Written by Stéphanie Major
Interview with the Godfather of Freeskiing
Is there any hope for saving our winters? Renowned freeskiier, filmmaker and activist Mike Douglas talks about his vision and answers questions about the future of our planet.
1. You are known as the Godfather of Freeskiing. Can you tell us a bit more about your contribution to the sport, and why it led to this nickname?
I became the spokesperson for this group of freestyle skiers that were trying to change the sport, and I think the only reason why it happened was because I was the oldest of the group. Everytime the media or anyone would come calling, everyone would point at me! And because of that, I did look a little bit like the boss. The first time I heard it was in an ad by Salomon. I didn’t think much of it, but there are a lot of worse nicknames to have!
2. What was so wrong about the “rules” implemented on mogul skiing? Did you feel freeskiing in fact did not need rules at all and needed to be governed by creativity?
We were a group of skiers who grew up with the traditional mogul skiing. It was the closest thing we had to freestyle skiing. But as sports evolve they always become more restricted by rules, and freestyle skiing, at the time when I was involved, went on to become an olympic sport. That changes a sport a lot, and not everyone was happy about it. The rulebook became a lot bigger, you had to make sure everyone was on the same page. You had to be able to show every nation in the world exactly how to win the event. Freestyle skiing became very strict.
As a result, you weren’t allowed to innovate faster than the rulebook. We tried to have some rules changed in the mid 1990s, but that process took two years. Also, at the same time, snowboarding was becoming more popular. And we were looking at these snowboarders, admiring their energy, being jealous of the way they simply didn’t follow any rules, doing crazy tricks. Why couldn’t we, as skiers, do what they were doing? So we tried to do just that, but were met with only roadblocks. We then had no choice but to leave that scene and go out by ourselves. We started doing snowboarding-like tricks on skis, and got a lot of attention, and soon realized we needed to create a ski that would allow us to fulfill the potential of what we were trying to do.
We wanted to innovate as we thought of new tricks, and not wait for this whole bureaucracy to get on board. Then it really took off, and the X-Games came about, which can innovate and change quickly. You can see it when you watch mogul skiers. The way they do their tricks, unfortunately, doesn’t allow for a lot of creativity because they have to perform within a cadre. They are great athletes. But completely different from what goes on at the X Games.
3. You are credited with the invention of the Twin Tip Ski with Salomon. You must get to talk about it all the time, but for the uninitiated, how would you describe the difference it made in the sport?
The traditional equipment was not good enough. We then came up with this Twin Tip ski design, which eventually became the Salomon 1080. But it was a hard sell! People tend to think it made sense, that something like this had always been bound to happen, but Salomon was not convinced in the beginning. We were not well-known, skiing was an old boys club, made up of only old white men who were not really people you went to for change. There are a lot of parallels to be drawn between this former situation and the climate situation we’re facing today. We need people in charge who are willing to see beyond how we’ve always done things, and dare to change.
I almost completely gave up at one point. Most of the ski companies we showed our design to thought we had no idea what we were talking about. That we were crazy and it would never work. But once that ski was released, the sport was never quite the same again.
4. You are very into filmmaking with your production company Switchback Entertainment. What would you say is the most important aspect featured in your movies?
Simple: I want to move my audience, I want to make them feel something. Most of our films are built around sports and the outdoors, they’re adrenaline-charged. But the difference I try to make with my films is mixing these awe-inspiring scenes with an emotional story that moves people.
5. Is there a topic in particular that you dream of covering?
I don’t know if there is a specific topic… I get fired up on interesting stories. I’m a fan of movies and good documentaries. You don’t come across those all the time. Right now I’ve got a film in production that I’m super excited about. It’s about this guy who became the first person to visit all the countries in the world without flying. He thought it was going to take him 4 years, and it ended up taking 10 years!
6. As someone who spends a lot of time in the mountains, particularly in BC, how did you first notice the effects of climate change? Is there more to it than the amount of snow?
