Editor’s note: Canadian ski school legend Don Bilodeau passed away on July 13th. This article by freelance writer Dorothy Isted is in honour of his life and the tremendous contribution he made to Panorama Mountain Village and the Columbia Valley community.
By Dorothy Isted
Special to The Pioneer
Don Bilodeau ended his days as he had lived them, with honour and concern for the dignity of others. Diagnosed with cancer 18 months earlier, daughter Hannah says her dad “was never a complainer. Always optimistic, could always find the fun or the laughter in anything, even if it was a pretty terrible situation.”
When the worst news arrived, “Stu and I both dropped our jobs and spent the last days at our family cabin at Savary Island [on the Sunshine Coast.] We got him out there and that was the only place he wanted to be, and we stayed there with him. He was overjoyed that his family could be with him and we could be at Savary Island all together.”
A service was held in Fairmont on July 19th, but according to Hannah, “It wasn’t a funeral. It was a celebration of life.” The next day the family hit golf balls up the mountain at the Elkhorn Cabin at Panorama and shot the potato gun there in memory of Don.
Born in Quebec City, Don moved with his family to New England as a toddler where his father secured a job with the Ford Motor Company. Bob Bilodeau had been a professional motorbike racer, careening around speedways at 80 mph on brakeless Indians, Harleys and Triumphs.
“Dad definitely got his love for motorcycles and his love for adventure from my grandfather,” Hannah said. “Because my grandfather was raised in an orphanage, he really tried to give his kids everything he could because he hardly had anything growing up. He was always taking them on little adventures and places… he took my dad skiing for the first time. The kind of stuff that didn’t really happen in Buffalo, New York.”
Don graduated from Alfred State College and University in New York with a degree in business administration and accounting.
“He minored in marketing,” his daughter explained. “That’s definitely why he got his marketing positions later on, for Panorama, RK Heliski, Fairmont Hot Springs Resort.”
Don became passionate about skiing in high school and, by the time he was in his mid-20s, he had worked himself into the position of Director of Skiing at Blue Mountain in Ontario. In 1980, Don became a member of the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance (CSIA) demo team, headed by Andre Schwarz. Heather Ritchie joined the demo team and, after a year of working and skiing together, the couple married in September 1981 and moved west.
Under Schwarz’s direction and collaborating with Martin Olson, Don wrote a technical manual titled Movement and Motion, which revolutionized Canadian skiing.
Andre said, “Don took the time. What we came up with, he put into words,” said Schwarz. “He was always working hard, he never shied from taking on a job whether it paid or not. He always pulled forward, positive thinking, everything was always with a lot of fun. He pulled pranks, as everybody heard at the eulogy. He was witty, smart, a lateral thinker, always an interesting guy to be around. Fabulous guy, I’m sad we lost him.”
While Don ran the ski school in Lake Louise, the family summered in the Columbia Valley. Eventually they decided that was where they wanted to raise their children, and moved to the valley permanently around 1985.
Heather was asked to take over the troubled Panorama ski school and she insisted it that it be an independent school. The Bilodeau School of Skiing and Snowboarding was born and became considered by some the only significant independent ski school in the industry. Meanwhile, Don became Panorama’s VP of Sales and Marketing and later, the General Manager for Fairmont Hot Spring’s resort ski area. Together Don and Heather created a new event in the industry — the Ski Pro Workshops. They were designed to create early season business by bringing in ski instructors for pre-season improvements. It was a unique, twinning passion with technique, which contributed to the huge success of the school.
When asked how employees perceived her father, Hannah said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody describe him as anything but fun, honest, supportive and professional. Even people he had to let go would always stand up and shake his hand and say thank you because he always said to leave people with their dignity.”
Hannah explained a very big highlight for her father, “one of the biggest, proudest accomplishments,” was the fruition of a dream he had even while working on other mountains — an intimate little hut on the mountainside, isolated and secluded. When Panorama was owned by Intrawest, “they absolutely loved the idea,” and so Heather and Don purchased a log cabin in 1997 from the Elkhorn Ranch near Windermere that had been used to accommodate ranch hands.
They moved it to the foot of the Panorama Mountain and then used a D6 bulldozer to tow it up 3,400 vertical feet to where it is now located, near the top of the Champagne Chair on the west side of Roller Coaster Run. Don was all about creating unique experiences for people. The Elkhorn Cabin has been used as a B&B, steak dinners and ski downs by torch or headlights, for weddings and other special events. Sadly, it is no longer in operation, but Hannah thinks it would be her father’s dream for it to continue under the right circumstances.
The Bilodeaus were a closeknit family. Hannah says they were always out on their skis together and never felt the family business took anything away from them. She describes her parents as a tenacious team who worked well together. Though Don was a hardworking and very busy man, he still managed to provide a life for his family that was packed full of love and adventure.
They had a few Volkswagen vans that were always breaking down, Hannah reminisced.
“Once, in the middle of downtown Vancouver, all our suitcases fell out the back… My dad got us into a lot of fun and out of a lot of sticky situations. As a father, he was an amazing provider. He always said he never wanted his children to have debt. He worked really hard doing the ski school, doing real estate, working at Fairmont, [writing for] the ski magazine. He was a real entrepreneur and he was able to put me, my brother and my mother through school. She did her English degree through Athabasca University the same time I was in school.”
Don’s expertise and effort led to his induction into the Canadian Ski Instructors’ Alliance Hall of Fame. In a 2010 Ski Canada magazine article, the Bilodeaus’ efforts were summed up: “This magazine rated it Canada’s best ski school, and an independent U.S. market survey of North America ski resorts picked it as number one in guest service.” But destination resorts were starting to feel financial pressure and Heather and Don could see things changing so decided to leave on a positive note. They wound down the school the same year and moved to Sechelt where they had a blast running a small waterfront hotel.
“They loved it because it was just a fun short project for them,” said Hannah. “It was some nostalgia for dad from days working as the general manager of Fairmont.”
Just before Don received news of his illness, Whistler called her parents and asked if they would run their ski pro workshop.
“That prompted the move to Whistler/Blackcomb,” said Hannah. “They helped organize it the first year, but were only in Whistler for two years.”
Don’s optimistic and caring attitude was always with him. Hannah recalls one poignant moment: “He had suffered several strokes and it was hard for him to stand up and use the right side of his body. He would struggle to his feet out of his wheelchair, look the doctor in the eye and shake his hand with his difficult right hand. The doctor said to me afterwards, ‘Your father is an amazing man.’ ”