An Interview With Dave Enright
Dave Enright founded Evergreen Outdoor Center in 2000. This interview is from 2002, with photos updated in 2015.
Dave, tell us a bit about yourself.
Well, I might as well start at the beginning. I was born in North Vancouver, BC Canada and grew up in Squamish, halfway between Vancouver and Whistler. I attended Totem Hall pre-school while living in Squamish and was one of only two white kids at the Native school. Needless to say, I was always the cowboy in games of Cowboys & Indians. This might give some clues to those who know me as the person who spontaneously breaks out into drumming and song around a camp fire. It is also where my love for the outdoors began. I started canoeing with my father on the Squamish River, skiing with my mother at Whistler and also horseback riding during those years.
At the age of five we moved back to the North Shore of Vancouver and I graduated from high school there a decade later.
I was very concerned with the state of the world in my teen years, as I still am now. But I was much more active and vocal about it during high school and college. One of my major projects as head of the school environment club was working to stop the logging and proposed building of an 18 hole golf course in an area of old growth forest on Cypress mountain. We did actually stop that. Another project was a school-wide recycling program that spread to all schools in the district and still runs to this day. I also brought in various speakers on ecological topics to the school to increase awareness within the student population.
After a couple of years out studying in Japan and ski patrolling on Blackcomb Mt., Whistler, all my love for the outdoors and outdoor recreation transpired into me studying Outdoor Recreation Management at college. After that, it was back to Whistler to work as patrol and heli-guide in the winter, and canoe, Mt. bike and hiking guide in the green season.
Next it was back to Hakuba, then Niseko, then Minakami (Gunma) before finally settling down in Hakuba and starting COACH – Canadian Outdoor Adventure Club Hakuba. This started as just Avalanche Awareness Courses and snowshoe tours in the winter and mountain bike tours in the summer. I changed the name to Evergreen Outdoor Center after a year and a half, as that name was more in line with the image I wanted to portray. Evergreen has now been operating for just over two and a half years, and is providing Japanese and foreigners alike with great outdoor adventures in the spectacular Japan North Alps year round.
How did you initially become interested in Japan?
I had been interested in Japan since I was a child as we had close family friends that were Japanese-Canadians. I was also fairly well up on European and North American history and wanted to study more about Asian history and culture, something that I really knew very little about. I started taking Japanese in grade 10 after failing French by 2% a year earlier, thinking that Japanese would better my chances for future jobs.
So what finally brought you to Japan?
I always say that failing French in grade 9 was the catalyst that set me on a course to Japan, as I needed a second language to graduate high school and that language was Japanese. I studied Japanese for three years in high school and received an all expenses paid trip to Chiba for a month during the summer vacation on a Lions Club student exchange program when I was 15. That was my first time to Japan.
So once you got to Japan, what next?
The next time I came to Japan I traveled through large parts of the country by train, mountain bike and automobile. I then became an Outdoor Guide in Honshu and Hokkaido – I’ve also been behind the bar, been under the bar (yet to be behind bars, however!) I have also ski patrolled, got married and started my own business!
How was your business initially started?
It started out very small – just me guiding people on snowshoes in the Hakuba mountains and instructing a few avalanche courses while I continued to ski patrol at Hakuba Cortina. I decided to teach people about the danger of avalanches after a tragic accident that saw three New Zealanders die in the Hakuba mountains in a huge slide in 1999 (see this article).
Tell us a bit more about your business/activities
I had worked for lots of other companies guiding and instructing canoeing, mountain biking, river rafting and trekking. All of which gave me the experience that I needed but not the satisfaction, nor the stability that I guess I longed for. (Not that I am any where near stable now!) So, it was a natural progression to continue my winter programs into summer as well. I started by buying six secondhand mountain bikes, made a flyer and began knocking on all the pensions and hotels in Hakuba to drum up business for mountain bike tours, while at the same time continuing to supplement the low income with raft guiding in Minakami (Gunma).
I broke even the first year and fed myself with the veggies my wife Mariko and I had farmed at our house in the mountains of Otari. It was probably one of the best summers of my adult life.
I expanded my activities the second summer to include canoeing, kayaking, mountain bike downhill tours, rock climbing and hiking as well as our now famed Canadian Salmon BBQ. That was when we changed the company name to Evergreen Outdoor Center.
The winter activities were expanded the following winter as I left patrolling behind and went full-time with Evergreen in the winter by adding ski & snowboard instruction, on-resort guiding for foreigners, increased the number of avalanche courses, back country ski/snowboard tours, snowshoe tours and Nordic ski instruction.
What are your thoughts on the Japanese winter sports industry?
Winter sports in Japan have had a shift in the 10 years that I have been involved – away from the glamour sport of the many (during the bubble era) to more of a down-to-earth ski town feel in many of the resorts around the country. You don’t find as many once-a-year glamour skiers as you once did. You know, those people who bought all the latest loud fashions and brand new skis just to buy a two day pass and ski only a handful of runs because they were stuck in 1 hour lineups or just hanging out in the restaurant smoking and drinking beers?!
Well, with the economy the way it is at the moment and a decrease in interest in winter resort skiing and winter sports in Japan in general, these glamour days are fast becoming a fading memory. If anything has replaced the glamour skier it is the glamour boarder. This has happened all over the world as the once renegade and forbidden sideways stance of surfing and skateboarding – brought to the mountains 20 years ago – has become mainstream.
It has only been in the last five years that ski hills in Japan have completely opened up to the sport. Yet once the doors were open it was like opening the floodgates. Jump parks sprang up on every little hill in the country – lots of them without any thought at all to safety or proper maintenance issues. The media and brands jumped on the bandwagon and recreated glamour on the slopes and snow parks across the country. Baggy was in, hiphop fashions on the mountains and in the pipe were hip.
