Category Archives: Tales from Alta Lake

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

A Dairy at Alta Lake

When Alfred Barnfield first came to the Sea to Sky area he likely wasn’t planning to one day be delivering milk and cream by canoe.  After arriving in Canada, Alfred spent a few years working various jobs before settling in Squamish in 1891.  Around that time, the provincial government paid him $1,000 to inspect the condition of the Pemberton Trail, which had not been widely used since its construction in the 1870s.  The result of his inspection allowed the Pemberton Trail to reopen to packhorse traffic and would have provided Alfred with his first views of Alta Lake.

Alfred Barnfield atop Wedge Mountain, with what appears to be a rock pick, while working as a prospector.  Barnfield Collection.

In 1903 Alfred formed a group with a few other Englishmen, imaginatively named The London Group, and prospected around the Garibaldi and Black Tusk area but never made any substantial finds.  Two years later he returned to the Alta Lake area to preempt and clear land on the northeast end of the lake.

That same year, Daisy Hotchkiss came to Brackendale with her sister and brother-in-law at the age of fifteen.  Alfred and Daisy were married five years later and the pair continued clearing the land at Alta Lake.

Daisy Hotchkiss was 23 years younger than Alfred Barnfield, but by all accounts the pair had a very successful marriage.  Barnfield Collection.

As Alta Lake gained a reputation as a fishing destination and summer resort, Alfred and Daisy and their four children (Fred, William, Vera and Charles) established a dairy farm on their land to supply the lodges and cottage around the lake with fresh milk, cream, eggs, and butter.  While grocery orders could be delivered from Vancouver by train, fresh dairy products would have been hard to come by on a daily basis.  At one point the Barnfields kept fourteen cows, as well as chickens and a few pigs.

Daisy Barnfield feeds the chickens with some help from the children, seemingly at the Brackendale property.  Barnfield Collection.

In an interview with the museum in 1993, Vera Merchant remembered her father loading his canoe with boxes of milk and delivering it around the lake.  According to Vera, he made his deliveries every morning, even when the weather was questionable.  She recalled, “He never missed a morning and sometimes it would be so stormy he just couldn’t hardly make that canoe go.”  Luckily for Alfred, he was able to end his deliveries with a visit in the kitchen at Rainbow Lodge, where he would be brought up to date on all the local news and gossip.

The Barnfields moved their dairy farm to Brackendale in 1926 but the family continued to spend their summers at Alta Lake, delivering milk and cream by canoe.  Vera remembered that every summer they would rent a cattle car and load up the cows, crates of chickens, and pigs for the rail journey to Alta Lake.

For the Barnfield children, summers weren’t all about work.  Their father taught them to swim and apparently they took to the water like fish.  The Barnfields kept a horse for working on the land and as a small child Vera would take him for rides, going so far as Green Lake where she would visit her friend at the Lineham Mink Ranch.  She recalled that she never worried about the bears and cougars known to be in the area, feeling safe atop the large horse.

Vera Barnfield returned to Alta Lake in the 1930s and worked a couple of summers at Rainbow Lodge.  Philip Collection.

Even after the Barnfields topped bringing their dairy up to Alta Lake for the season they kept ownership of the land at the northeast end of the lake until after Alfred’s death in 1960.  In the 1970s Daisy sold most of the property to Robert Bishop and Bernard Brown and it was developed as Adventures West and the Whistler Cay neighbourhood.  She gave each of her three surviving children (Charles had been killed in the Second World War) about an acre of lakefront property.

Though there are no traces of a dairy left, in 1988 the last of Alfred’s property was sold and the family can be seen in the addresses of those who live there: Barnfield Place and Daisy Lane.

Alta Lake Speeders

Transportation in the Whistler valley takes many different forms; people walk, bike, rollerblade, skateboard, bus, drive, and even ski in some seasons from one place to another.  In the early 20th century Alta lake residents had another way to get around the area: the railroad.

