The Smile of Whistler's Soul

Duncan, enjoying one of life's finer things: Rainbow trout

The Smile of Whistler's Soul: A Tribute to Duncan Mackenzie

On December 29, 2011, Whistler and the skiing and mountain biking world lost an amazing person. Duncan MacKenzie—a legendary pro patroller and mountain bike trail rider, racer and builder—died in an avalanche outside Pemberton, B.C. The details of the accident have been thoroughly reported elsewhere; here we choose instead to celebrate Duncan’s life.

“I have your wallet,” said the male voice on the other end of the phone. Shit, Duncan thought to himself. “Uh, thanks?”

“You can pick it up at the police station,” the guy said, then hung up. Duncan didn’t recognize the voice, but he knew who it was. He’d been in the guy’s house the night before—with the guy’s wife. He’d met her at a bar in Whistler, one drink led to another, and next thing he knew he was sitting in the living room of one of the many million-dollar homes in the area. That’s when things got weird. She starts crying, Duncan asks what’s wrong… her marriage was falling apart. Her husband was away on a trip. Shit, he thought.

They stay up late talking, Duncan listening and consoling her. Nothing else happened. In the morning, after more awkward conversation, Duncan headed out and only realized once he got home that he didn’t have his wallet. By the time he got back to the house, she was gone. He scrambled up the deck to a window into the bedroom, and there on the bed was his wallet. Shit.

Did she leave it there on purpose? How was he going to get it back? No doubt there was a serious security system for such a fancy house. He went back home, dejected and also slightly terrified. And then his phone rang…

Or at least, that’s how Duncan recounted the story. More often than not, his tales were a bit taller than reality; the fish were always a bit bigger in hindsight. It never really mattered precisely how true his stories were, though, because he had so much fun telling them. The embellishments weren’t about him; they were for you and your entertainment. And so many of his stories started and ended the same way: him stumbling into something (yes, often for the sake of female interest), but always ending up as the sweet, decent person he was. If I was having a bad day, or was just bored, I’d invite Duncan over for a beer, and say, “Tell me a story.”

So now it’s my turn: this is Duncan’s story.

From Two Planks to Pedals

Duncan moved to Whistler from Langley, B.C. at 19 to become a ski patroller—to live the Whistler life that draws people like him from the suburbs to the mountains. He started out working food service like so many migrants to the resort, picked up volunteer ski patrolling, and quickly ascended to experienced, professional card-holding patroller.

“When he first showed up, he was really only an intermediate skier at best,” says one of Duncan’s closest friends Penny Cameron. But, as would become clear to any and all that knew him, Duncan’s passion and determination were unparalleled. Along with becoming a pro patroller, in a matter of years he was sponsored by Head skis and hucking cliffs and charging big lines in photo shoots. “The funny thing is that he wasn’t the best sponsored skier out there by far,” Cameron recounts. “He wasn’t going as big as most other guys, but he was giving back so much to his sponsors in passion and energy that they just loved him.”

It might have been the powder that brought Duncan to Whistler, but he ended up staying for the dirt.

Another funny thing was, on the way to this powder party… Duncan discovered bikes.

Because the Whistler Bike Park was beginning to attract more riders during the summer around the time that Duncan arrived, he actually got his patrolling start in the bike park. Which means he also started riding the bike park. At six foot two inches with a powerful frame, Duncan quickly became a bomber downhill rider. Biking opened up a whole new aspect of the mountains for him, and he was soon looking outside the park for more riding adventures.

Fellow patroller and trail builder Jerome David recalls one of Duncan’s first crosscountry races in Whistler. “He was on a Specialized Enduro, and he came over to me and [patroller] Chris Del Bosco to ask us what the course was.” It was a weeknight “toonie” race organized by the local trail group WORCA. “We noticed that his seat was barely higher than it would be for riding DH.” Laughing a bit, they told him he might want to raise his seat for the race. With a determined look on his face, he told them it was right where he likes it. “We figured he was pulling our legs a bit, but the presence of enough female riders around led him to roll out of the start with his seat most of the way down.”

As many who know Duncan can attest, he’s not afraid of suffering but he’s also no fool. By the end of the race, his seat was at proper height and he was pounding out the gears. “We probably shouldn’t have told him to raise his seat,” says David, “because it didn’t take long for him to be very difficult to keep up with.”

It also didn’t take long for Duncan to put as much effort and determination into biking as skiing. Around the time he did that first toonie race, Penny Cameron—who patrolled with him in the bike park at the time—invited him on a ride in Squamish. Among the crew that day was Chris Del Bosco and his uncle Dick, and Cameron’s husband, John. They made the climb up to the very top, and at the end of the day after a huge heaping of some of the area’s finest singletrack, Duncan was all smiles and already talking about their next ride. What he didn’t admit to Cameron, until many years later, was that he’d initially been skeptical about joining the ride because it was Del Bosco and “a couple of old guys and a woman.” Despite being new to crosscountry riding, young Duncan had figured that he and Del Bosco would be waiting constantly for the rest of the crew and denied the chance to really “pin it” on the ride. In reality, Duncan got his ass handed to him—most notably by Cameron. He was humbled, but it sparked his interest.

