Category Archives: Environment

Our greatest asset.

The Watersprite Lake Hut

In the past we’ve covered the building of various backcountry huts situated around Whistler, beginning in the 1960s.  Gothic arch huts have a place in much more recent history as well, as the Watersprite Lake Hut proves.

After the completion of the North Creek Hut in the fall of 1986, the British Columbia Mountaineering Club (BCMC) took a hiatus from building backcountry huts.  Over the next two decades, the BCMC focused their efforts on outdoor education, environmental protection, trail building and trail maintenance and mountaineering training.

In the mid-2000s, attention was brought back to backcountry huts when David Scanlon took on the task of acquiring legal tenure from the Provincial Government and First Nations for the BCMC huts built at both Mountain Lake and North Creek.  The BCMC gained full legal tenure of these hut sites in 2009.

Following this achievement, the BCMC surveyed their membership about backcountry access and building more backcountry huts.  Scanlon formed a committee that investigated sites for a new hut and after careful study they chose to build a backcountry hut near Watersprite Lake.  Watersprite Lake is located just outside the southwestern edge of Garibaldi Provincial Park and is close to Mamquam Mountain and Icefield.

The Watersprite Lake Hut covered in snow this past winter. Photo by David Scanlon.

Prior to the construction of the hut at Watersprite Lake, the BCMC built trail access to the site that opened in the spring of 2016.  BCMC members noticed heavy foot traffic to the lake on the newly built trail.  The BCMC used space at Fraserwood Industries, thanks in part to a club member, to pre-fabricate the glu-lam arches required for the hut.  Scanlon calculated that committee members spent over 1000 man-hours in pursuit of constructing the new hut.

In the fall of 2016, construction of the Watersprite Lake Hut began.  The hut design includes a wood stove for use to heat the hut in the winter, a dedicated cooking area and enough room to accommodate ten people.  In the end, four additional arches were made by Fraswerwood Industries, which enabled the BCMC to built a seven-foot overhang to provide an emergency shelter and prevent snow build up around the front entrance.  Unlike other huts built by the BCMC in the late 1960s, early 70s and mid-80s, the Watersprite Lake Hut is locked to the general public and only accessible to registered users of the hut.  After seven years of planning and construction, the Watersprite Lake Hut opened in the winter of 2017.

The cozy interior of the hut. Photo by David Scanlon.

You may have noticed that, over the past couple of years or so, the museum has had backcountry huts (specifically those of the gothic arch variety) in mind.  You may even have seen a dancing hut as part of this year’s Canada Day Parade float.  This summer the Whistler Museum and Archives Society launched Coast Mountain Gothic: A History of the Coast Mountain Gothic Arch Huts, a virtual exhibit with the support of the Virtual Museum of Canada, which can be seen here.

The museum will be opening a physical exhibit to complement our new online exhibit in November 2018.  Keep an eye on our social media or subscribe to our newsletter for upcoming news about opening night!

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The Great Toad Migration

Whistler Western toad migration is almost done!

If you’ve been up at Lost Lake recently, you may have seen these tiny toads behind the black carriers in the wetlands or crossing the paths around you.  You may have even helped us move them off the path (thank you!).

Just in case you didn’t have a chance to see them or to speak with one of the Nature Interpreters at our Discover Nature booth, we’ll be providing answers here to some of the questions people have about the toads and the steps taken to protect them.

The great Western toadlets on their annual migration at Lost Lake. Photo: Kristina Swerhun

Every spring, a female Western toad will lay approximately 12,000 eggs in shallow water.  These eggs become tadpoles in just three to 12 days and are ready to leave the water after six to eight weeks.  At Lost Lake, this means crossing the beach, the Valley Trail and the road to join the adult Western toads in the forests and grasslands.  In nature, less than one per cent of these toads make it to breeding age.  It is our responsibility to make sure human activities don’t increase their mortality rate.

To help the toads survive this journey, the RMOW is working towards a more “toad friendly” environment around Lost Lake Park.  Barriers and fences have been put in place to direct toads towards the forest and nature interpreters from the Whistler Museum’s Discover Nature program educate passersby about this sensitive and protected species.

The toads are helped across the trail by volunteers who also encourage people to walk their bikes and step carefully.

At some point, the toads must cross the Valley Trail and Lost Lake Road on their way to the upland forest areas where they will hibernate for the winter.  To protect them on their journey, Lost Lake Road is closed and people are asked to please watch their step and walk their bikes.

