Canoeing through Whistler’s Past

This evening (Tuesday, July 7) the museum will be hosting our first virtual Speaker Series, an adapted version of the talk and film screening with Mike Stein that we were originally planning to present in March.  Though Whistler is known internationally as a ski resort, the film features a different form of recreation and transportation that is commonly found in the valley: canoeing.

In the 1980s there was even a Whistler Canoe Club, which held races on Alta Lake.  Whistler Question Collection.

Canoeing has a much longer history in the area than snowsports, as canoes are important to both the Lil’wat and Squamish Nations.  The Great Hall of the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre features a 40 foot long Salish hunting canoe carved from a single cedar tree which at times is removed from the exhibition and taken on an ocean journey.  Learn more about this canoe and others by visiting the Squmaish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, which reopened last month.

The Whistler Museum also has records of canoes being used to transport people and products around the valley for over a century.

In the early 1900s the Barnfield family established a dairy farm on their property at the northeast end of Alta Lake.  As summer tourism became more popular in the area following the arrival of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway in 1914, the Barnfield’s dairy began supplying the lodges and visitors with fresh supplies.  They used a dugout canoe to deliver milk, cream, eggs, news and gossip to the different lodges on Alta Lake.  By 1920 their largest customer was Rainbow Lodge, which had a daily order of 80 quarts of milk, 4 quarts of cream, and 2 quarts of table cream.

This dugout canoe is similar to the one Alfred and Fred would have used. It may in fact be the one they used, but we have no records to confirm or deny that.

Rainbow Lodge itself had a number of boats, including canoes, for guests and staff to use for fishing or paddling down the River of Golden Dreams, one of which now resides in the museum’s collection.  In 2011 the museum, with the generous support of the Province of British Columbia, was able to purchase a cedar canoe bought by Alex and Myrtle Philip in 1916 for Rainbow Lodge.  After the Philips sold the lodge in 1948, Myrtle kept the canoe for her own personal use for the next 25 years.  The canoe and aged and, before coming back to Alta Lake, was restored by Dave Lanthier, an expert vintage canoe restorer and member of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association.  The canoe is currently displayed in the Whistler Public Library, as the museum does not have the space to exhibit such a large item.

Myrtle’s canoe, pre-restoration.  The canoe now hangs on the wall of the Whistler Public Library, until such a time as we have space to display it at the museum.

The popularity of canoeing continued even after skiing came to Whistler.  In 1975 canoes represented the water part of the first Great Snow Earth Water Race, with cyclists passing the baton to canoeists who worked their way up Alta Lake to the first weir on the River of Golden Dreams, where they handed off to the runners.  From all reports, the canoeing was the most fun for the spectators.  According to Dave Steers, “Most of the teams had members who could tell the front of a canoe from the back.  A few teams didn’t even have that.”  As you can imagine, quite a few canoes tipped and those watching got to see a lot of splashing.

The canoe portion of the Great Snow, Earth, Water Race heads out on Alta Lake.  Whistler Question Collection.

Three years before that inaugural race, Mike Stein, Adolf Teufele, Wink Bradford, Ferdi Wenger, and Jim McConkey set out on their own journey by canoe on the Liard River.  Teufele captured their adventures in the Grand Canyon, a 20 km stretch of the Liard, on 16mm film and the film has now been digitized, edited, and narrated by Stein.  This evening we’ll be hearing from Stein about the film and the journey, as well as screening Highways of the Past: Canoeing the Grand Canyon of the Liard, via Zoom.  Visit here to learn more about the event and register.

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