Category Archives: Wildlife

Whistler’s History of Trash

The history of Whistler’s waste disposal is not often told, though some parts of it have become widely known.  Most people have been told about how the Village used to be a dump, but how many know that the first garbage collectors were nor Carney’s Waste Systems but the Alta Lake Sons of Tipplers Society?

Before Whistler was Whistler and the valley was still known as Alta Lake, there was no centralized waste disposal.  Lodges in the area made their own dumps and homeowners were responsible for disposing of their own waste, which often meant burning anything that could be burned.  Recycling as we think of it today was yet to be introduced to the valley, though anything that could be reused often was.

This illustration accompanied Bill Bailiff’s article on black bears in the Community Weekly Sunset in July, 1958.

At the time, the relation between garbage and bears becoming aggressive had already been recognized.  Bill Bailiff, president of the Alta Lake Community Club, wrote a series of articles for their newsletter on the local wildlife and had this to say about bears:

When encouraged it loses its fear of man and comes in close to buildings.  If [a bear] scents anything edible it will use its powerful claws to rip and tear into anything and screening on a meat safe goes like so much tissue paper, so don’t encourage them around if you don’t want trouble.

The Whistler valley did not have a central dumping location until the 1960s.  The Alta Lake Ratepayers Association (ALRA) applied to lease acreage at the base of Whistler Mountain where the Village stands today.  Equipment and labour to dig ditches and cover said ditches once full were donated by the Valleau Logging Company (the same company that moved the train wreck to where it now lies) and families living at Alta Lake were each assigned a week to keep the area tidy, mostly by raking garbage that had been removed by bears back into the ditches.  Clearly, the bears were regular visitors.

Bears at the original dump site, now Whistler Village.

The growth of skiing at Whistler brought large numbers of visitors to the area who often left the garbage they produced lying at the train stations when they departed.  The ALRA placed oil drums at the stations in an attempt to contain the mess.  The oil drums were purchased and painted green using left over tip money from Rainbow Saturday nights and so the barrels were given the label ALSOTS (Alta Lake Sons of Tipplers Society) to celebrate their origins.

Despite the efforts of the ALRA, the garbage dump did not always run smoothly.  In a notice to the community, the ALRA noted that garbage was being found around instead of in the trenches and in the fire prevention water barrels, the signs that read “Dump in Trench Only” were quickly disappearing and, despite the dump being a “No Shooting” area, bullet holes rendered the water barrels useless in case of fire.  More disturbingly, some people seemed to be going to the dump to shot the bears that frequented the area as trophies.

From the Whistler Question, 1982: Fantastic Voyage take a trip into their own special world of choreography at Stumps. Stumps, the nightclub located in the Delta Mountain Inn, was named for some of the natural debris found when excavating the old landfill site in preparation of village construction.

When construction of Whistler Village began in 1977 the garbage dump was moved to Cheakamus.  In 2005, this landfill closed and Whistler’s waste management moved to its current location in the Callaghan Valley when construction began on the Olympic athletes’ village.  Carney’s now operates two recycling centre in Whistler and a compost facility in the Callaghan.  To learn about how Whistler tries to reduce human-bear conflict and keep our garbage away from bears, visit the Get Bear Smart Society.

Signs of Spring

For some places in Canada the beginning of spring in March or April brings the return of migratory birds and the first flowers in gardens.  Vancouver famously heralds spring with the arrival of cherry blossoms and (sometimes) the end of steady rains.  In Whistler, as the last snow in the valley continues to melt, however, signs of spring’s late arrival take a rather different form: skunk cabbage and spring skiers, both of which have a relatively long documented history.

The Skunk Cabbage, Whistler’s unofficial official flower. Photo: Bob Brett.