Duncan and Cameron started riding together a great deal outside of their patrol work. A lifelong friendship began to develop between the two. The rides turned into epics, and then trips to the Chilcotins and other multi-day adventures. That led to training together more, and eventually the two started competing in epic events like the TransRockies and B.C. Bike Race. Cameron was also coaching for the Dirt Series, the traveling womens mountain bike skills camp, at the time, and Duncan started tagging along to areas like Park City, Utah to help. They would get up early in the mornings before the camps and go on training rides. And that’s how I met Duncan; I was coaching a Dirt Series camp in Park City in 2009. (One of the first things I did was throw a shoe at his head. We were friends ever since.)

Digging It

In typical Duncan fashion, participating in just one element of the sport wasn’t enough for very long. While working as a bike patroller, he started forming opinions about how trails should be built—things to tweak here, ways to make the tech sections more fun there, how to smooth out the flow. With permission from then-Bike Park Manager Tom “Pro” Prochazka, Duncan started working on trails in the park on his downtime. If you’ve ridden Devil’s Club, among others, you have Duncan to thank. While he likely didn’t know it at the time, this was a pivotal time in his life. Like many in Whistler, Duncan came for the snow, but he stayed for the dirt.

By 2007, Duncan started talking about building his own trails and creating a business to do so. Gravity Logic, a trail building company started by a core set of early Whistler builders like Tom Pro and Dave Kelley, was branching out across B.C. (and other countries), and Duncan picked up contract jobs with them. In 2008, he started D-Mac Trails and landed jobs of his own. By 2011, he could name entire trails he’d built across British Columbia in locations like Quinalt, Burns Lake, New Brunswick, Squamish, Pemberton and the Callaghan Valley. He’d even helped put in a few lines in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Bellingham, Wash.

Through it all, Duncan’s work ethic was his shining quality. “He was a super hard worker,” recalls Tom Pro. “You never heard him complain.” From ski patrolling to trail building, Duncan didn’t shy away from the hardest, nor the shittiest jobs. He’d take the mundane sweep runs or spend all day just moving rocks and cutting roots; he did it all with a smile.

Photo by Trenna MacLeod

Yes, Duncan’s smile. Everything and anything made Duncan laugh and grin. He was the Cheshire Cat of Whistler, the most legendary smile in the village. It was the first thing people noticed when they met him. Guys found him easygoing and friendly, and women, well, there’s no getting around the fact that the ladies loved Duncan.

My own husband, Eric, was a bit incredulous when he first met Duncan. “Originally, I thought this big, handsome dude was trying to sleep with my wife!” Eventually he realized that, yes, Duncan was a huge flirt, but he was also “one of the nicest, most genuine people I’ve ever known.”

Both magnets for fun-loving people who have an eye for building ridiculously awesome trails, Duncan and Eric fast became friends and fellow trail builders. They’d often burn the midnight oil discussing trail projects in the works, and dream projects to come.

Getting Down to Business Time

Duncan had another as yet unrealized dream, and he put his legendary resolve and passion behind it in full force in 2010. There is no doubt that he had a bit of a rep as a ladies man, though I always felt that was fueled more by Whistler gossip (and Duncan’s own tall tales) than truth. The spring that he was in the midst of working on a secret trail that ended near his house, his last roommate of the many that crammed the place sinced he bought it, moved out. Duncan decided to clean up the digs in hopes of finding someone who might someday be the last roommate he’d ever need.

Soon after, he met a local nurse named Kristi, and I still recall the day he told me about her. They’d been dating for a few months. “It’s pretty serious,” he said. “She moved in with me.” I could tell this was different. They took a dream trip to India, Nepal and Southeast Asia—while a trip like that might end some young relationships, it solidified theirs.

Dating for Duncan had been like riding trails: fun and exciting, but with a clear conclusion each time. This relationship was like building trails: He had to work harder (and no trail is ever truly finished in the eyes of a builder), but he found the results far more satisfying.

Guiding Light

I last saw Duncan in October of 2011, when I was pregnant with my daughter. I’ve since gotten back on the bike and visited Whistler. While there, I rode two trails he built: the renowned Mackenzie River trail in the park, and his long-ago-discovered secret trail called It’s Business Time (christened after the Flight of the Concords’ song). When Duncan passed on December 31, 2011, Business Time lay unfinished. Over the course of 2012, Jerome David routed the final sections and rallied the community to help dial it in. Dropping into it, I was struck by how much of Duncan’s soul was expressed in his building.

The trail starts out with a burst of in-your-face energetic flow. Immediately, you’re hooked as it reels you in with its lively personality, like the first time you experience Duncan’s smile. Then, you reach the technical sections: intimidating for their boldness, though not off-putting, they route next to huge boulders that hug the trail and encourage you to keep going, enjoying the challenge. Finally, you start the climb. David calls it “punchy.” I call it so f@$&%! steep only Duncan could clean it. Hard work was ultimately his thing.

The trail tells the story of its celebrated storyteller. And by guiding riders through Duncan’s glorious Whistler backyard—it will do so for years to come.