Although the toads are pretty cute, visitors to Lost Lake are asked not to touch the toads with their bare hands as the toads’ skin is very sensitive to human oils and sunscreen.  Picking up the toads or poking them can cause them serious harm or even kill them.

The toadlets blend in well to their surroundings, making them easy to miss.

These steps, which may seem inconvenient, are taken not only to protect a sensitive species but also because Whistler is home to many different creatures, including people.  All of these creatures deserve to be respected.

If you are interested in the Great Toad Migration and would like to help, come visit the Whistler Museum Nature Interpreters at Lost Lake.  We can supply you with gloves and cups and teach you  how to handle the toads without harming them.

If you see the toads anywhere other than Lost Lake, we would love to know!  To report sightings or if you have any questions, please contact us at DiscoverNature@WhistlerMuseum.org.

Kara is a Nature Interpreter with the Whistler Museum’s Discover Nature Program and a recent graduate of Whistler Secondary.  Find her at Lost Lake under the white tent by the concession or on our Nature Walks meeting at the PassivHaus at 11 am Tuesday to Friday until the end of August.

Parkhurst Before the Ghost Town

Parkhurst may now be known primarily as a ghost town, but it was once the site of the first large and permanent mill operations in the valley.

Mr. and Mrs. Parkhurst pre-empted the land on Green Lake in 1902 and built a small house where they lived with their family.  It is unclear whether they ever operated a sawmill on the property, which was sold in 1926 after the death of Mr. Parkhurst.

The property was purchased by the Barr brothers of Mission who had been looking for a new source of timber.  William, Malcolm and Ross Barr built a mill and a camp for their workers and began operating Parkhurst Mill, named for the previous owners.

A mill at Parkhurst operated on the shores of Green Lake from 1926 to about 1956. Barr Collection

In 1928 Malcolm drowned after falling into Green Lake and then, due to the effects of the Depression, the mill went into receivership in 1930.  William moved on from the valley while Ross and his wife Alison stayed on at Parkhurst as watchmen hired by the bank until the property could be sold.

Logging operation at Parkhurst, late 1920s. This photograph shows a railcar, a spar tree and the steam donkey. The man standing on a log in the foreground is Ross Barr. Barr Collection

In 1932 Parkhurst was sold to B.C. Keeley and Byron Smith who reopened the mill under the name Northern Mills in 1933.  Ross Barr and Denis DeBeck were hired by Keeley to manage the mill and worked together until it burnt down in 1938.

Norm Barr and neighbour Jack Findlay in 1936. Barr Collection

The museum recorded two oral histories in 2011 that include many stories and a lot of information about Parkhurst during this time: one with Norm Barr, the son of Ross and Alison Barr, and another with Betsy Henderson, sister of Denis DeBeck.

Betsy Henderson had a very different experience at Parkhurst than those who worked and live there.  She, her mother and two more of her siblings stayed near Parkhurst at what had been the Lineham’s mink ranch during the summers of 1936 and ’37.  Her three older brothers, Denis, Ward and Keary, were all working for Northern Mills and, as Betsy recalled, their mother decided she’d like to stay with all six of her children for the summer.

As she was not working, Betsy was able to explore the area around Parkhurst and got into some rather potentially dangerous situations, such as taking a dip in fast-running Fitzsimmons Creek and crossing the Blackcomb glacier with her brother Keary.

The glacier was full of chasms and on one crossing, Keary asked her to take a picture of him on the upper side of a huge crevasse.  Betsy maneuvered around to set up the photo and, as she remembered, “when I looked up to take the picture I found that Keary was sitting on just a shelf of ice.”  Needless to say, the picture did not get taken.

The Northern Mills operation on Green Lake before it burned down in 1938. It was later rebuilt at the same site. DeBeck Collection

After the fire Northern Mills moved to Lost Lake for a year before deciding to rebuild at Parkhurst.  Though the mill would continue to operate into the 1950s, neither the Barrs nor the DeBecks went back to the mill.  This was not the end of the DeBecks’ association with the area, however, as Denis DeBeck continued working in what is today Whistler until 1945, when he followed the Barrs to settle permanently in Squamish.

Over the next few weeks we hope to bring you more stories from the DeBecks, the Barrs and others who worked in forestry in the valley.

Driving the Sea to Sky (when it was mostly dirt)

If you’ve ever taken a look at the Whistler Museum’s YouTube channel you might have seen a short film from the Petersen Film Collection that features the drive to Whistler in 1958.  The footage makes it clear that the drive was an interesting one, full of steep hills, narrow roads and bumpy track.  At one point the car obviously overheated, a problem solved with the help of a nearby river.

