shadow to light.”