Category Archives: Ski-Town Stories

From Whistler to Blackcomb to Whistler Blackcomb.

Why Did the Raccoon Cross the Road?

Whistler is well known for the stunning natural environment. On the doorstep to nature it is not uncommon to see wildlife in and around town. I recently saw a raccoon crossing the pedestrian crossing near Marketplace, and on the same day I watched a coyote stroll through the playground in the Village. A few days later many people watched a bear cruise through that same playground, unfortunately for the bear.

This region has always been a hub for nature, but with an increase in development we are also changing the habitat for local wildlife. While humans are the biggest threat to most wildlife in Whistler, and throughout the world, raccoons and a few other animals thrive in human-altered environments.

Rocky the Raccoon was a nightly visitor to the Whistler Vale Bar in the late 1970s. Whistler Question Collection.

Before the lifts started turning, when Whistler was known as Alta Lake, a study of the local mammals was completed by Kenneth Racey and Ian McTaggart Cowan. After observing and collecting ecological data for a combined 22 years, including talking to many local trappers well attuned to the local wildlife, Mammals of the Alta Lake Region of South-western British Columbia was published in 1935. At this time it was noted that raccoons do ‘not occur regularly in the district’. Tracks of raccoons passing through the valley had only been identified twice throughout the study.

However, as the town started to grow rapidly raccoons started to find that humans could be a great source of food and shelter. When longtime local, Trudy Alder, moved to Whistler in 1968 the raccoons had already started to train the locals, or vice versa according to Trudy, who remembered, “We lived in harmony with many of the animals in our everyday lives. There were plenty of animals; the raccoons thought they were our pets and we could easily train them to eat from our hands.”

Raccoons are smart, bold and inquisitive, allowing them to quickly adapt their behaviour to the changed environment. Additionally, their paws are hypersensitive and tactile so they can easily get into things for further mischief. Populations of raccoons in Whistler have increased as the number of people have increased, and the same phenomenon can be seen in many urban areas where raccoon populations increase with human development. Raccoons that live in urban environments have much smaller home ranges and live in higher densities than in their natural habitats. They are omnivorous scavengers and humans provide great sources of high-energy food through garbage, pets and gardens. Why did the raccoon cross the road? Probably for food.

The caption from the Whistler Question, August 1984, is as follows, ‘And you thought kids only carry ghetto blasters on their shoulders these days? This raccoon was spotted roaming the village Saturday’. Despite the evidence in this photo, raccoons do not make good pets. Today it is illegal keep raccoons as pets in BC. Whistler Question Collection.

Another mammal that has increased in numbers since 1935, although for different reasons, is the beaver. According to Mammals of Alta Lake, at the time of publication beavers had been hunted to non-existence in the valley. Now that the hunting has ceased the beaver population has bounced back. Today you can see signs of active beavers around Whistler’s wetlands, and, if you are lucky, you might see the beaver itself.

Some things change, while others stay the same. There is an animal encounter recorded in Mammals of Alta Lake that could have happened today. Between 1927 and 1928, trapper and early Alta Lake resident, John Bailiff caught 28 flying squirrels in his traps. The squirrels were being stored in a freezer when a sneaky marten weaselled in and stole them. Today martens are still known to weasel into backcountry huts and on-mountain restaurants, helping themselves to food, and sometimes ski gear.

For more on the local natural history, drop in to Whistler Museum’s Discover Nature pop-up museum at Lost Lake Park. Open Tuesday through Friday 11am to 5pm until the end of August.

Rafting Through Whistler

Rafting has long been a favourite summer leisure activity throughout the Whistler Valley. In 1913, Alex and Myrtle Philip bought their 10-acre property on Alta Lake for $700 (where Rainbow Park is today). Rainbow Lodge and the Pacific Great Eastern (PGE) Railway were both completed the next year in 1914, and together they started offering Fisherman’s Excursions. The $6 package deal included train passage and a fully catered weekend of fishing at Rainbow Lodge. When the first group of 24 anglers disembarked the train for the Fishermen’s Excursion, Rainbow Lodge had multiple wooden rafts and one boat that visitors would fish from. The first excursion was a huge success with everyone catching fish. News of the fishing on Alta Lake spread rapidly throughout Vancouver, bringing a continual stream of visitors to Rainbow Lodge in the summer.

Rafting at Rainbow Lodge. Philip Collection.

