Upcoming Events: Feeding the Spirit / The Science & History of Alta Lake

The next couple of weeks are exciting ones here at the museum! We have two events to share, the first of which is happening this evening. Join us tonight for free food and a chance to win stellar prizes from Creekside Market, Prior, Splitz, Whistler Roasting Company, PureBread, and more. Whistler Museum’s annual event, Feeding the Spirit, is a chance for new residents to enjoy some free grub, and mix with long-time locals in an intimate setting.

As part of Welcome Week, the museum, with support from Whistler’s Creekside Market, is aiming to welcome new residents and provide them with a sense of place and community. This event also provides a chance for long-term Whistlerites to recall and share their stories of what originally brought them here and what keeps them in this beautiful playground. Hope to see you there!

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We are also thrilled to announce In Depth & In Writing: The Science & History of Alta Lake, an event you don’t want to miss. Join us for this historical and scientific discussion of environmental change in Alta Lake in the past, present, and future. The event will start at 7:00pm and there will be a cash bar. Free to attend.

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During the summer of 2014 Professor Ian Spooner and graduate student Dewey Dunnington from Acadia University, working with members of Cascade Environmental Resources Group (CERG), conducted some exciting research on Alta Lake. Using a core sampling technique, they collected intact samples of the layers of sediment on the lake bottom to better understand how the lake and its watershed have reacted to both natural and man-made change. This technique is known as paleolimnology. Most studies only look at the way the lake exists now – paleolimnology allows us to study the history of a lake too. Every centimeter of sediment represents about 5 years, so some of the material in these samples is as much as 400 years old!

Alta Lake is an important ecological component of Whistler Valley, and since western settlement of the region, has been an essential resource for residents and visitors alike. It is also historically significant – so much so that the town itself was called “Alta Lake” until 1975.  The history of the lake from a human perspective has been recorded in the pictures and writings of the residents of the valley, many of them kept in the archives of the Whistler Museum.

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While we have watched the lake from its surroundings, the lake has also observed us, recording environmental change through the slow accumulation of material as it washes into the lake, year after year. The sediment from the bottom of Alta Lake allows us to better understand how the lake and its watershed have reacted to both natural and human-made change, and will help us evaluate our management strategies going into the future.

On the evening of Thursday, December 4th, Dewey Dunnington will be presenting his findings to the community at the Whistler Museum. To complement this Executive Director of Whistler Museum, Sarah Drewery, will also be presenting on the history of settlement around Alta Lake.

Suitcase Race Part Two

The suitcase race discussed in last week’s blog post was co-opted by the Pepsi Celebrity Ski Invitational in 1987. The organizer of this event, Bruce Portner, stated in the article Hundreds pull together for publicity event by Larry McCallum, that many celebrity events do not succeed which is why “the two and one half days will have to be packed with eye-catching, unusual activities to appeal both to the celebrities and the media”. Flinging yourself down a ski hill on top of a suitcase certainly fits into that category. CP Air sponsored the suitcase race and the Star dinner event raised $30,000 for helping to immunize children against polio.

Many stars attended this event including Richard Roundtree who played John Shaft in the Shaft movies, and TV series. He also made appearances on shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Heros. Olivia Barash known for her roles in Fame (1987), Out of the Blue (1979), and Patty Hearst (1988) also attended the events.

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Richard Roundtree getting ready for the race. Photograph by Greg Griffith. Griffith Collection. 1988 

The next year (1988), the Pepsi Celebrity Ski Invitational Act II took place in the middle of April. The Black Tie Ball promised “A full Hollywood-style variety show” with Dynasty’s own Emma Samms as host, and performances by Platinum Blonde and Mary Wilson of the Supremes.

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Photograph by Greg Griffith. Griffith Collection. 1988

The Pepsi Celebrity Act III took place on April 13th to the 16th, 1989. On April 13th, 1989 the Whistler Question published an article stating that the goal of this year’s Suitcase Race, which was sponsored by American Airlines, was for two teams of two racers to sit in a suitcase and “speed down the slope above the Solar Coaster quad chair.” The object was not only to be the first across the finish line but also to “make it down the slope without falling out or flipping over the plastic luggage case.”

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Photograph by Greg Griffith. Griffith Collection. 1988

Emma Samms returned to Whistler for the Pepsi Celebrity Ski Invitational of 1989. The proceeds of the weekend were once again donated to the Starlight Foundation,  founded in 1982 by Samms and her cousin Peter Samuelson, which grants wishes to chronically ill children.

