H.I.T.: 20 Years of Grassroots Action

Whistler became the community it is today in large part thanks to the incredible natural wealth in our surroundings. However, the extent to which this natural wealth has been protected and preserved is a testament to the character of the community that has grown here.

A deep understanding of this intertwined relationship spurred Arthur De Jong to action two decades ago. Working as Mountain Planning & Environmental Resource Manager for Whistler-Blackcomb, Arthur was a frequent attendee at meetings where local environmental groups and engaged citizens raised a variety of ecological concerns. There was no shortage of will, but Arthur stepped in and created a simple, effective way to address these problems.

“Why don’t we have a group dedicated to fixing what they can within a short time-frame to address some of the smaller, easier-to-fix environmental issues in the valley?”, Arthur wondered. And thus, H.I.T. was born.

This past week the Habitat Improvement Team, or H.I.T. wrapped up their 20th summer of grassroots environmental rehabilitation in the Whistler Valley. The enduring success of the group is in large part thanks to the group’s deceptively simple structure (and, of course, Whistlerites’ enthusiasm for the local environment).

The H.I.T. team after a night rehabilitating the riparian zone. Photo courtesy Arthur De Jong.

Bi-weekly, all summer long, a group of volunteers come together and get to work on a predetermined project. Arthur coordinates the team and determines the work schedule, with input from local community groups. Whistler-Blackcomb supports the group with transportation support and a late après at Merlin’s for the thirsty volunteers.

A lot of the group’s early work focused on improving fish habitat in the valley by replanting native species in disturbed riparian zones, preventing suffocating erosion on adjacent trails and stream banks, and other rehabilitation projects.

W-B’s Wendy Robinson transporting native plants for habitat restoration.  Photo courtesy Arthur De Jong. 

 

Over the years the group’s mandate expanded beyond ecological restoration to other environmentally oriented projects such as hiking trail maintenance and improvement, installing interpretive signage, cleaning up areas of high garbage accumulation, and packaging retired Whistler-Blackcomb uniforms for shipment to developing nations such as Romania and India. 

Getting retired uniforms ready for shipment. Photo Courtesy Arthur De Jong. 

Just this summer, H.I.T. cleared parts of the Lost Lake interpretive trails, removed invasive burdock plants, packaged clothing for international aid, completed 2 work nights on the Ancient Cedars trail (more on this project in next week’s column), and helped build a pollinator garden at the Spruce Grove community gardens.

 

For their efforts, H.I.T. has been awarded a Silver Eagle for Community Relations by the National Ski Areas Association, and special recognition for business leadership at the Shift Conference for Public Lands Management in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. On a more personal level, Arthur notes that “it’s always a joy to walk through parts of the valley and seeing areas that H.I.T. was instrumental in restoring. That’s quite rewarding.”

And it’s not just Arthur who feels gratified. Many of the volunteers contributing this past summer have been involved for years, some nearly the entire 20 years that H.I.T. has been active. Ultimately the big winner is the local environment, which is greener, more productive, and more appreciated thanks to two decades of grassroots, volunteer-led efforts from H.I.T.

Happy volunteers. Photo courtesy Arthur De Jong.  

VIDEO: Bear viewing at the old dump

Among the many autumn rituals in Whistler are watching the changing colours in our surrounding forests, watching the snow line slowly move down the mountainsides, enjoying some relatively quiet time here in the village, and perhaps skipping town altogether with a fall getaway.

For many residents, Fall is a crucial time of year when they eat non-stop and try to put on weight in preparation for the long winter. No, we’re not talking about depressed mountain bikers at Thanksgiving dinner, but our local black bears of course!

Every autumn, black bears enter a physiological state called hyperphagia, which essentially means increased appetite. After having climbing up the mountainsides through the summer they often come back down to lower elevations in search of any calorie-rich foods that might be left, like mountain ash berries, or roots and greens in marshy lowlands.

In a place like Whistler, it also means a time of heightened bear-human interactions, as they are more commonly looking for food in human-occupied places. Increased diligence in securing your garbage, being aware of your surroundings when hiking or biking in the forests, and giving bears plenty of space when you do encounter them is especially important this time of year.

In Whistler we do quite a good job of co-existing with our ursine friends, and are one of only seven officially recognized “Bear Smart” communities in British Columbia. We still have our challenges, but to demonstrate how far we’ve come, here’s a video of black bears feeding at our local dump in the early 1970s.

The dump, located right in the middle of the valley where Whistler Village now stands, was open air, unfenced, and got routinely overrun with bears back then. Many long-time residents recall that it was the preferred bear-viewing spot in the valley, and it’s not hard to see why!

Today, our “dump” (actually called a Waste Transfer Station) is well-fenced in and we manage our garbage far more responsibly. Please do your part to help ensure that our local bears have a smooth transition to winter during this crucial time of year!

For more information on black bears, and how to live, work, and play responsibly in bear country, please visit the Get Bear Smart Society.