Then another media brainstorm hit the mags and videos – POWDER!!! Powder and mid-winter “Back Country” – and all the gear to go with it – were the next big push.
I love pow. It’s all I have ever skied or wanted to ski. Powder and off-piste are the essence of skiing and snowboarding but there are inherent risks outside of controlled areas. Avanlanches, trees, tree wells, cliffs, creeks and even just getting lost and stuck out there are all hazards to riding off the marked runs. Off-piste riding is the norm in Europe, Canada, New Zealand and South America but has been made taboo at most resorts in Japan for safety and perceived legal reasons.
How are you involved?
I had a bit of a mission years back when I started patrolling in Japan to try and open up these off-piste areas within the resort boundaries. I started at Hakuba Cortina. I couldn’t believe that with the wicked snow and terrain at Cortina, people were not allowed to ride through the well spaced trees between the cat roads.
Over the years I spent lots of time training the Patrol in Beacon and rope rescue while trying to convince the ‘powers that be’ to open up areas of forest for the customers. After three years of hard work and plugging away with new proposals and plans, Cortina finally agreed to try the off piste idea. We called it the “Double Black Diamond Club” and started giving one hour safety lectures to those who wanted to ride the powder in the trees. The patrol would tour the new club members through the DBD area after they had signed a waiver of liability. If they liked it, they would then receive a members card that needed to be presented at the ticket window to receive an arm band before riding the marked off piste areas. It may seem like a lot of hassle, but it kept a check on how many people were riding the trees and if anyone was missing at the end of the day. It also meant you could legally ride the powder in the trees and talk to the patrol about how sick it was. This lasted for two years until the suits in Tokyo put a stop to the controlled fun and made criminals out of us snow junkies. This was my main reason for leaving patrol work in Japan. No matter how hard you try to create a good thing, there is always someone higher up to screw it all up again.
So I left patrolling and started taking people into the backcountry, and also teaching people more about the dangers and pleasures that can be found there. This has been a bit of a personal dilemma for me as I would much rather see people in the controlled off-piste areas of the resorts than in the uncontrolled and unpredictable backcountry. I have selfish and very unselfish reasons for this, but the main reason is that the more people in the backcountry, the more chance there is of deadly accidents.
Even though I am no longer patrolling, I am still soliciting the ski hills to change their policies concerning off-piste skiing. It will not only help their own profitability but – more importantly – the safety of those powder freaks who are either entering uncontrolled areas within resort boundaries or being pushed off the back side into wild terrain and avalanche prone slopes.
I will continue to teach avalanche courses from a basic level through to advanced recreational and professional courses to increase awareness. Hopefully this will decrease or slow down the rate of accidents with the growing number of off-piste riders. Recognizing the growing trend to head out-of-bounds, a few concerned guides, avalanche professionals and patrollers have formed ACT (Avalanche Control Team) to increase awareness of avalanche danger, train other winter rescue outfits such as the fire department and ski patrol, and of course assist with avalanche rescue in Nagano.
But the winter mountains are not all about avalanches and danger – there are many areas that are low angle forested areas that are perfect for more relaxing pursuits such as snowshoeing and Nordic skiing otherwise known as cross country skiing. These are great ways to get away from the crowds and experience the beauty and serenity of the winter forest, whether you are a skier/boarder or new to the winter wonderland. I have many families and couples, Japanese and foreign come for half day and full day adventures on snowshoe and cross country ski. I know they all leave with a smile and hopefully take a piece of that natural beauty home with them. It is definitely a memory that I know families cherish and provides a sense of freedom for people trapped in the cities.
How do you see things evolving?
Well, I see the resorts opening up off-piste areas to their customers and snow parks at resorts being scaled down. The reason for this is future lawsuits from major injuries and fatalities in the parks and an attempt to keep riders in-bounds and buying tickets, rather than going off the back of resorts or not using the resorts at all. The resorts will move away from classic lift and ski operations to more multi-programme facilities. The will be snow rafting, sledding, snow scooters and snow bikes, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, motorized skiing such as heli skiing, cat skiing, etc. Small hills will go out of business or be bought out by bigger resorts, there will be more overseas investment in the Japanese snow industry and more foreigners coming from other Asian countries to ski/board in Japan. I hate to say it but there will also be an increase in accidents in the backcountry and out of bounds areas at resorts – and a high ratio of these will probably be foreigners.
How do you see your activities evolving?
I see myself and Evergreen getting more specialized and private. Working with more groups for longer durations rather than individuals for short periods. I get to know the people in the groups better over a longer period, and the group as a whole gains more from that experience. I think I will be doing less backcountry tours with clients this year and will continue with avalanche instruction to those still looking to increase their own knowledge of the winter mountains – as well as instructing at colleges in Niigata and Hokkaido. I will continue to pursue the possibilities of opening off-piste areas at resorts and training the patrol on how to control and provide rescue in these areas.
I would like to work with children more to introduce them to the wonders of nature and share with them the lessons to be learned outside the conforms of the classroom. I have already started this by providing outdoor education retreats for Japanese and International school groups, and wish to continue with more camp-orientated education for youth. I guess this stems from the fun I had as a child and the lessons I learned from nature with the activities that I did with friends, family and teachers – and my inherent belief that the future rests in the youth. I believe interactive experiences within nature and foreign cultures gives us a better understanding of who we are and why others are the way they are.
I don’t want to sound as if I am preaching, but we should try not to be complacent with the lives we are given and the jobs that we do and if we find ourselves becoming such then it is a time for a change. That change might be a complete overhaul of our lives, or it might be as easy as a trip into the mountains to rediscover our true self and rethink our life journey.
In the Japan Alps,
Evergreen Outdoor Center