Category Archives: From the Archives

Behind-the-scenes insights into the inner workings of a community museum and archives.

The Canada Jay: Good company for men in lonely places

While it is easy to point out the changes to Whistler throughout time, one thing that has remained constant on the mountains is the friendly birds up the top. It is common to hear exclamations of delight in the lift lines of Harmony, Symphony or 7th Heaven as Canada Jays fly from ski pole to helmet, looking for an easy lunch.

The Canada Jay, seen here on Whistler Mountain around 1969, has captured hearts throughout time. Many would agree with the Canadian Wildlife Service, “Without the Gray Jay with its soft wingbeats, its sudden appearances out of the dark green backdrop, the austere northern forests would lose much enchantment and character.” Cliff Fenner Collection.

The Hinterland Who’s Who published by the Canadian Wildlife Service in 1973 phrases it beautifully, “Among birds, the Gray Jay has intelligence and graces that set it apart. We, who are not accustomed to being approached by any wild creature without fear and anger, are charmed by its easy audacity and prompt to forgive its sins.”

Before lift lines and backcountry campgrounds were the places to be, the Canada Jay would join lumber camps, hunters and farmers waiting to “gorge upon warm entrails” of whatever meat was being prepared for dinner. When humans are not butchering the food, Canada Jays can do it themselves, catching small mammals, birds, amphibians and insects, and chasing birds from their nests to get the eggs. They are omnivorous and will also feed on berries, needles and buds from trees.

To survive alpine winters the Canada Jay caches food when it is abundant. The food is covered in saliva in the mouth and then the sticky saliva balls are stored in trees for later. One study found that a single Canada Jay can store and retrieve thousands of pieces of food annually. However, it is suggested that a warming climate especially during fall may cause these perishable food stores to spoil, threatening the reproduction of the Canada Jay. One study specifically found that a higher number of freeze-thaw events in fall correlated to fewer and weaker offspring as there was not enough food to both survive and reproduce.

The Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) was officially recognised as the Gray Jay between 1957 and 2018, and is also commonly called the Whisky Jack. Depending on ones affection for the sneaky birds they may be known as ‘camp robber’, ‘venison hawk’ or ‘grease bird’, alluding to the jay’s fondness for meat and petty thievery. To prevent confusion stemming from multiple common names, scientific binomial names assign each species a unique two word identifier so they can be recognised globally. The first word being the genus name (Perisoreus) and the second is the species name (canadensis).

The Canada Jay, still capturing hearts in 2022.

Until recently it was thought that birds could only change their feather colour when they moult. Adding to confusion while classifying and identifying this species, the Canada Jay appears to be an exception to this rule, becoming browner throughout the year until they moult back to a fresh grey coat in May/June. It also appears that preserved specimens may continue to lose their grey colour, becoming browner throughout time in museum collections. This colour change tricked taxonomists into originally identifying Canada Jays as multiple species.

The 1941 Field Guide to Western Birds in the museum library contains separate descriptions of the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) and Oregon Jay (Perisoreus obscurus). With advances in identification and classification, including DNA technology, we now know they are a single species. Luckily Margaret Mackenzie, the owner of the field guide, had ticked them both off as identified anyway.

Regardless of what you call them, the love for these birds is widespread. “Trusting and easily tamed, the Gray Jay is good company for men in lonely places.” They just do not write governmental scientific publications like they used to.

A Squirrel Named Rigor Mortis

You may have heard of Teddy, the orphaned bear cub raised by Myrtle Philip in 1926, but have you heard of Rigor Mortis the squirrel? In an oral history from 1989 about growing up in Alta Lake, later known as Whistler, Louise (Betts) Smith was asked about local character Charlie Chandler, who passed away peacefully on his porch the winter of 1946. Charlie was found frozen and carried to Alta Lake station for a raucous celebration of life, before being taken away by train for burial.

Being a child at the time, Louise remembered this event vividly. “Some of the men got concerned about him, so they hiked back in there and he had just had a heart attack and died in his chair and he was all stiffened up.”

You can read more about Charlie Chandler’s wake on the Whistler Museum blog. Today’s musing centers around what Louise said next. “I knew at that age that it was called rigor mortis because somebody had a squirrel named ‘Rigor Mortis’ and my mother had explained to me what rigor mortis was, and it really wasn’t a nice name for a squirrel.”