The 1989 event boasts stories of Tommy Lee of Motley Crue getting a Ski Esprit instructor to help find gloves that he dropped from the chairlift, as well as Lee nearly taking out the race shack at the bottom of the Orange race course on Whistler Mountain. Another story from the event describes Gil Gerard (who played Buck Rogers in the Buck Rogers TV show) accidentally stabbing Sean Vancour with his ski pole.

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The Whistler Question April 20th, 1989

After Act III had concluded there was a lot of talk about the event not continuing. As far as I can find, from digging through the Whistler Question archive, there were no more Pepsi Celebrity Ski Invitational’s or suitcase races held on Blackcomb Mountain.

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Photograph by Greg Griffith. Griffith Collection. 1988

Suitcase Race (Part One)

For those of us at the Museum who have not worked, or lived, in Whistler for long, it is always great when people who had lived around Alta Lake in the early days drop in and say hello. It is wonderful to get firsthand experiences of Whistler’s history and to take our eyes out of the archives. This is what happened last week when a couple came in to see if the Museum had a book they were looking for. Through our discussion they told me about a suitcase race that was held on Blackcomb Mountain in the 1980s. This peaked my interest, as anyone traveling down a ski hill in a suitcase sounds amazing. I went to the Whistler Library to dig through old copies of The Whistler Question to see what I could find. There was surprisingly little information to be found about what I assumed would be a hilarious event to bring athletics and non-athletics together.

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Photograph by Greg Griffith. Griffith Collection. 1988

 

It seems that the first one took place on March 10th, 1984 and was called the Samsonite Media Celebrity Race. The event description in the Whistler Question went as following:

To be held on Blackcomb Mountain, possibly the downhill of the decade ­– a definite “photo opportunity.” Celebrities and press alike compete on a treacherous two-part course. The course is a downhill designed for racers piloting the latest in Samsonite’s Nagahide bobsled. Only Samsonite could take this beating. Definitely a spectator’s event. Free admission, refreshments available.

My favorite part of this is that there are very little clues as to what is going to take place but that “Only Samsonite could take this beating.” On March 15th, 1984 there is a small mention of how the event went in The Whistler Question’s Notes from All Over section. Stating that the MC of the event, Greg Lee, did a great job announcing the race in both French and English and that Dennis Waddingham’s racing helmet was a good idea.

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Photograph by Greg Griffith. Griffith Collection. 1988

A year later, on March 14th, 1985, an article was published in The Whistler Question about the event now called the Chillers Suitcase Slalom.

Sliding down a mountain on pieces of metal and fiberglass is one thing. But how about doing that in a suitcase? For a slightly different downhill experience, the Chillers Suitcase Slalom on Blackcomb is the prefect solution. Organizers are calling it a soapbox derby on snow. The jury’s still out on what the competitors will call it. The suitcase slalom will take place on a specially prepared 100 m course on Chair 2 Sunday March 31 at 2 p.m. Teams of two with each participant sitting in one half of an open suitcase race head-to-head against another team. Blackcomb provides the suitcases. The race is designed for anyone working for a Whistler business…“It will be the best laugh of the spring,” say organizers.

In the April 4th 1986 The Sports Column by Mike Youds, Youds pokes fun at the National Ski team stating that the team “ought to bypass summer training camps and enlist team members in hotel and restaurant jobs to get them in shape.” He goes on to report that the teams in the hospitality trades performed much better than any profession or trade in the race. “Even the airline industry, with two of the Murray brothers on the team (no on could boast as much air time as these guys have) couldn’t catch up with the likes of the Creek House Canines and the Highland Highballs.”

This event was then co-opted by the Pepsi Celebrity Ski Invitational in 1987, which I will discuss in Part two of the Suitcase Race Blog next week.

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Photograph by Greg Griffith. Griffith Collection. 1988

Big Kids LEGO 2014

On October 16th the museum held its Big Kids LEGO Building Competition. It was an evening full of childlike imagination and adult beverages, as 16 competitors built their best interpretations of the theme “What is Whistler missing?”

Although not all final creations are included in the slideshow below (some were destroyed before we had a chance to snap a picture), everyone did an amazing job. This was our most creative and inspiring year yet! Thanks so much to all our participants and spectators. Until next year!

