“Engage with verve, because autopilot is death,” writes Barbara Bradley Hagerty in Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife. It’s her one-line summary of all the research she did to write this very engaging 464-page book (published in March 2016), and it played over and over in my head as I met with several couples who fall into a unique subcategory of retirees known as “reverse snowbirds:” they’re the ones who head north instead of south, straight for snowy slopes, not sandy beaches or sunny golf courses, when they’re ready to reinvent their lives. Engage with verve. Autopilot is death. You sure can’t ski on autopilot.
Shirley Caraway, 71, went on a college ski trip to Tod Mountain in southern British Columbia when she was a student at Seattle University in the 1960s. An avid skier ever since, she finally returned to the resort, now known as Sun Peaks, more than three decades later, with her husband, Bill Griffith. It was engagement-with-verve at first sight: they bought on impulse and have been spending their winters there for 19 years.
“People who fear retirement have got it all wrong,” maintains Bill, 76. He ran a lawn and garden business for 38 years. Shirley was a family therapist. Their blended family includes seven adult children and seven grandchildren. They’ve never had an interest in heading south for the winter. “That’s not who we are,” Bill says simply. “Skiing in winter keeps you active.”
But living in a small mountain community is about more than skiing. Shirley explains: “Up there, I walk, smell that mountain air, and feel like I’m home.” And, she adds, “It’s a social community. The friendships are important to us.” Shirley describes suburban Kirkland, their off-season hometown, as a “millennial environment” where she feels “invisible.” Not so in Sun Peaks, where everyone, old and young, is active.
Dwight and Terri Reed, of Woodinville, agree. “The first time we went to Sun Peaks we felt really comfortable. We felt like we were home,” says Dwight, 74, a retired Boeing flight test engineer. “It’s a very welcoming community. We haven’t found too many egos there.” Both Dwight and Terri, 59, are not only enthusiastic skiers but active community volunteers, raising money to build a new health center, organizing and timing races, and serving on their condo board. “I don’t sit still very well,” Terri says.
For 11 years, Donna and Tom Kelleran have divided their time between San Juan Island and Sun Peaks. Donna, 61, is an active volunteer with the Sun Peaks adaptive sports program, which offers skiing opportunities for people with a wide range of disabilities. But age, she says, is never viewed as a limitation: “At Sun Peaks, you can’t pull the age card.”
Tom, 76, agrees. “You don’t find old people in Sun Peaks, even if they’re 90.”
You can’t pull the “local card” either, Donna says, because there are very few “old-timers” in a town where nearly everyone is from somewhere else. And that helps to build community: everyone feels like they’re part of creating, and improving, this place they’ve chosen to live in because they love what it has to offer.
Many of Sun Peaks’ property owners come from the Northwestern United States, according to realtor Liz Forster. Most of the rest are Canadian, although there are quite a few from Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Sun Peaks is the second largest ski resort in British Columbia. Nearly everyone who lives there or visits regularly has spent time at the largest, Whistler, and nearly all say they chose Sun Peaks because it is more affordable, more small-town friendly, less crowded, and the snow is powdery and perfect. And right now, the exchange rate is very favorable for U.S. visitors ($1 U.S. = $1.34 Canadian at this writing), though that has fluctuated over the years.
Not everyone who heads north for the winter is obsessed with skiing. Suzie Beringer, 58, is a Bellingham artist and calligrapher whose husband loves to ski. She had never been on skis in her life until 2000.
“I enjoy skiing, but it’s not my passion,” Suzie says. But she thrives on the inspiration Sun Peaks brings to her art, and she has embraced the opportunity to teach, especially in a town where she can walk everywhere, towing her art supplies on a sled.
Her husband, Chuck Beringer, 67, grew up skiing in New England. After college, he moved west “to see the Pacific.” He stopped off in Heavenly Valley, near Lake Tahoe, got a job teaching skiing, and has been a serious skier ever since. Chuck bought a timeshare at Whistler 16 years ago, but over time, realized that what he really loved was the less crowded, less expensive, ski-in, ski-out lifestyle at Sun Peaks, where he and Suzie have lived for half of each year since 2007. At first, he thought Sun Peaks might not be challenging enough, but as he’s gotten to know the mountain, he’s found enough demanding terrain, and friends who want to ski it with him. He also enjoys Sun Peaks’ popular intermediate runs.
The Sun Peaks “snowbirds” acknowledge that their village has become a de facto retirement community. Yes, there are young families, but the over-50 crowd is over-represented — and that has turned out to be an unexpected blessing. Living within walking distance of your friends, popping over for a glass of wine, pitching in when a neighbor needs help after an operation or during an illness — these are the elements of a convivial, communal lifestyle that makes sense for older adults who have in common a love of the snowy winter world and the activities that go with it: not just downhill skiing but cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, skating and even dogsledding.
Not all of us can, or want to, spend half the year in a ski town. But weekend or day-tripping to the Alpine slopes or Nordic/snowshoe trails is easy to do from any of the Northwest’s population centers. You don’t even have to drive: there are the Seattle Ski Shuttle buses, outings and classes sponsored by REI, The Mountaineers, Fiorini Ski School and other outfitters and ski schools. Or check out Ancient Skiers, which sponsors annual group trips for people over 55 to Sun Valley, Idaho.
And the health benefits of winter exercise are real: not only in terms of fitness but also as a way (recommended by the American Psychological Association) to combat seasonal affective disorder. Trading dark, rainy days for the bright white of mountain snow will give you a blast of light stronger than any sunlamp. And chances are it will leave a visible afterglow.
Shirley Caraway’s adult daughter, a frequent skydiver, told her recently that she was her role model for aging.
“I was blown away,” Shirley says. “But I think we are role models,” she adds, explaining that she and Bill are showing their adult children that aging is OK. Nothing to be afraid of. “They don’t think of us as old.”
To Chuck Beringer, it’s “fun” when it’s cold and blowing like crazy. “You’re out in the elements: the beauty, the silence.” He can’t even imagine retiring somewhere sunny and warm.
And that’s the bottom line: you have to “engage with verve” in the beauty of the snowy mountain world so completely that you don’t mind the occasional plunging temperature.
As Donna Kelleran puts it: “When it’s really cold, at Sun Peaks, it is stunningly beautiful. It’s like living in a snow globe. When it’s 20 below, everything crystallizes.”
Ann Hedreen is a writer, filmmaker, and the author of Her Beautiful Brain, winner of a 2016 Next Generation Indie book award. Together, Ann and her husband Rustin Thompson own White Noise Productions and have made more than 150 short films and five feature documentaries, including Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story. Their newest film, set in Peru and inspired by Ann’s great-uncle, is Zona Intangible.