The footage from the Petersens is only one account of coming to Whistler by car when the area was still known as Alta Lake.  Another well-known figure in Whistler, Don MacLaurin, also made the journey up the “highway” in 1958.

At the time Don was working in the forest service and was part of a cruising crew staying in Pemberton (cruising crews measure volume and quality of timber before it is harvested).  In a 2007 with John Hammons and Karen Overgaard, Don shared photos of his trip that are now part of the Whistler Museum archives.  As Don recalled, it took “two crews, two land rovers, winches, prayers and eight hours to go from Squamish to Pemberton.”

The road through the Cheakamus Canyon. MacLaurin Collection.

One shows a portion of the original road through the Cheakamus Canyon.  When asked to describe the drive, Don chose the word “precarious.”  The one-way road had a cliff on one side and, according to Don, “logs cabled through the road into the cliff… trying to hold the road in.”  Another photo shows a cable running back to a land rover.  It was a good thing the crews had two, as one would frequently be used to pull the other out when stuck.

A land rover is pulled up the road by another land rover – it’s handy to have two. MacLaurin Collection.

The road through what is now the Tapley’s Farm neighbourhood (and at the time would have been around the actual Tapley’s Farm) was “very, very wet and very soft and you were lucky to get through that as well.”  Once past Alta Lake the crews still had to get past what they called “suicide hill” which was located “under the power lines on the railroad side of Green Lake when you made the descent back down to the Green River.”  With a “so-called road” and “baseball-sized boulders” it’s no wonder Don described that section as “very, very tricky.”  Despite these challenges, the crews did eventually make it to Pemberton.

The “roads” in Whistler. MacLaurin Collection.

This was not the first time Don had come through the Whistler valley.  In 1951 he travelled through on the PGE on his way from Quesnel to Vancouver.  By 1961, when he returned with Isobel and a couple of neighbours, there was still no dependable road, and certainly not one that could sensibly be used in the winter, so again they came by rail.

Going through the Cheakamus Canyon on the PGE. It still has quite the drop. MacLaurin Collection.

By 1964 visitors to Whistler could come along a gravel road called Highway 99.  Two years later Highway 99 was paved from Squamish to Mons Station and to Pemberton in 1969.  With changes made over the decades and work done prior to the 2010 Olympics, the road Don, the Petersens and others travelled in 1958 is almost unrecognizable in the road we travel today.

Growing Up at Brandywine Falls: From Resort to Provincial Park

We’re all familiar with Brandywine Falls, but did you know that it used to be a thriving resort?  Julie Gallagher, whose parents Ray and Ruth Gallagher ran the resort, will be with us this Saturday (April 28) to share her family’s stories and photos and to discuss how Brandywine Falls went from a bustling fishing destination to the provincial park you see today.

Tickets for the talk are $10 ($5 for Museum and Club Shred members) and are available at the Whistler Museum.

To complement our Speaker Series, Julie will be offering guided walks through the area on Saturday and Sunday.  We’re very excited to announce that Sea to Sky Parks will be opening the park gates a few days early and parking will be available.

The walk, which will tour the area once occupied by Brandywine Falls Resort, will last around an hour.  If you’ve ever wondered about the remains of buildings or other things you’ve found at Brandywine this walk may just answer all your questions!

Dogs are welcome to attend but must be leashed.  Tours will meet at noon at the entrance to Brandywine Provincial Park off Highway 99.

For more information, please call the museum at 604-932-2019

 

 

Discover Nature at Family Après

If you’ve been at Family Après in Olympic Plaza over the past couple months, you might have recognized a tent from the Discover Nature summer program at Lost Lake.  In July and August the Discover Nature team shared its knowledge of Whistler’s natural history through touch tables, activities and nature walks around Lost Lake.

Discover Nature at Family Après focuses on some of the animals that are active in Whistler during the winter.  The challenge is to identify eight mammals in Whistler that neither migrate nor hibernate using replicas of their skulls, tracks and claws.  This may not sound like a whole lot to go on but the teeth can give you clues about what an animal eats and the shape of the skull can indicate traits such as a keen sense of smell or better than average night vision.  Hints and help are also on hand if you get stuck.

The touch table at Discover Nature in the summer. Some of the same skulls, pelts and tracks are on display this Monday in Olympic Plaza.

While hiking, biking and even skiing around Whistler I have encountered over half of the animals featured at the Discover Nature tent, but one that I have never seen is the wolverine.  After learning about an encounter John Millar once had with a wolverine, I’m not so sure I want to.