 

Fall getaways

Even paradise can get stale. Here in Whistler, locals often speak of the “Whistler Bubble” and their desire to escape this bubble from time to time. Fall is traditionally a time when many locals take extended holidays out of town, as the tourist trade quiets down substantially and, if ski bums get their wish, Whistler weather can get quite gloomy this time of year.

Sun-drenched surf retreats to Latin America or Indonesia are probably the current favourite Whistler escape, but Whistlerites are well-travelled people by nature. Come October you can find our locals scattered across the far corners of the globe.

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Myrtle hunting near Mahood Lake, circa 1950s, perhaps searching for a big stag deer like the one depicted on her rather fashionable hunting vest. 

This tradition of Whistler residents turning the tables and becoming tourists in the Fall is older than many might think. Our valley’s original vacation hosts, Myrtle and Alex Philip of Rainbow Lodge fame, were always keen to pack their bags and get out of town once their busy summer season wound down.

The Phillip’s were avid anglers, and thus many of their getaways focused on fishing. They made several autumn excursions to visit their friends Baldwin & Grace Naismith, who had a cabin on Mahood Lake in the Cariboo region of central British Columbia.

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Myrtle casting out into Bridge Creek, southwest of Mahood Lake, 1929.

 

Not only did the Mahood Lake area offer much larger fish than Alta Lake, lake trout in particular, it must have been a pleasure for the Philip’s to switch roles and be guests rather than hosts in this beautiful setting.

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Myrtle with her close friend Grace Naismith and the day’s catch, 1949.

The images span the decades and include a wonderful colour photo from 1961 of a smiling Myrtle (now 70 years young) piloting a small boat across Mahood Lake’s glass-calm waters with vivid fall colours framing the shoreline.

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Myrtle on Mahood Lake, 1961.

But just like today’s Whistlerites, Myrtle & Alex also pined for tropical shores to relax and rejuvenate. Here’s a photo from a month-long vacation they took to Tahiti in 1930-31:

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The annotation on the back reads: “Mr & Mrs Philip with their catch of Barracuda, Bonita and Miare.”

Just like Myrtle’s hunting vest shown above, in this picture the Philip’s once again demonstrate their fashion sense with their striking white outfits, Alex even wearing his trademark pith helmet.

Do you have plans to skip town this fall? Which would you prefer, fishing in Northern BC, or fishing in the South Pacific?

An Ode to the Beaver

A report on the ecology of the Alta Lake region by naturalists Kenneth Racey and Ian McTaggart-Cowan from 1935 depicts a Whistler we all are familiar with. They reinforce the picture of a diverse and eco-rich valley with an abundance of species of animals and vegetation alike. Today the Whistler Biodiversity Project has documented over 2500 species in the area, expecting that number to be up to 3000 when new records have been finalized.

Despite the whopping number of species in our fertile little valley, there are a few things that have changed since Racey and McTaggart Cowen collated their data back in the 1930’s.

The two men provided the provincial museum with a detailed overview of the species we have in Whistler. This overview included a description of the state of the Castor Canadensis Pacificus, or Pacific Beaver. It states “The Beaver has been completely trapped out in the district for over twenty years.” It goes on to mention that even though the Beaver has been hunted to nonexistence, proof of their lifestyle still exists in the form of dams left behind.

With the halt of killing beavers for their pelts came the slow re-emergence of a creature whose activities literally shaped the waterways of our country. When water depth or quantities are not suitable the extraordinary beaver will transform a stream in a forest into a large pond with nothing more then gnawed wood, sticks and mud. Several plant species rely on such water sources for habitat, so beavers can also be credited to many a saved plant.

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Canada, in the form of a swimming rodent.

Beaver lodges and dams can be enormous. The largest on record spans 850 meters. It was found in Northern Alberta in 2007. It is possible that humans got the idea of a “nuclear” family from beavers, whose lodge consists of a pair of parents, their babies and yearlings. Monogamy anyone?

Their lodges can only be accessed from underwater. Beavers are great swimmers; with an extra, transparent eyelid that’s helps them see underwater. They have large webbed feet, which they use as flippers, and a paddle-shaped, rudder-like tail. Their tail is leathery and large growing up to 38 centimeters. The sound of these large tails slapping the water also acts as an alarm to warn of a predator. On land the tail can prop up a sitting beaver and add extra balance while they are carrying supplies.

Our main industry, tourism has to give thanks to the beavers as well for assuring that tour companies can operate in hot and dry years. With the improved management of this inspiring species we can assure their continued existence and in turn the continued flourishing of the Whistler valley.

 

Who can resist falling in love with this little guy?

 

By Shayna Ross-Kelly

Sailing Alta Lake in 1966

Sailing on Alta Lake is one of the most time-honoured and pleasant ways to pass a summer day in the Whistler Valley.

While mountain biking, hiking, golf, and several other activities might be more popular today, sailing remains a cherished and time-honoured was to pass a summer day in Whistler.

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Sewell & Jean Tapley (Myrtle Philip’s father & sister) sailing on Alta Lake, circa 1920s.

