Who has a richer life: Whistler’s wealthy and worldly or woodworker and dad of one Zeke Helliwell? Depends how you look at it. Photos and words by Colin Wiseman.
It’s a cold, clear afternoon in early January, and Zeke Helliwell is breaking trail through knee-deep snow in his backyard. Coffee in hand, he’s still wearing his snowboard gear: a faded blue coat with a Heaven’s Devils patch and black pants that have seen better days. He’s spent the morning showing me the ins and outs of Whistler Mountain’s Creekside area, hitting little-known pillow lines during a run of high pressure.
Now we’re going to his workshop. Set among multi-million-dollar homes, Little Whistler Lumber (LWL) is based out of an old Whistler relic. It’s a shared shop in one of the first schoolhouses, dating back to a time when Whistler Mountain was just a couple of T-bars up on the glacier and Blackcomb didn’t exist. Knocking snow off his boots, Helliwell drops down a couple of steps through piles of lumber under an open-air roof. Inside there are table saws, planers and antiquated tools placed in half-organized piles. The original chalkboard is still there. Helliwell shows me some of his nicer cuts, lumber sometimes pulled off Blackcomb Mountain, sometimes sourced from down in Squamish, where he lives in a modest one bedroom house with his wife, Kathryn, and their baby girl, Gracey. In the summer, he runs a one-man mill in Blackcomb’s upper parking lot. In the winter, he creates beautiful custom furniture.
He started working for Alta Lake Lumber in 1999, when he first moved to Whistler. His dad, Bo, an architect with deep Whistler roots, introduced him to the owner, Glen Lynskey. Heliwell learned how to mill under the tutelage of Tom Pro, who went on to build many of the classic bike-park trails on Whistler Mountain.
When Lynskey passed away suddenly in 2013, Alta Lake Lumber was dissolved and Heliwell resumed operations under the name Little Whistler Lumber, with the blessing of Lynskey’s’s wife, Heather. In addition to cutting custom timber for homebuilders around the Whistler Valley, he now provides a good portion of the wood for building features at Whistler’s bike park.
Over the past two decades, Helliwell went through the usual paces of living in Whistler, from riding the lifts with a crew of up-and-coming pros for 100-plus days per year when he first arrived to getting burned out on the mountain and taking a few years off. He went from mountain bikes to moto. But he’s crafted a way to stay. Inside the workshop are a few of his creations: live-edge coffee tables, seamless dining slabs hewn from local fir and cedar. The furniture isn’t something he advertises, but it’s something he’s excellent at making.
Just by word of mouth, his custom business has grown big enough to keep him busy during the winter months. But Heliwell is hesitant to take on too much work. After all, he’s got a baby girl to raise. He and Kathryn have a comfortable life. He gets to ride when it snows, hit all those classic lines he and his crew have been finding for two decades. He strikes a balance between work, family and getting his days on snow and dirt when he can, a simple blue-collar existence in a town of polarized wealth. Why change a thing?