I’ve spent my whole ski career training on Horstman Glacier near Whistler. My first season there was in 1989, and back then, the glacier was so massive, you couldn’t imagine that it could ever melt in a lifetime. For almost 15 years, I spent more than 30 days on the glacier in the summer, I was summer skiing almost every day. It was about 8 or 10 years into that time when I started to see some real changes happening with the glacier. That it was starting to melt more each year. There was this rock on the edge of the glacier where I used to put my bag, then all of a sudden it wasn’t on the side of the slope anymore.
At the same time, I was starting to hear more and more about this “global warming” on the news. And so, what scientists were saying about it back then, I could already see with my own eyes. I became really concerned in the late 1990s, and I assumed that at some point, the government would do something about it. I’ve never been much of an activist, so I hadn’t seen myself getting involved at that point.
But as the years went on and the term “climate change” was coined, I became more vocal about it through social media. Then I noticed the group, Protect our Winters, started by snowboarder Jeremy Jones down in the US. Finally there were people like me talking about climate change! I became a fan and a supporter at first. When I finally got to meet them in 2016, they asked me to be an ambassador for them. With a group of others, we then founded Protect our Winters Canada, because let’s face it: the climate issues we could see in the US were happening here as well.
7.How did becoming involved with POW change the way you view the (not always sufficient) efforts made by companies and industries towards a greener future?
The first thing that POW really taught me is how we can accomplish so much more as an organized unit than as individuals. What we’ve really tried to do since the inception of POW is to create a collective voice that has power and can influence policy.
As individuals, there is only so much we can do, and we beat ourselves up to try to be perfect, to recycle better and not drive our cars… but we don’t have much power. We do have chapters in smaller communities that deal with local issues directly, so it can make a difference. However, if we can show up in Ottawa, with a hundred thousand signatures, demanding a radical change in the policies… that’s a different story.
8. Is that what keeps you motivated in the fight towards climate change? What would you say to people who are feeling increased eco-anxiety?
Well, the alternative is despair… So you have to try. As a father, I have to try, I have to use my voice. There is a lot of sadness and anxiety out there, for sure, but when you work together as a group and you organize events and you see results, you feel a little bit of hope and a little bit more power. That’s what we do with POW, and you can feel the energy from people coming together and actively trying to find solutions.
We can’t sugarcoat it anymore. All the stuff the scientists said were going to happen, the fires and the floods… we’re seeing them today. But we have to keep pushing forward. The fossil fuel industry makes billions of dollars a year. With that money they can spread misinformation and influence governments, but we have people, truth and science on our side. It may take longer than we hope, but eventually we will win.
I’d say to people: get out there and enjoy it. Go skiing, hiking, whatever. The worst thing you can do is sit at home and read the news and feel awful about it. Get out there and fight for it, sign that petition when it comes along, and join a group like POW, so that you can feel you’re adding your voice to something that matters.
When we went to Ottawa for the first time as an organization, it really gave me hope. Because for the most part, the politicians, they feel the same way as we do. But they made it very clear to us that they are a reflection of the people. They told us they need the support, they need numbers, so that when they go and suggest changes like removing the subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, they have the people backing it up. That’s exactly what we’re here for, as POW.
9. In all honesty: do you think there’s any hope of saving our winters?
I am convinced that we are going down this road of climate change, and we can’t turn back. We are going to have to ride out the effects of climate change, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and I feel very confident in saying that. That’s scary, for sure! But there is one thing that one of the authors of the last IPCC report said that really stuck with me. He wrote that there is no cliff, there’s no point when we are all fully doomed. Rather, it’s a slope, and we have the power to make it less bad. So if we start using less fossil fuels, more renewable energy, we will be able to make a difference. We can help to slow this thing down and make it better in the long run.
Technology is moving so quickly nowadays. AI is something else beyond comprehension, but it has so much potential to create systems that are much more efficient and can help solve problems. The good news is that we’re not out there searching desperately for solutions, we already know how to do it. It’s the implementation of those new technologies that presents the challenges. But to answer the question, yes, I remain hopeful.
Wanna join POW? Do it at https://www.protectourwinters.ca/