Speeders, maintenance vehicles used by inspectors, work crews, and other employees to travel along the track, are often mentioned in oral histories about Alta lake.  Speeders could be dangerous (in 1918 John Jardine was working for the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE) alongside Thomas Neiland when the speeder he was riding on collided with a train and John was killed) but they could also be very convenient.  In the 1950s, when there was still no easy road access to Alta lake, those with speeders were some of the first to be called in the event of an emergency, such as when a section foreman and his speeder were called on to transport a labouring Marianne Golnick to the hospital in Squamish.

Especially when snow was piled high, the tracks offered a clear path through the valley.  Jardine/Betts/Smith Collection.

Eugene Jordan, the son of Russ Jordan who operated Jordan’s Lodge on Nita Lake, spend some summers living at Nita Lake with his wife Lorraine and their children while he worked in fire suppression for the BC Forest Service.  Fire Suppression meant following the train on a speeder and putting out any fires found along the way.  According to Lorraine, “There were quite a few fires, you know, people would throw a cigarette out.  And the trains used to themselves, the brakes would give off sparks and start fires.”

The BC Forest Service and fire suppression also brought Walt Punnett to the valley in 1947.  Walt had served in the navy during the Second World War and, after being discharged, began working with the Forest Service.  Like Eugene, Walt followed the trains on the PGE on a speeder as a “spark-chaser.”  He was stationed at Mile 83 (today known as Devine) but his section extended south to the Alta Lake Station and he would sometimes be entertained by Alex Philip at Rainbow Lodge in between runs.

These handcars (powered by pumping the lever at the front) were popular before speeders were introduced, and were sometimes used for fun by those who lived at Alta Lake since they were much faster than walking

Walt explained that he and his partner would wait ten or fifteen minutes before following after the train, as “by that time if there was gonna be anything, a fire, it would have got started but not had time to do any damage.”  Most of the fires would start in rotten ties and could be smelt while passing.  According to Walt, the summer of 1947 was a quiet fire season and the worst part of the job was filling out paperwork, which all had to be filled out in triplicate by hand.

A covered speeder traveling on the PGE tracks in wintertime.  Some speeders were larger than others and could carry an entire crew.  Jardine/Betts/Smith Collection.

Despite a quiet summer, Walt’s last day of work for the Forest Service demonstrated both the danger and the convenience of speeders.  A millworker had run his fingertips through an edger and the fastest means of transportation to reach medical care was by speeder.  Walt phoned Squamish to find out what trains were running that day and the pair set out.  Only one freight trains was expected and it was meant to be quite a ways off.  Near Anderson Lake, however, while heading downhill and northbound, Walt rounded a bend and found the steam engine coming straight at him.  The speeder was moving too fast to jump off of so Walt held onto his passenger, threw on the one-wheel brake, and at the last second, Walt and his passenger jumped off either side and watched the speeder flip high in the air.

Speeders have now largely been replaced by trucks using flanged wheels to travel along tracks, but they were an important mode of transportation for Alta Lake residents, especially in case of an emergency.

A Variety of Whistler Cooks

Over the past few weeks, while taking some time to prepare the museum to reopen for the summer (yes, we’re open!), we’ve been continuing our perusal of Whistler Recipes, the cookbook put out by the Whistler Museum & Archives Society as a fundraiser in July 1997.  The book brought together recipes from past and (then) present Whistler and Alta lake residents and, by looking into the stories behind the names attached to each recipe, it doesn’t take long to realize just how quickly the area has changed.

Lizzie Neiland and her children (Jenny, Jack & Bob Jardine) came to Alta Lake with Tom Neiland in 1921 and lived in a house on Alpha Lake, where Tom started his own logging business.  In 1923 the family moved into an old cabin at 34 1/2 Mile (an area today better known as Function Junction) where they would live for the next two decades.  From photos of the “Neiland Jardine Ranch,” we can tell that the Neiland family had an impressive garden and even kept chickens and, at times, other livestock.  This was not uncommon for the time, when many households grew their own produce, made their own preserves, and even raised their own livestock.

