Category Archives: Ski-Town Stories

From Whistler to Blackcomb to Whistler Blackcomb.

Shaping the landscape with fire and ice

In the weekly Museum Musings column in Pique Newsmagazine, we mostly explore and share stories of the past. Rarely, however, do we go back thousands or millions of years as is required when talking about the geological history of our region. In celebration of the Sea to Sky Fire and Ice Aspiring GeoRegion, the Museum is showcasing the landscape in the new exhibition Shaping the Landscape with Fire & Ice.

Throughout time, fire and ice have played an important part in shaping the land. Whistler sits in the subduction zone of converging tectonic plates, where the Juan De Fuca plate is being pushed under the North American plate, creating the Coast Mountains. All of the volcanoes considered active in Canada are found in BC and the Yukon along tectonic plate boundaries, and all are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Garibaldi Provincial Park is named after Mount Garibaldi, the largest mountain in the park and a potentially active stratovolcano. While the last eruption was around 13,000 years ago, this is still relatively recent in geological time (Black Tusk, on the other hand, likely erupted approximately 170,000 years ago). Volcanoes can erupt again after being dormant for thousands of years. Thankfully, if Mount Garibaldi was to rumble back life to we would start seeing warnings such as hot springs, hot spots and seismic activity in the region from rising magma.

Fire and ice shaped this region, creating the unique mountains that are popular for recreation. Greg Griffith Collection.

While Mount Baker is instantly recognisable as a volcano, Mount Garibaldi is harder to distinguish because it is not a typical cone shaped volcano. When Mount Garibaldi erupted during the last ice age, one half of the volcanic cone formed on a rock foundation, while the west side settled on top of a glacier. As the glacier melted and receded the mountain collapsed, changing shape. Giant landslides spread the volcanic debris across the Squamish Valley.

We can thank this active volcanic region for the formation of Garibaldi Lake. Also around the end of the last glaciation, Clinker Peak on the shoulder of Mount Price erupted. The Cheakamus Valley had been full of ice over 1.3 km above sea level that was rapidly melting. Lava from the Clinker Peak eruption flowed towards the valley below where it hit the Cheakamus Valley glacier. There it cooled rapidly against the wall of ice, solidifying to create a dam across the mountain valley. As snow and ice melted from the mountains above it became trapped behind this wall, known as The Barrier, creating Garibaldi Lake.

Garibaldi Lake. Cliff Fenner Collection.

The only water that leaves Garibaldi Lake year round gushes from springs coming through the scree slope below The Barrier. This consistent flow of water lubricates the bottom of the naturally unstable dam and poses a significant geological hazard, with some scientists worried it could one day collapse. It is not uncommon to see rocks fall from The Barrier, hence the name of Rubble Creek below, and according to indigenous oral histories a major landslide occurred 1855 when a slab of rock fell from The Barrier. With approximately 1.28 trillion litres of water trapped by an unstable dam wall at 1400 metres of elevation, a collapse could be catastrophic. It is for this reason that an evacuation order of Garibaldi Townsite was issued in 1980, with the last residents leaving the town in 1986. Today the Garibaldi Townsite no longer exists. 

Hikers looking at The Barrier around the 1960s or 1970s. Cliff Fenner Collection.

Shaping the Landscape with Fire & Ice is on now at the Whistler Museum, open from 11am every day except Wednesday. Entry is by donation, and you can further support the Whistler Museum by becoming a Museum Member.

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.