How had a squirrel become known as Rigor Mortis you might ask? We do not know for sure, however the biology of squirrels may give us a clue.

A Douglas Squirrel in Florence Peterson Park. Photo by Jillian Roberts.

The squirrel commonly seen scampering up and down trees, or making mischief during the day in Whistler is the Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii). Whistler’s other local, the Northern Flying Squirrel, is nocturnal.

Similar to beavers, rats, and other rodents, the squirrel’s front teeth never stop growing. Douglas Squirrels primarily feed on conifer seeds, peeling off the scales of the pine cones to get at the seeds. Douglas Squirrels have also been known to eat fungi, fruit, nuts, insects, and other plant material. (Oh, and they love dinosaur candy. I have a vivid childhood memory of watching a Douglas Squirrel run out of the house with my hard-earned bag of gummy dinosaurs. The candy was never seen again; the squirrel continued to visit often.)

The saying ‘to squirrel away’ refers to the fact that squirrels are larder hoarders. In mid to late summer Douglas Squirrels begin stockpiling cones, conifer seeds, and fungi in one or more middens located within their territory. Middens may contain enough food for one or more seasons and squirrels will defend them against competition and theft. The genus name Tamiasciurus references this behaviour, being derived from the Greek work Tamias, meaning animal that hoards food. Additionally skia means shadow, and oura refers to tail, so this is the genus of tailed shadows that hoard food.

Predators of the Douglas Squirrel include Pine Martens, Bobcats, raptors and owls. They can also become prey to domestic cats and dogs. In response to stimuli, such as predation, we often hear about the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. However, this could be more completely described as ‘fight, flight or freeze’, bringing us back to Rigor Mortis. Like other squirrels, the Douglas Squirrel may have a freeze response when alarmed. For example, if a squirrel has been caught by a predator it may respond by freezing up, becoming completely rigid. Douglas Squirrels that have been caught for relocation have exhibited this behaviour.

The freeze response is physiologically much different to rigor mortis – freezing is a mechanism to assist and ensure survival, for one thing. However, it could be perceived as similar to what happens during rigor mortis where the body becomes rigid. The freeze response in Douglas Squirrels may have been how the pet squirrel Rigor Mortis got its name.

New Exhibit Opening Tonight!

The 29th annual Whistler Pride and Ski Festival is right around the corner! This week of January 23 – 30, 2022 will be chock-full of events dedicated to diversity, inclusion, and fun. Coinciding with this year’s festivities, the museum is pleased to announce the launch of a new temporary exhibit titled Pride & Progress: From the Grassroots Altitude to the Fearless Whistler Pride and Ski Festival.

Opening to the public this evening, Tuesday, January 25, 2022, the exhibit will take visitors through a visual and descriptive history of Whistler Pride.

Whistler’s rainbow crosswalks are just one example of increased visibility mentioned by Dean Nelson during our online talk in February 2021. Photo courtesy of Dean Nelson.

The challenges and triumphs leading up to the world-renown festival we know today weave a fascinating narrative. The story begins in 1992, when Altitude – as it was known then – covertly hosted around seventy participants for a gay ski week at Whistler Mountain. From these humble beginnings, the festival continued to grow, welcoming more guests and hosting increasingly renowned performers with each year, all the while working to create a safe space for the LGBTQ2s+ community in our mountain town.

The story of Whistler Pride wouldn’t be complete without an exploration of the relationship between the LGBTQ2S+ community and mountain sports. Centering on Pride House, the LGBTQ2S+ pavilion established during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games was a beacon of courage, visibility, and support for queer athletes to be their authentic selves. As the struggle for acceptance continues, this section of the exhibit invites visitors to reflect on the presence of homophobia in sport, and the importance of safe spaces to create awareness and encourage important conversations.

Whistler’s Pride House was located at the Pan Pacific Village Centre and was very visible from outside. Photo courtesy of Clare Johnson.

The exhibit will also feature artifacts, photographs, and films from the past 29 years of the festival in its various forms that will give insight to these historic Pride events. Thanks to Dean Nelson, former festival director (2008 – 2018), for donating many of the artifacts and archival materials being used for the exhibit.