When Hillcrest Lodge opened in 1946, rafting also played a role in entertaining guests. When new guests arrived at the train station, they would be greeted by current guests in costume and then transported across the lake in a convoy of rafts. During the stay, Hillcrest Lodge offered many organised activities for guests. One of their favourite activities were the musical raft rides around Alta Lake, not unlike those that float around on warm summer days today. Raft rides would also be used to transport locals and guests to and from the Saturday night community hall dances. The community would look forward to these dances and come out in force, with Rainbow Lodge and Hillcrest Lodge sharing the catering for these popular events.

Guests were escorted to Hillcrest Lodge via raft. Mansell Collection.

70 years after Myrtle and Alex bought their land on Alta Lake, the first commercial white water rafting venture in Whistler started. Whistler was still developing as a summer destination when Whistler River Adventures opened in 1983. Asked about how things changed in the rafting business over his 27 years as owner/manager, Brian Leighton was quick to say, “Competition.”

In the early to mid 1980s, anyone could start a rafting company and many more white water rafting companies popped up after Whistler River Adventures. Following some bad rafting accidents in 1987, including 5 people who drowned after their raft overturned on a log jam in the Elaho, the BC provincial government introduced stricter regulations. The regulations introduced mandates for each river, including rules on raft size and guide experience. Although many companies already chose to follow recommended safety guidelines, strict regulations had only been in place for five BC rivers prior to 1987. River-specific tenure for raft companies was also later introduced.

An identified rafting adventure near Whistler, July 1 1984. Helmets and wetsuits are worn today during commercial rafting tours, however the expressions of exhilaration remain unchanged! Whistler Question Collection.

Remembering a trip that would not happen today, Brian recounted a staff tour along the Cheakamus River below Daisy Lake Dam. This area is now closed to commercial groups due to concerns about The Barrier breaking, which could result in massive downstream flooding and landslides from Garibaldi Lake. During the staff trip the raft became stuck on a rock in the middle of the river. A staff member living in the now-gone Garibaldi Township saw a sandal float past on the river downstream of the stranded raft and went to see if everything was okay. Everyone was rescued, although the raft remained stuck. Whistler River Adventures knew the engineer working on Daisy Lake Dam and the following day BC Hydro shut off the dam so that the raft could be retrieved from the rock. It was the eighties after all!

To help us collect and share stories become a Whistler Museum Member today.  Annual membership is $25 for an individual or $40 for a family and can be purchased in the museum or by visiting our website whistlermuseum.org.

The Real Story of The Longhorn Saloon

While you may have heard wild stories about the Texas Longhorns driving their cattle through Whistler to the Caribou, these are cover stories to the real series of events that led to the naming of The Longhorn Saloon.

The Longhorn Pub in December 1981. The hand-painted sign is a far cry from the slick branding you will see there today. Whistler Question Collection.

It all started when the phone rang in the Vancouver office of lawyer and business-person Dick Gibbons. On the other end of the phone line selling shares for a “terrific” stock, was a man with a terrible stutter. Dick said of this phone call, “I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdogs. Growing up on the railway tracks in Burnaby I know what it is like when you are considered an underdog. So after hearing this I said, ‘Okay, I’ll buy some’.” Making a fairly large purchase Dick received a certificate for his shares in the Canadian Longhorn Petroleum Company. Not long after the company started trading on the stock exchange it went out of business and the shares became worthless. As a reminder of this lesson Dick continued to keep the share certificate on his desk.

In Whistler in the early 1980s interest rates reached up to 22%. Many developments were halted as owners, developers and contractors faced economic hardship. Dick Gibbons did not set out to run a pub; he ended up running The Longhorn Pub because he could not sell it. Nobody was buying at this time.

The Longhorn Pub opened on December 23 1981, almost 11 months before the residential units of the Carleton Lodge were completed. After a successful opening and holiday season, the Whistler Question remarked on the “small miracle and lot of hard work” that allowed The Longhorn to open before the holidays. According to the newspaper, on December 21 The Longhorn was an empty shell with workers painting and dismantling scaffolding while floor tiles dried. Then, in just 48 hours, it was open for business and selling cold drinks and hot food.

The Longhorn was instantly popular in the winter. Here it is packed at the beginning of January 1982, not long after the grand opening. Whistler Question Collection.