Jardine-Neiland property at 34 1/2 mile, today’s Function Junction

Whistler Recipes was dedicated to the early residents of Alta Lake “who cooked and baked under challenging conditions.”  This would have included Lizzie Neiland, who kept her family fed at a time when power and running water were not easily come by in the valley, groceries were ordered from Vancouver and delivered by train, and challenging economic conditions sometimes led to the shooting of a “government cow” (deer poached out of season).

There is one recipe in Whistler Recipes attributed to Lizzie Neiland, for “Barney Google Cake.”  Though we can’t find much information on the cake, Barney Google was a character in a daily strip first published in 1919, first called Take Barney Google, F’rinstance, and today known as Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.

Formal portrait of Thomas and Lizzie Neiland taken in the 1940s

Also included in the book was a recipe for “Warm Chicken Spinach Salad” from Chef Bernard Casavant, who spent his time in Whistler cooking in a kitchen very different form the one Lizzie Neiland would have had.

Chef Bernard grew up on Vancouver Island and knew before he left school that he was going to be a chef.  He became one of the first chefs from BC to earn the highest qualification of Certified Chef de Cuisine and was the first West Coast born and trained chef to represent Canada in the Bocuse d’Or Competition, France.  He moved to Whistler in 1989 to become the executive chef at the newly opened Chateau Whistler Resort.

Chef Bernard Casavant, one of Canada’s most noted culinary maestros. Whistler Question Collection, 1994.

Chef Bernard is considered to have played an important role in turning Whistler into a culinary destination.  After eight years at the Chateau he left to open his own restaurant, Chef Bernard’s Cafe, in the Upper Village and was voted Best Chef in Pique Newsmagazine’s Best of Whistler for multiple years.  Part of what made Chef Bernard (or “Cheffie” as one article referred to him) so popular was his support for the local farming community and belief in using fresh and local ingredients (in 1993 he was one of the founders of the Whistler Farmers’ Market), and his involvement in the community (he was also the founding chef of Whistler Search and Rescue’s Wine’d Up fundraiser).  He and his wife Bonnie moved to the Okanagan in 2006.

By the time Chef Bernard moved to the area it would have been very different from the Alta Lake Lizzie Neiland first came to almost seventy years earlier, but we love that the recipes of early Alta Lake residents are included alongside those of renowned chefs, all of whom cooked in the same valley.

Cooking with the Museum

Earlier this month the museum posted a photo on our Instagram account of a page from Whistler Recipes, a cookbook published by the Whistler Museum & Archives Society in 1997.  The book contains recipes gathered from past and (at the time) present residents of Whistler and Alta Lake, as well as a few scattered recipes from a 1940 cookbook published by The Vancouver Sun.  Recipes such as “Myrtle’s Muffins” from Myrtle Philip, who was one of the original proprietors of Rainbow Lodge in 1914, are found along with instructions for making Yorkshire Puddings from Ann Bright, whose family moved to the area when her husband Jack Bright began working as the general manager of Whistler Mountain in the 1960s.

This cover may look familiar to some!

It is easy to tell that some of the recipes have been handed down from friends or family, with specific names attached to contributions such as “Mrs. Noble’s Blueberry Muffins” and measurements you wouldn’t necessarily see written in more formal cookbooks.  The best example of this comes from “Granny Cosgrave’s Scones” submitted by J’Anne Greenwood, which called for “1 lump butter, the size of a small egg.”

Mabel Cosgrave first visited Alta Lake in 1923 when she, her eight year old daughter Sala, and her mother Judith “Mimi” Forster-Coull stayed at Rainbow Lodge.  The family returned the next summer and in 1925 Mabel bought a lot on Alta Lake and hired Bert Harrop to construct a cabin.  After Mabel and Sala moved from Seattle to Vancouver they were able to use their Alta Lake cabin quite often in all seasons.

