Meet the Mountain Boys

They're called the "Mountain Boys", and they're bounding down a snowpacked pathway in the Alpine Village: Stewart, nine, in his shirt sleeves, Andy, six, ever-polite as he offers to carry a visitor's camera bag, and Damien, four, bringing up the rear with his snow-leaping talents and urgent sense of curiosity.

Their mother, Sue Walker, follows gracefully in a long, gray skirt and black turtleneck, while father Al Walker greets everyone with hugs and grins-back from a day at his business in town, Walker Technologies Ltd. The Walker boys have grown up on the mountain, with Strathcona Park as their backyard, Mount Washington Alpine Resort as their playground and mother Sue as their social, emotional and intellectual grounding.

The Walkers have been visiting Mount Washington since 1992, when Al and Sue came every other weekend from Victoria to ski. When Sue was pregnant with Stewart she told Al she didn't want to be dragging a high chair and other baby-related gear to rented chalets, so they bought a place.The tri-level chalet was built by Mount Washington founder Henry Norie and has served the family well, says Sue (there are altogether six children in the family: Natalie, 22 and Tyler, 18, both live on their own now, while Harrison, 16, is living with the family this year and commuting every day to G.P. Vanier Secondary School in Courtenay).

Steller's Jays crowd a loaded bird feeder outside the Walkers' dining room window as Damien brings treasures to the large, solid wood table to show a visitor. This time a Rescue Hero, the next a pair of crystals - an amethyst and a quartz, he says proudly. The boys gladly bound downstairs to show off their "school room" - the long wooden counter where their computer terminals are set up, flanked with an organized bookshelf in the rear and Stewart's sleeping area behind a pair of woolen blankets to one side (It's a perfect area for a theatre, to fuel the boys' creativity, says Sue).

In the pantry downstairs Sue has squirreled away enough food to last the family throughout the winter. She learned to can last year, and this year learned to make pickles. When she goes grocery shopping she will spend $2,000 at one time to stock up for winter. "It's like a 7-11 down here," she says, chuckling. "We make use of all the space that we can," she adds, looking around the chalet, natural light flooding the picture windows. "We moved from a five-acre plot and 3,000-square-foot house to a 50-foot-square circle on a strata lot, and it's all vertical. We don't have closets. We don't have dressers for the kids. Things get shoved under the bed in crates," she said.

She's been known to move a wall if it's in her way, and she's always moving furniture around to find the most efficient living space. All this organizing takes work, and Sue prefers to use a spreadsheet to help her. "It's quite challenging," she admits. "Living up here is interesting. You think you need something so you put it on your list and a few days go by...all of a sudden you realize you don't need it anymore, because you made do," she said. "When you live up here (full time) you can't just run into town, especially with these guys - it's a big event."

The Mountain Boys are three of a list of Mount Washington children who are home schooled. They are registered with the North Island Distance Education School (NIDES) in Courtenay, and Sue teaches them every day. The flexibility of the children's programs allows them to start early and end early, meaning they have the entire afternoon to play in their "backyard": Strathcona Park and Mount Washington Alpine Resort.

The whole family can often be seen snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, Al said. "Quite often we'll take time off of school and take our books and art supplies, and sit on a small bridge and have 'art in the park'," Sue said. The boys held their own Terry Fox Run in October, running the three-kilometre loop in Paradise Meadows. They raised $42.
The adult Walkers are involved in mountain life in their own way. Al is chairman of the Mount Washington Community Association. Sue was involved in Strata 799 until earlier this year. The whole family has season passes to the Alpine Resort.

The lifestyle of living year-round on the mountain, while challenging, is rewarding, the Walkers agree. "It's a very happy house," says Sue. It's a dream come true, adds Al. "When I was in my teenage years I visited a ski cabin on Grouse Mountain (in the Lower Mainland). I decided right then that I wanted to live on a mountain," he said. "Plus it's a fantastic opportunity for the boys."