Prior to opening, the liquor licensing branch said during a call that they would approve a liquor licence, they just needed a name to put on the certificate. Still sitting on the corner of his desk Dick Gibbons saw the worthless share certificate for Canadian Longhorn Petroleum Company, and thought, ‘Aha, I’m going to get some value out of this yet,’ and The Longhorn Pub was born! Later when the naming rules were relaxed it was officially changed from pub to The Longhorn Saloon.

Before the deck was completed, there was an orange plastic fence to indicate the boundaries of The Longhorn. During the ski season, despite patrons standing in the mud outside with no chairs to sit on, there would still be a line up to get inside the fence for a drink.

Summer was a different story. When Dick Gibbons called manager Gavin Yee to check on business he said, “Well it’s been kind of slow.” How slow exactly? Despite being late in the afternoon, the total sales for the day were one pack of cigarettes. To encourage summer recreation they tried everything to get the momentum going. They built a backstop at the old Myrtle Philip School and hosted slow pitch tournaments. Volleyball courts and a horseshoe pit were built in front of The Longhorn patio and games would run throughout summer.

Assistant manager Gavin Yee (left) poses with manager Peter Grant (right) in January 1982. Whistler Question Collection.

Eldon Beck’s vision of a bustling Whistler Village in summer encouraged Dick Gibbons to invest in Whistler during the original proposal meeting in 1979. Although it was a slow start, that vision has now been realised with summer visitation outpacing winter. Likewise, with the long lines, pumping music and gyrating dance floor, The Longhorn Saloon is a Whistler institution. The luck of The Longhorn did indeed turn around.

Whistler at 22% Interest – Part 2

Find Part 1 here.

When the financial crisis of the 1980s hit Whistler even the prime real estate at the base of both mountains did not make it through unscathed. Dick Gibbons and Jack Cram were partners in Fitzsimmons Condominiums and Stoney’s Restaurant, where La Bocca is today. With a completed Whistler development under their belts, they were approached by Whistler Village Land Company (WVLC) about potentially purchasing the unfinished project where the Carleton Lodge now stands.

The base of Whistler Mountain in 1981 showing the Carleton Lodge under construction. The Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside Hotel can be seen on the right. The base of the mountain looks a bit different today! Arv Pellegrin Collection.

At the time the foundation was partially complete and it was anticipated that this building would be a day lodge and gateway for both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, however WVLC’s finances were dire and there was not enough money to finish the project. Dick recalls a conversation with Neil Griggs, President of the WVLC “I don’t want to exaggerate this, he literally begged us to finish the Carleton Lodge. I seem to recall he had tears in his eyes.”

Together with additional partners, they negotiated a deal wherein they agreed to finish the project on the condition that if they were unable to sell the 32 condominium units for a certain price the development permit charges would be refunded. Throughout the build the architect, building contractor, and many partners felt the financial strain. By the end of the project, Dick Gibbons and Ken Mahon were the only two left to finance and run the show.

Dick Gibbons and Gilbert Konqui in 1981. It was all hands on deck to get the Carleton Lodge and The Longhorn completed. Whistler Question Collection.

When the Carleton Lodge was finally completed in November 1982, few residential units sold and Dick Gibbons ended up running The Longhorn because nobody else would buy it. The unsold residential units were transferred to the people involved in the development according to their investments, and development permit charges were refunded as initially agreed after the court got involved.

When Dick Gibbons was asked how he was able to balance his finances while many in Whistler could not, he said, “Being a little more risk adverse than some others might be was good for me at times and bad for me at other times because you miss opportunities. I sold quite a bit of real estate when the market had its peak in Vancouver because I thought it pretty much couldn’t go any higher.” Obviously real estate in Vancouver did eventually increase, but selling these real estate investments left Dick in a more comfortable position when interest rates skyrocketed, although it was still a difficult period.

Signs for The Longhorn and Nasty Jack’s can be seen while the Carleton Lodge is still under construction in 1982. Arv Pellegrin Collection.

Interest rates had an impact throughout all of the Whistler community. Bruce Watt, who had been a patroller since 1974, decided his family needed better financial security which led to him getting into real estate, a career he has loved and where you will still find him today. On the other hand, the ugly unfinished Village led realtor Drew Meredith to make “the mistake of running for Mayor in 1986” (his words, not mine) where he served for two terms.

While similar circumstances led to very different decisions, a consistent sentiment when talking to long-time locals about this time is that they would not want to do it again. The Village was started just in time, a year later and it may never have happened.