Sala’s daughter J’Anne Greenwood visited Alta Lake for the first time at just six months old in 1940.  Sala and her family had been living in Winnipeg, where her husband was in the RCMP, but after he joined the army and was sent overseas Mabel, Sala, and J’Anne decided to live at the Alta Lake cabin full-time.

Mabel “Granny” Cosgrave’s original cottage, July 1926. Photo courtesy of J’Anne Greenwood.

Over the summers of 1943 and 1944 they ran a tearoom out of the cabin (possibly even serving the same scone recipe).  Sala did the cooking while Mabel read tea leaves for those who wished.  In 1944 Sala bought two lots of her own on Alta Lake, paying Charlie Chandler a total of $800, in anticipation of her husband’s return from war.  Sadly, he was killed while still overseas.

One of the lots had a cabin built in the 1930s and Dick Fairhurst and his brother built an additional wing to be used as a tearoom in 1945.  That same year, however, Mabel, Sala, and J’Anne moved back to Vancouver, in part for J’Anne to attend school as the Alta Lake School had closed.  The family continues to spend time at the cabin regularly.

When the Philips retired and sold Rainbow Lodge in 1948, Myrtle Philip bought Mabel Cosgrave’s original cabin and owned it until her death at the age of 95 in 1986.  The cabin on Sala’s lot stood until 1989, when the Greenwood family decided to build a new house.  Like many other buildings from that period, the original cabin was offered to the fire department, who burned it down as part of fire practice.

The recipes included in the book taste as good today as they would have when the cookbook was first published in 1997.

Recipes and the people who share them can offer far more information than just what people like to eat and so we love that Whistler Recipes includes names for each contributor.  Keep an eye on our social media for more recipes and results from Whistler Recipes (we tried making Elaine Wallace’s Lemon Loaves and can confirm that they are delicious) throughout June and, if you happen to have a copy, let us know what your favourites are!

Camping Advice from “Ol’ Bill”

A few weeks ago we took a look at Bill Bailiff and his column in the “Community Weekly Sunset,” the newsletter of the Alta Lake Community Club, which featured information about the history and environment of the area, alongside personal anecdotes.  With summer approaching and the thoughts of many turning to camping, we thought we’d share another topic from Bailiff’s articles: practical advice from “Camping Out with Ol’ Bill.”

In April and May of 1958 Bailiff wrote a series of articles about camping in the area, including suggestions on where to camp, what to bring, why one should go camping or hiking, and how to behave while out in the wilderness.  While some of his advice still holds true, his suggested campgrounds for the area look a little different today.

Ol’ Bill’s articles were illustrated with images such as this, showing what one could do while camping around the area. Community Weekly Sunset, Vol. 1, Issue 14.

In 1958, a get away from the crowds at Alta Lake could be as near as a trip to Green Lake (“lots of good camping and ground and sometimes good fishing”), Twin Lakes (“good safe place to camp, a good hike but no fish”), or Lost Lake (“ideal, good fishing, good camping site”).  Today, just over sixty years later, very few spots around any of these lakes would be considered a campsite in the wilderness.

Some of Bailiff’s more lasting advice comes from a article he wrote outlining what not to do while camping:

  • Don’t go sliding down a steep snowbank as you may not be able to stop and the rocks below are harder and sharper than your bones.
  • If on a glacier, don’t ever attempt to cross on a snowbridge over a crevice as these are liable to give way anytime so leave that to the experienced mountaineers who rope themselves.
  • Don’t step on a wet greasy log with ordinary shoes on as you may go down hard enough to receive a cracked rib or two.
  • If off the trail and lost, don’t panic.
  • Don’t be a litterbug around a campsite, clean it up as someone else might be along to use it.
  • Don’t stay too long on a snowfield without dark glasses on as you may get a terrific headache from partial snowblindness.
  • Don’t go killing wildlife needlessly… Much better to try a shot with your camera.
  • Don’t be an old grouch round the camp or on the trail as this has a bad morale effect on others.  If the going is tough take it with a smile and joke about it as it makes it easier and pleasanter.

