Category Archives: Tales from Alta Lake

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

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.

Adeline the Alta Lake Donkey

The cover of the February 1969 edition of Garibaldi’s Whistler News featured a photo of Tex Rodgers guiding cars through the parking lot for Whistler Mountain on horseback. Over the years that Tex worked for the lift company, it was not uncommon for skiers to see him astride his horse directing traffic, but his was not the only four-legged mount that could be found in the area. Also glimsped around Alta Lake and, at times, at Whistler Mountain was Karen Gow’s donkey Adeline.

Tex Rodgers directing traffic for Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection

The Gows first moved to Alta Lake in 1955, when Don Gow began working as the station agent at the Alta Lake Station. He had previously worked for the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE) as a relief agent, traveling with his family from station to station to provide relief for agents going on holidays. Alta Lake was the family’s first permanent station and Don and Joyce moved into the “PGE green” station agent house with their two young daughters, Connie and Karen.

When the Alta Lake Station closed around 1959 and became a flag stop, the Gows moved first to the station at Shalalth and then further along the tracks to the station in Clinton. However, they had fallen in love with the Alta Lake area and built a cabin on a lot leased from the PGE with their friend Bill Russell. They continued to visit Alta Lake on weekends and holidays.

In 1965, Don was given the choice of bidding on a station even further north or leaving the PGE. He contacted Laurence Valleau and was offered a position as the bookkeeper for Valleau Logging, and so the Gows moved back to Alta Lake. Connie took Grade 9 by correspondence while Karen attended the Alta Lake School for Grade 7 and Joyce began working at the post office at Mons.

The Alta Lake Station that first brought the Gows to Alta Lake. Photo courtesy of Gow Family

While living in Clinton, Karen had desperately wanted a horse. In a 2015 oral history interview, she recalled that she had spend many of her weekends with her friends in Clinton, who mostly lived on ranches and all had horses. Karen began saving up for a horse of her own, saving both her allowance and that of her sister, who generously contributed her 25 cents/week to the cause. When they moved back to Alta Lake, however, her parent’s didn’t think it was the best place to have a horse.

Around the same time that Karen was saving up for a horse, Tex Rodgers was opening a stable called Buckhorn Ranch in the area now known as Nicklaus North. He was arranging to bring his horses from California and, unbeknownst to Karen, Don arranged for Tex to bring a donkey along as well. Karen was told there was something for her to collect at Mons and so she and her friend Renate Ples walked down the tracks from the Gow house. There, they found a donkey tied up outside the post office. As Karen recalled, “I was excited, excited and disappointed all at once… I wanted a horse, and it wasn’t really a horse, but, oh, we had so much fun.”

Karen and Adeline at the gondola barn. Photo courtesy of Gow Family

The donkey was given the name Adeline by Myrtle Philip, who thought she was sweet like the song “Sweet Adeline,” and lived in the barn at the back of the cabin that had belonged to Bill Bailiff before his death. According to Karen, Adeline’s braying could be heard all around the lake.

Don and Joyce continued to live at Alta Lake until 1975, when they both retired and bought a sailboat to live on, which Karen said had long been a dream of her dad’s. Karen did eventually get her horse, and even got her coaching certifications and taught horseback riding. As far as we know, however, her donkey Adeline is the only donkey to have been photographed hanging around the base of Whistler Mountain.

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!