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Tales of Whistler’s Early Water Supply and Sanitation Facilities

This year I spent thanksgiving with a group of new friends. As tradition goes, we went around the table and said what we were thankful for. This has got to be one of the most beautiful holiday rituals, as the room generally goes from silly and sarcastic to completely genuine as soon as the first person says their thanks. This sincerity and gratefulness got me thinking about Whistler’s early days when there was a bit less to be thankful for in terms of amenities–more specifically, regarding Whistler’s water supply and sanitation facilities.

Whistler’s early settlers had to locate their homes near rivers, creeks or lakes in order to have access to water. Rainbow Lodge and Hillcrest Lodge had holding tanks of water pumped from Rainbow Creek and Alta Lake, respectively; however, most properties weren’t so fortunate. Some residents used flumes to direct water from the source to their property, though this method was quite unreliable.

Betsy DeBeck recalls her and her father constructing a flume for her brother and sister in-law, Denis and Dorothy DeBeck. Denis and Dorothy had recently built a house on the shores of Green Lake, and Betsy and her father figured they could ‘help’ the new homeowners by providing a more convenient water supply system. The two got to work, building a V flume that reached approximately 100 yards up the slope from Green Lake, right into Denis and Dorothy’s backyard. This would prevent them from having to go down the stream to retrieve buckets of water. While great in theory, during the winter months the flume and all the water in it froze and they were left with this ‘huge big iceberg,’ as Dorothy describes. Dorothy quickly grew to curse the flume.

By 1925, the town installed a water line from Scotia Creek in order to service new subdivisions on the west shore of Alta Lake. It operated on the gravitation principle, by which water flows downward from a large wooden holding tank built up on a hill. In 1954, Dick Fairhurst of Cypress Lodge received the rights to Scotia Creek and took over the system.

Along the railway line at the main stations, public outhouses were build for passengers' convenience. Someone with a sense of humour added the sign.

Along the railway line at the main stations, public outhouses were build for passengers’ convenience. Someone with a sense of humour added the sign.

Early sanitation systems were nothing to write home about either (because people write home about their plumbing all the time). Whistler’s early sanitation systems consisted of outhouses and, in later years, septic tanks. Surprisingly, the outhouses were considered quite the establishments and are remembered fondly by many of the first skiers to live in the valley.

Jean McDevitt in front of Petersen's old outhouse, 1968.

Jean McDevitt in front of Petersen’s old outhouse, 1968.

These outhouses brought many tales of hilarity. One in particular is the sizzling story of Charlie Chandler. Charlie Chandler, a local trapper, had been given a small amount of high-grade aircraft fuel by a kindly visiting floatplane pilot, which he used to clean some of his exceedingly grimy overalls. When finished cleaning his clothes, Charlie felt that the best way to dispose of the remaining fuel was to chuck it down the ‘biffy.’ He went on with his day as usual, and when it came time for his next visit to the outhouse he sat down and lit his pipe, as was his habit. The explosion was heard from miles away. Charlie’s nearest neighbour, Phil Tapley, rushed to the scene where he found a singed but otherwise unscathed Charlie with his pants around his ankles, wondering what had occurred.

Grizzlies in the Valley

As most of us are well aware, wildlife is constantly in flux. Species come and go; they migrate; they evolve; they become extinct. These transitions are especially evident living in Whistler, as wildlife surrounds us, so much so that one of the first things I learned when I got here concerned our ever-changing mammal population. I quickly learned that although grizzly bears once roamed our valley, they have since moved on from this social, tourist town.

mammals-of-the-alta-lake001Recently, the museum acquired the book Mammals of the Alta Lake Region of South-western British Columbia by Kenneth Racey and Ian McTaggart Cowan, published in 1935. This fantastic account eloquently outlines the various mammals that were known to exist in the Whistler (then Alta Lake) region. The account of grizzlies is slight, with only a few documented sighting before 1935; however, we know that an abundance of brown bears made their homes here in Whistler for many years before humans moved in.

Check-list-of-mammalsGrizzly bears were common to the alpine meadows and adjacent timber of the Whistler region. On June 26th, 1924, grizzlies were seen in Avalanche Pass, between Mount Overlord and London Mountain (now known as Whistler Mountain). Could you imagine seeing a grizzly around Whistler Mountain today? Of course, there is far too much excitement around the mountain for a grizzly nowadays, as brown bears require a great deal of personal space.