The most pointed of Bailiff’s advice is reserved for campfires, as forest fires were a concern in 1958 much as they are today.  Along with suggestions of where to make a campfire (not next to a tree) and instructions for reporting an uncontrolled fire (in 1958, not so simple as making a phone call), he reminded those who would go camping that they have a responsibility to the environment.  As he put it, “Don’t take the attitude it’s none of my business because it is your business.  You’re enjoying the cool green forest full of lift ad breathing in the sweet scented life-giving oxygen.”

Camping equipment may look a little different these days. Philip Collection.

Camping in the area looks different than it did in the days of “Ol’ Bill” (tents now tend towards lightweight and waterproof) but his ideas of safety and stewardship should remain priorities for those heading out this summer.

Happiest in the Mountains: Stefan Ples (Part Two)

There is an often told story of the first meeting of Stefan Ples and Franz Wilhelmsen of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. on Whistler Mountain.  Apparently Franz arrived at the top of the mountain by helicopter to find Stefan there on skis.  Franz asked, “What are you doing on my mountain?”, to which Stefan replied, “What are you doing on mine?”  Though we do not know exactly how their first meeting occurred, the story certainly demonstrates Stefan’s love of the mountain and his preferred way to navigate it.  (For more information on Stefan’s life before coming to Alta Lake, check out last week’s article here.)

Stefan and Gerda Ples sit on their hearth at Alta Lake. Photo courtesy of Bareham family.

Although Stefan didn’t understand why people would prefer going up on lifts and skiing only a short distance down, he became greatly involved in the development of Whistler Mountain.  By the mid 1960s he had been exploring the mountain on his skis for years and knew the are perhaps better than anyone at the time.  Stefan began working for the lift company in 1963, going up to Alta Lake every weekend for over a year to climb up to a meadow at the bottom of the T-bar, where he would record the temperature and snowfall and other information (his handwritten reports were donated to the Whistler Museum & Archives by his daughter Renate Bareham in 2013).

When construction of the runs and lifts began Stefan moved up to Alta Lake full time to work.  Part of his responsibilities was to bring the horses up the mountain with supplies to a work camp that was set up in what may have been the same meadows he gathered his reports from.  Renate accompanied him on one of his trips up with the horses and told the museum, “It was just magical, because we went up through the forest and everything and we ended up in this meadow.  Oh, it was so beautiful up there.”

During one particularly bad snow year, Stefan also introduced the sport of Ice Stock Sliding to the valley.  “The old master, Stefan Ples, who introduced ice stock sliding to the Whistler area, sending one of the “rocks” down the recently blacktopped course next to the school at Whistler.” (Garibaldi Whistler News Fall 1977)

Though Gerda had continued to run their rooming house in Vancouver when Stefan first started working for the lift company, the rest of the family moved to Alta Lake in 1966.  According to Renate, not many people lived in the area at the time, and those who did either worked for the lift company or worked construction around the gondola base.  Renate attended high school in Squamish and worked for the lift company on the weekends and breaks.  At fourteen she began by stapling lift tickets and then handing out boarding passes, moving on to teach skiing for Jim McConkey when she turned sixteen.  She also babysat, caring for the Bright and Mathews children whose parents worked for the mountain.

Stefan continued working for the lift company and led ski tours to areas the lifts didn’t access.  One summer Renate even remembered helping him paint the top of the Red Chair.  Despite working for the lift company and receiving a lifetime pass in 1980, Stefan continued to prefer walking up, occasionally taking a lift as far as midstation before beginning his climb.

According to Renate, the only person who could go up the mountain on skis faster than her father was Seppo Makinen: “It took my dad three hours, probably, to get to the peak.  Seppo made it in an hour and a half.  I think he actually ran, you know, on his cross country skis, and my dad walked on his cross country skis, but Seppo ran.  He was also considerably younger than my father.”