We’re also happy to announce that our extensive collection of Whistler Pride records and materials have now been officially catalogued, rehoused, and published on our online database. Here you can find descriptions on various events, promotions, photographs, and audiovisuals to name a few. Please browse through at your leisure for more information on the history of the festival.

Some of the materials donated as part of the Whistler Pride collection.

We will be celebrating opening night of Pride & Progress: From the Grassroots Altitude to the Fearless Whistler Pride and Ski Festival on this evening, January 25, 2022 with evening hours from 6 to 9 pm. We will also be open from 11 am – 5 pm on Wednesday, January 26. As ever, entry is by donation and masks are required for all visitors to the museum – we hope to see you all here! Otherwise, the exhibit will be on display during our normal operating hours until April 19, 2022.

Not quite ready for an in-person visit? Our 2021 Speaker Series conversation with Dean Nelson is also available to watch on our YouTube channel here.

Chris Monaghan is the assistant archivist at the Whistler Museum and Archives. He has been here on a Young Canada Works contract through the fall and winter.

An Oasis in the Bushes

A couple of weeks ago (Wednesday, November 17), the Whistler Museum opened Parkhurst: Logging Community to Ghost Town, a temporary exhibition about the Parkhurst Mill site. Though the Parkhurst Mill (or Northern Mills, as it was later called) closed in 1956, the site continued to be inhabited and cared for by various people squatting on the privately owned land into the 1990s.

While preparing for this exhibit, we were able to speak with one of the last (as far as we know) full-time residents of Parkhurst. Eric (also known to some as the Sheriff of Parkhurst) lived at Parkhurst from 1995 to July 1996. He first came to Whistler in 1989 and lived in various small cabins before hearing that Parkhurst had become available. He and a friend went over to talk to the previous occupant, who is believed to have lived there for twelve years, and look around the area. At that time, a two-bedroom house and a smaller cabin down the road were still habitable and the pair decided to move in. A few things needed a little bit of fixing up and the structures had no power, but there was an outhouse, gravity-fed running water, a woodshed, and a large garden. Eric and his friend invested a lot of time into the garden by keeping it up, adding a moss garden, collecting wrought iron and decorative ornaments, and making it “a little bit showy for people that were mountain biking in there.” The garden was meant to be shared with those who came by the area.

Part of the buildings and garden that were still present in 1999. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Jackson.

This garden is also part of a bit of a mystery at the museum. In 2007, guestbooks from the Parkhurst garden ranging from 1995 to 1999 were mailed to the Whistler Public Library and then given to the museum to add to our archives in 2016. We don’t have any information about who sent the books to the library, who removed them from Parkhurst, or where they were kept at the garden. (If you have more information about the books, please let us know.)

Along with messages, visitors would leave drawings in the guestbooks, such as this one left in 1998.

Though some of the earlier entries are addressed to Eric, most of the entries in the books are addressed to a mysterious caretaker named “John.” Friends left messages to let John or Eric know they had been by to water the garden or take out some garbage, and two former Parkhurst residents from the 1970s wrote that they had stopped by. Anyone was welcome to write in the books and many people who hiked, biked, or paddled over to Parkhurst recorded their impressions. In July 1995, a group of Swedish physicists came across the garden and left a note to say hello and, in 1997, a hiker asked how John put up with all the mosquitoes. Occasionally, John would respond, such as when Rachel left gifts including a candle and picture for his walls.

The overarching message through the entries is gratitude for what one person described as a “nice oasis in the bushes.” The garden meant something different to each visitor but was appreciated as a peaceful, beautiful space open to all. In 1996, Christine wrote of the garden, “It has been a haven for me ever since I discovered it,” a sentiment that was expressed by many others as well.

As far as we know, this was the only wedding held in the Parkhurst garden area. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Jackson.

In September 1999, a wedding was held in the garden and gazebo when Jen and Rob paddled 75 guests over for their ceremony. By that time, it appears no one was maintaining the garden full-time and the pair did some work to the area before their wedding took place. Today, there are few traces of the garden left and the surrounding buildings have become more dilapidated.

Parkhurst: Logging Camp to Ghost Town will run through January 17, 2022 at the Whistler Museum. If you have a story about the Parkhurst area you would like to share, please let us know!