Category Archives: Tales from Alta Lake

Before the lifts came, Alta Lake was a small resource and summer tourism based community.

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.

The Disappearance of Rainbow Lodge

While visiting Rainbow Park, you may have noticed a few old cabins by the railway tracks; these are the last remaining structures of Rainbow Lodge. Opened by Alex and Myrtle Philip in 1914, Rainbow Lodge operated fo decades as a successful summer destination for those looking to fish, sail, hike, and more. The Philips sold their business to the Greenwood family in 1948, who continued to run the lodge until 1970, when they retired to Arizona and sold Rainbow Lodge to Joan Saxton. As Rainbow Lodge at one time included forty cabins, stables, and a store, as well as the main lodge, you might wonder why there are so few buildings left on the site today.

A panorama view of Rainbow Lodge in the 1930s, though the cabins by the lakeshore are difficult to make out. Barr Collection.

In the early 1970s, Rainbow Lodge ceased operating as a summer resort, though rooms and cabins could still be rented out. Then, on April 21, 1977, the main lodge building caught fire. According to the report in the Whistler Question at the time, there were plumbing alterations being done on the upper level of the building and somehow the fire began in the course of this work. Because the plumbing was being worked on, the water to the building had been shut off. The Whistler Volunteer Fire Department arrived at Rainbow Lodge only fifteen minutes after the call had gone out to its members and were able to contain the fire. However, they ran out of water and had to get a pump to supply water from Alta Lake as the nearest hydrant that could fill their tanker truck was at the located on Timber Lane in Alpine Meadows. The fire department was still able to prevent the fire from spreading to most of the buildings on the property but the main lodge and part of the bathroom block were described as “burned out.”

Rainbow Lodge on fire, April 1977. Busdon Collection.

The remaining cabins on the Rainbow Lodge property continued to be lived in by tenants, often younger people working in Whistler, but the main lodge building was not rebuilt after the fire. Ten years later, the municipality announced that it was going to expropriate the Rainbow Lodge property in an effort to increase public access to the waterfront. Their plan was to turn the property into a public park (the Rainbow Park that we have today). At that point, the property had quite a number of the cabins of Rainbow Lodge still standing, many of them along the shore of Alta Lake, and the municipality took over the rental agreements with any tenants.

The result of the fire in 1977. Busdon Collection.

In February 1989, a master plan for Rainbow Park was presented to Council. This plan aimed to “integrate the historical character of the area with recreation.” The central area of the park, including the location of the main lodge building, was to be lest as a seeded grassy area, which would leave open the option of rebuilding the lodge. The plan also suggested building a boardwalk to link the trail that would come through the park with the remaining buildings, which would house concessions. As well, the plan called for the reconstruction of the Bridge of Sighs and the Rainbow Lodge gateway at the park’s entrance.

Though not an exact copy, you will find a similar looking sign welcoming you to Rainbow Park today. Philip Collection.

As Rainbow Park was developed, the Bridge of Sighs and the gateway were rebuilt according to plan. Most of the buildings on the property were removed and three structures were moved further back from the shore. Today, the remaining cabins at Rainbow Park are used to share the history of the Rainbow Lodge property through interpretive panels installed in many of the windows.

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.

Whistler’s Connection to Canada’s First Talking Picture

Whistler has long had a connection the film industry in Canada, from the long-running Whistler Film Festival to film productions like the campy Ski School comedy films of the 1990s and countless Hallmark Christmas movies to the world-renowned action sports films by Anthill Films and Sherpas Cinema.

Whistler is also part of our nation’s earlier film history in that Canada’s first talking picture, or “talkie” – a film produced with synchronized sound, as opposed to the silent films that were prevalent prior to the 1930s – was based off a novel written by Alta Lake resident Alex Philip.

Myrtle and Alex Philip stand outside Rainbow Lodge in the 1930s. Philip Collection.

Alex Philip was one of Whistler’s most well known residents during the first part of the 20th century. In 1914, he and his wife Myrtle opened Rainbow lodge, Alta Lake’s first summer getaway, and were essential in bringing tourism to the valley.

Alex was also an author and went on to pen three novels while operating Rainbow Lodge. The first of three novels, The Crimson West, was published in 1925. This novel would be adapted into a film called The Crimson Paradise (or Fighting Playboy in the US) in 1933. Shot in Victoria and the surrounding area of Oak Bay and Cowichan Valley, this was Canada’s first talkie.

The screenplay for The Crimson Paradise was written by Arthur Hoerl, who later wrote the screenplay for Reefer Madness (1936), the now-infamous American propaganda film about the dangers of the consumption of marijuana.

The director of The Crimson Paradise, Robert F. Hill, was one of the directors of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, a 15-episode serial film released in 1938. Lucile Browne, who had a leading role in The Crimson Paradise, went on to star opposite John Wayne in two films in 1935: Texas Terror and Rainbow Valley.

The filmmakers hoped that The Crimson Paradise would help to position Victoria as “Hollywood North,” and also hoped to take advantage of new rules limiting the importation of foreign and Hollywood films into the UK. The producers believed that Canada, as part of the British Commonwealth, would not be subjected to the importation rule and could take advantage of a guaranteed audience by being labeled British instead of “foreign.” This turned out to be incorrect, much to the chagrin of the producers.

The Crimson Paradise premiered at the Capitol Theatre in Victoria on Thursday, December 14, 1933. Ivan Ackery, manager of the Capitol Theatre and good friend of Alex Philip, stated, “We only played The Crimson Paradise a week, as I recall, but we did sensational business… It was a real turkey. So lousy it was good. Everyone wanted to see the local people and local scenes.”

Alta Lake’s Alex Philip (left) and Ivan Ackery, manager of the Capitol Theatre in Victoria, remained friends long after the film premiered in 1933. Philip Collection.

The premiere was a major event in Victoria, attracting a few Hollywood stars along with the Premier and Lieutenant Governor of BC. The film played in Victoria for a week before moving to Vancouver for another weeklong engagement. Despite its successful premiere, the film ended up being a major financial disaster and bankrupted one of the financial backers, Kathleen Dunsmuir. The film was estimated to cost between $50,000 and $60,000 (about $1 – 1.2 million when adjusted for inflation).

Alex Philip and Capitol Theatre operator Ivan Ackery remained good friends and would look back fondly on their mutual brush with the film industry. The Whistler Museum collection contains copies of all of Alex’s novels, which we hope to have digitized and available for public viewing in the near future. Sadly, The Crimson Paradise is considered a lost film, meaning that no known copies exist.