Stefan Ples, long-time resident of Whistler, receives a lifetime pass from Garibaldi Lifts President Franz Wilhelmsen in recognition of his long involvement with Whistler Mountain.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Parts of Stefan’s legacy can be seen throughout the area though many may not know of his role in creating it, from the Tyrol Lodge to the two runs off Whistler Peak that bear his name (Stefan’s Chute and Stefan’s Salute).  He was a founding member of the Alta Lake Volunteer Fire Department in the 1960s and helped start Whistler’s first Search and Rescue Team in 1973.  His name can also be found on the Stefan Ples trophy, the prize for the overall winners of the Peak to Valley Race, as he like to climb to the peak and then ski all the way down.

Though some people may come to Whistler to build a career or make it rich, Renate said of her father that, “All he wanted to do was be in the mountains,” a goal it would appear he certainly accomplished.

Happiest in the Mountains: Stefan Ples (Part One)

Well before people started to pay for lift access and a day’s skiing, skiers were climbing Whistler and the surrounding mountains, either in search of skiable terrain, such as the George Bury expedition in 1939, or simply to spend time outdoors exploring, such as Pip Brock in the early 1930s.  One person who spent countless hours ski touring on Whistler Mountain was Stefan Ples.

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1912, Stefan Ples spent much of his life surrounded by mountains.  When he was a young man it was common to work until noon on Saturdays, leaving Saturday afternoons and Sundays as his free time.  According to his daughter Renate Bareham, Stefan would work until noon and then get on a train or his bicycle and head for cabins in the mountains.  Ski lifts were still relatively new and uncommon at the time (the first recorded ski lift was built by Robert Winterhalder in Germany in 1908) and so Stefan would spend his time climbing up the mountain, skiing down only once at the end of his trip.  This would remain his preferred way to ski for the rest of his life.

Stefan and Gerda Ples sit on their hearth at Alta Lake. Photo courtesy of Bareham family.

During the Second World War Stefan lived in Hallein, a town outside of Salzburg, where his wife sadly passed away, leaving him with their young son.  After a move to Sweden Stefan met Gerda.  She came from Leipzig, Germany and had lost her fiancé in the war.  Like Stefan, Gerda was planning to come to Canada.  The pair got married and Stefan, Gerda and Steve came to to Canada together, docking in Halifax and then going by train to Montreal.  In Montreal, Stefan would hike up Mount Royal whenever he got the chance, though it couldn’t compare to the mountains he grew up in.  The family spent some time there before moving on to Vancouver.

In Vancouver, Stefan and Gerda ran a rooming house in the West End, a Victorian building located on Denman and Davie Streets, right across the street from English Bay.  Renate, who was born in Vancouver, remembered that their house became the first stop for Austrian immigrants coming to the city.  In 2013 she told the museum, “I think I met just about every Austrian that came to Canada in the first ten years that I was born.”

Settling in Vancouver also meant Stefan was once again living amongst mountains.  In the early 1950s he, along with Norbert Kamnig, Fips Broda, and Erhard Franks, instructors at Hans Brunner’s ski school on Hollyburn Mountain, became founding members of the Tyrol Ski and Mountain Club.  The Club soon built a cabin on Mount Seymour, where Stefan and his family would often go in the summers.  Renate learned to ski on rope tows on both these mountains, though she remembers Seymour more clearly.

The Tyrol Ski & Mountain Club enjoyed the area so much they even decided to build a lodge in the 1960s. The Tyrol Lodge still stands above Nita Lake today.  Tyrol Lodge Collection.

According to the Club, it was a chance meeting with an Alta Lake resident at a cobbler that first introduced Stefan to the area around Whistler Mountain.  He and a few other Club members took the train up to Alta Lake and were impressed with the location, returning afterward to continue ski touring around the area.  In 1959, Stefan and Gerda went further and bought a property on Alta Lake next to Cypress Lodge.  This became their own cabin in the mountains, though it would be a few more years before the family moved to Alta Lake full time.

Next week we’ll be continuing with a look at Stefan Ples and his family’s time at Alta Lake and Whistler Mountain.