It was a favoured activity of Myrtle & Alex Philip, as well as other residents and visitors of Alta Lake going back a century. But it wasn’t until the creation of the Alta Lake Sailing Club, founded in 1966, that an organized sailing community came to be. Based out of Dick Fairhurst’s Cypress Lodge, the same building that the Whistler Sailing Club operates out of today!

In our collection of home videos recorded by Florence Petersen, we have footage from a sailing regatta on Alta Lake from this period. It’s quite possibly their first ever regatta, held in 1966, and playfully dubbed the “Regretta.”

The video provides a wonderful scene of a timeless Whistler activity. With the current blast of pleasant summer weather we are experiencing, hopefully you get out on the water soon as well!

Peak to Peak

The Peak to Peak Gondola between Whistler and Blackcomb was built in 2007 and 2008. The idea for the gondola was conceived so that skiers and snowboarders could ski both mountains without having to go through the village or take multiple lifts to get to the other mountain. The original idea was to have lifts that went down the sides of the mountains and over Fitzsimmons creek but the land on the slopes in between them is unsuitable for skiing, not to mention it is protected land. In order to build a gondola that would not go all the way to the ground they needed to take in to account the enormous costs. Intrawest, who owned both mountains at the time was able to receive the funding and the project was set in motion.

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Whistler-Blackcomb broke ground in late May of 2007 after having to delay the project by a year. Most of the components of the system including the Gondola cabins themselves were made in Switzerland and then shipped over to Canada once completed. The Peak to Peak includes 4 towers, 2 of which were completed in the first summer of construction and the second 2 were added after the winter.In June of 2008 the 5 cables arrived in Whistler from Switzerland and had to be winched down Blackcomb Mountain to the valley floor then up Whistler Mountain.

Peak2PeakposterfinalA total of 28 cabins were constructed and the first 12 crossed the span for the first time on September 19 of 2008. After successfully making it across the span the rest of the cabins were added and the whole system was tested rigorously till the grand opening that December.

The whole system was built by the Doppelmayr Garaventa Group and is the first tri-cable lift by Doppelmayr in North America. The only other gondola’s like it in the world are ones in Switzerland, Austria, France and Germany but none of them can match the scale of the Peak to Peak.

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The Peak to Peak holds 2 world records, one for longest free span between the towers, which is just over 3 kilometres (3.3 to be exact), and one for highest point above the ground, 436 metres.  It can hold over 4000 people in an hour and only takes 11 minutes to cross between the mountains. The total cost of building the gondola came to $51 million Canadian.

To celebrate the unveiling of the Peak to Peak, Red Bull Air Force Members base jumped from the middle of the gondola. Since then, in 2014 1 man carried out an illegal base jump from the tallest point of the Peak to Peak and cause some $10,000 worth of damage to the gondola car from prying open the doors. His accomplice was arrested shortly after and the act was condemned by many.

The Peak to Peak is a great attraction all year round to let athletes enjoy both mountains but also to allow sightseers to experience the beauty of the Valley and the hikes and views both mountains have to offer.

 

by Michaela Sawyer

Grassroots Galleries – Olive’s Market

What is now Olive’s Community Market in Function Junction used to be The Burnt Stew Café and was originally owned by Colin Pitt-Taylor. Not to be mixed up with Burnt Stew Computing that is still in Function Junction. Colin is now one of the board members for the Whistler Museum but before that he began a collection of his very own on the walls of the café. The collection is mostly made up of photos from Whistler’s early 70’s days and includes a lot of local characters. Though it also includes an old sled (that is no longer there due to needing room for inventory), skis and ski poles as well.

According to one of the managers of the market the artifacts inside the store are on loan from an antique shop in Squamish. Unfortunately this means there is no surefire way to know the history of them, aside from the fact they were probably used on Whistler Mountain in the early days.

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Some of the photos on the wall are the same ones from collections that the museum was given as well, including some of Cliff Jenning’s and Jim Kennedy’s photos as well as a few photos from the Soo Valley.

One of the stand out photos they have on display is the famous Toad Hall poster that is the most popular item in the Museum’s gift shop. It’s fun and quirky attitude perfectly embodies the 70’s era in Whistler and fits right in amongst the other photos in Olive’s.

Colin Pitt-Taylor used a lot of photos from his own collection and gathered the others from his friends. He started the process because after the village was completed there was not much left that recognized what Whistler had been like pre-village life; back when the local community was even smaller than it is today and when there were not as many tourists visiting the area. Colin wanted to commemorate that time in Village history and did so on the walls of the Burnt Stew café. Fortunately for the community it is still there in Olive’s even after the café was closed.

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Many of the photos feature well-known people from Whistler’s history as well as friends of Colin and he has a good recollection of the exact photos he hung up over the years. He can recall exact photos of friends that are on the walls and even where and when they were taken.

One of the managers of Olive’s recounts how people often come in to look at the photos and the occasional visitor points out their younger selves or other people they know in the photos. Quite a few of the images have the names of the people in the photos on them, which means anyone who comes in is able to tell if they may know whoever is in the photos.

The history of Whistler is what makes it the town it is today, and you can find that history all over, not just at the Museum. All you have to do is look.

 

by Michaela Sawyer