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The book states that the latest grizzly bear tracks were sighted on December 5th, 1932, by John Bailiff; however, there have been grizzly sightings in Whistler since the book’s publishing. The most recent occurrence was in Function Junction in 1989. Sadly, the bear was shot by an RCMP officer after it displayed aggressive behaviour toward local dogs.  There are also reports that claim that the RCMP officers did not have the necessary expertise or equipment to safely tranquilize and relocate the animal.

By now it is common knowledge that grizzly bears are rarely spotted in and around Whistler, but we have also seen a great decrease in brown bears across the Sea to Sky Corridor in general over the last century. This steady decline of the grizzly population began with a vengeance during the twentieth century, and was unsurprisingly largely man-made.

Aside from Racey and Cowan’s book, the museum holds a few other accounts of brown bears in Whistler, including photographs of hunted bears, as well as a newspaper article by John Bailiff about his attempt to hunt a mother grizzly in the 1930s. Bailiff’s article is a rather upsetting read, as he takes us through his excitement at the thought of killing the maternal bear, with seemingly no compassion for the cubs alongside her. Thankfully, times have changed and continue to progress toward attitudes and laws that protect these ursine beauties that roam British Columbia.

Hunters with two trophy grizzly bears in the Singing Pass/Musical Bumps area, ca. 1916.

Hunters with two trophy grizzly bears in the Singing Pass/Musical Bumps area, ca. 1916.

For more information on bears in Whistler, and how you can be bear smart, visit the Bear Smart Society. 

Remembering Hillcrest Lodge

While flipping through the 1979 October/November issue of the Whistler Answer, I came across a fascinating story titled “The Whistler Lodge (1973-74) or the Heyday of a Cabaret.”  I love the Whistler Answer for its bare all writing styles that would most definitely be deemed inappropriate in today’s local news. This story has all that quirkiness one expects from the paper, as the author, an old doorman at Whistler Lodge (also known as Hillcrest Lodge), gives his first-hand history of the place in as many outlandish adjectives as one can muster.

The article highlights the delight of the lodge, going as far as to describe it as “phantasmagorical”–a bold claim, the author admits. He attributes the liberal nature of the lodge to the managers, Rob and Jen Houseman, whose bureaucratic strategy was “don’t make any rules and none will get broken.” Have a read for yourself:

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This fun recollection of Whistler Lodge inspired me to dig for some more facts about the place, leading me to the story of the Mansell family. Jack Mansell first came to Whistler (then Alta Lake) on a fishing trip in 1944. While staying at Rainbow Lodge, he got word of property for sale across the lake. Luck would have it that the owner of the land was a regular at Jack’s shoe repair shop in Vancouver. The two negotiated and that same year, Jack bought the property on Alta Lake.

Cis and Jack Mansell on the porch of Hillcrest, ca. 1950.

Cis and Jack Mansell on the porch of Hillcrest, ca. 1950.

By May 1945 Jack had sold his three shoe repair stores and moved to Whistler with his family–wife, Cecile ‘Cis’ and sons Loyd and Doug. The family lived in a little cottage on the property before deciding to build a few cabins and develop the site as a fishing lodge. Interestingly enough, the place became a very successful tearoom; Myrtle Philip of Rainbow Lodge brought horseback riding groups round the lake to stop for refreshments at the Mansell property.

In January 1946 the family began building the main lodge, and it was complete by July of that same year. By 1947 Hillcrest Lodge was open for business with a total of sixteen units for rent. The lodge opened for guests on the May long weekend and closed after Thanksgiving in October. Guests would arrive at Alta Lake on the Pacific Great Eastern Railway and were often greeted by current guests… in costume!

Hillcrest Lodge guests dressed to meet the train, ca. 1950s.

This free spirited welcome set the tone for a typical stay at Hillcrest Lodge. Common activities and events included musical raft rides around the lake, masquerade parties, square dancing, kangaroo courts and mock weddings.

Jack and Cis eventually retired,  leaving management of the lodge to their children Doug and Barb. Doug and Barb managed the lodge from 1958 to 1965 before selling it to a group of Vancouver based businessmen led by Glen Mason. At this time, the name was changed to Mount Whistler Lodge. After operating for about ten years it closed due to lack of business. Thankfully, the stories live on.