Wolverines are the largest members of the weasel family, which also includes martens, mink and river otters.  Sometimes described as a mixture of a dog, a bear and a skunk, wolverines have short legs, long hair and distinctive markings, including a dark mask around their eyes and a light stripe on each side running from their shoulders to the base of their tails.  Although wolverines are typically about the size of a medium-sized dog they are effective predators and can even smell prey hibernating beneath six metres of snow.  Their diet can range from berries, rodents and ground squirrels to mountain goats and moose.

John Millar outside his cabin (today the area of Function Junction). Millar Creek was named for this early settler. Photo: Philip Collection.

Millar is perhaps best known as the trapper who introduced Myrtle and Alex Philip to Alta Lake.  A Polish immigrant, Millar arrived in the valley sometime before 1906 by way of Texas, where he worked as a cook at a cow-camp.  He purchased some land along the Pemberton Trail near the junction of Millar Creek and the Cheakamus River (today the area of Function Junction) and built a roadhouse for travellers, supplementing his income from trapping by charging 50 cents for a bed (meal not included).

From the account of Dick Fairhurst, Millar may not have always been the most successful trapper.  He regularly caught marten, rabbit, mink, muskrat (the basis for a memorable stew), and beaver.  Once, however, while out on his trap line Millar caught a wolverine.  Thinking it was dead he added it to his pack and walked on.  Unfortunately for him, the wolverine was still very much alive and came to while still on his back.  It ate a hole through Millar’s pack and “grabbed John by the seat of the pants.”  While Millar managed to extricate himself from the angry wolverine it was awhile before he could sit comfortably again.

Discover Nature will be back at Family Après in Olympic Plaza this Monday, March 5.  If you think you can tell a wolverine from a bobcat, come by and say hello.

Building the Gothic Arch Huts

For almost 50 years the Himmelsbach Hut has sat perched near Russet Lake at the head of Singing Pass.  The hut was built by the British Columbia Mountaineering Club (BCMC) and named after carpenter and long-time Whistler local Werner Himmelsbach.

Construction of the hut was scheduled in September 1967.  Dick Chambers, a member of the construction party, remembered being flown to Whistler by Helijet at the time (for more about Dick Chambers, check here).

Materials for the Himmelsbach Hut, as well as workers, were flown in by helicopter. Photo: Chambers Collection

“The stuff was all in the parking lot – the old Whistler parking lot.  Blackcomb wasn’t developed then, it was still a garbage dump… so we land at the parking lot and the Park Ranger was there, waiting to organize this stuff, and so he flew me in, and the next morning I waited and waited and nothing was happening,” Chambers recalled.

The helicopter carrying a load of material to the site had lost it somewhere on the northeastern side of the peak of Whistler, across from Blackcomb.  The load had not been properly attached and triggered the release mechanism.

“Eventually we recovered that load of stuff by looking in the bush and it wound up at Werner Himmelsbach’s hut covering his firewood because it wasn’t good for anything, you know, it was beaten up,” Chambers said.

By the time the Club was able to rebuild the lost materials, snowstorms had started and members of the construction party decided to pack it up and store it until the following year.

The Himmelsbach Hut under construction. Photo: Chambers Collection

In August 1968 the Himmelsbach Hut was was built over a period of three days and began the busiest three-years of hut construction by the BCMC in its history.  Other huts built by the club include Wedgemount Lake Hut loacted north of Blackcomb, Pummer Hut on Claw Ridge near the Tellot Glacier and Mountain Waddington, and Mountain Lake Hut that sits east of Brittania Beach.

Along with the huts built by the Club, Werner Himmelsbach lent his laminating jig and expertise to the University of British Columbia’s Varsity Outdoor Club.  The VOC, led by Roland Burton, built a gothic-arch hut near the Sphinx Glacier in Garibaldi Provincial Park.  Years later, he assisted the Alpine Club of Canada Whistler Section in the construction of the Wendy Thompson Hut, located in the Marriott Basin.

The Himmelsbach Hut today. Photo: Spencer Jespersen

Over the past several months, I have been tasked with writing, researching and designing a virtual museum exhibit on the Coast Mountain Gothic Arch Alpine Huts for the Whistler Museum (for more on the virtual exhibit click here).  Once the exhibit is complete, the virtual exhibit will be hosted on the Virtual Museum of Canada Community Memories website and will tell the complete story of these iconic structures.  Look for the release of the virtual exhibit in Winter 2018.