It’s not uncommon to spot a few early daffodils and crocuses around the valley if you’re looking for them (especially outside of Meadow Park Sports Centre, which may have something to do with nearby heat tracing), but it is hard to miss the bright yellow blooms and swampy smell of skunk cabbage that mean spring has truly arrived in Whistler.  In May of 1977 the Whistler Answer declared skunk cabbage, or Lysichiton americanus, to be the official flower of the Resort Municipality of Whistler, claiming that it “best exemplifies the spirit of this young community” and that “its bright yellow flower is as cheery a sign of spring as any Robin Redbreast, cherry blossom or halter top.”  Also known as swamp lantern, skunk cabbage can be found throughout Whistler; one needs only to walk down the Valley Trail or drive along the highway.

Garibaldi’s Whistler News advertises spring skiing in their Spring 1969 issue.

Just as easy to spot are the spring skiers and snowboarders heading up Blackcomb for the last few weeks of the season with light or no jackets or, on warmer days, in short and t-shirts.  Spring skiing has been popular on Whistler Mountain since its opening in the 1960s.  At breakfast with my own grandmother, she recalled a day of skiing back when the Roundhouse was still round when one female skier arrived inside the cafeteria in her bathing suit with her skis still strapped on her feet.  Though images of a similarly attired woman were used to advertise spring skiing on the cover of Garibaldi’s Whistler News in 1970, such outfits were not actively encouraged by the same publication’s spring skiing tips.  Instead they warned that “it only takes one fall on hard packed snow to cause painful cuts, scratches and bruises on legs and arms” and advised “lightweight stretch pants and wind shells or light sweaters.”  Garibaldi’s Whistler News also emphasized the importance of two other spring skiing tips that can still be applied today: sunscreen and sunglasses.

A skier demonstrates why shorts and t-shirts may not be the best option, no matter how warm it may be. Photo: George Benjamin collection.

Whether getting a few more days on the mountain or riding the trails in the valley, enjoy spring in Whistler while its lasts.  Summer will be here before we know it.

Exploring Whistler’s Biodiversity: Whistler Nature 101

“When we begin to see how nature works, we are awestruck by the literal beauty of its complexity: a beauty that is more than skin deep.” – Master Naturalist

For the second year the Whistler Museum will be offering our Whistler Nature 101 program.  This three hour training seminar was developed to help elevate the knowledge of Whistler’s natural environment throughout the community.

In short, the goal is to help Whistlerites better understand their home and all of its biodiversity so they can speak knowledgeably about it to other people.

A myriad of amphibians can be found in local wetlands, including the Northwestern salamander. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

 

Without some knowledge about nature, experiencing Whistler is like a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which are turned to the wall.  In this seminar the museum shares valuable knowledge needed to fully experience and appreciate all the “works of art” in our breathtaking valley.

Topics covered in Whistler Nature 101 are wide ranging and include what you need to know about Whistler’s geography, geology, volcanoes and glaciers – and how these physical elements influence the variety of life here.  And Whistler has a ton of biodiversity to cover.

Named for their pungent aroma, skunk cabbage flowers start popping up in damp lowlands soon after the snow recedes, and are a favourite early season snack for the local bears. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

 

Since 2004 the Whistler Biodiversity Project, led by biologist Bob Brett, has added over 3500 species to Whistler’s total list of over 4000 (and growing every year) species.  Biodiversity is the foundation of healthy, functioning ecosystems upon which all life depends.  For anyone who’s curious about the natural world, Whistler is a pretty awesome place to be.

Participants from last year commented: “Whistler is far more interesting (in terms of biodiversity) than I ever imagined,” “There is way more than just a ski hill here” and “Good explanations of biodiversity and geology of Whistler.  Many guests ask about these topics.”

Who said wetlands are ugly? Bog laurel adds a splash of colour along the water’s edge. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

The Whistler Nature 101 seminar is three hours with handouts and other learning materials provided.  Cost is $50 per person, with a special half-price rate for any active nature-based volunteers.

The full outline for the seminar can be found here.  For more information, email Kristina at DiscoverNature@whistlermuseum.org.  To register please call the Whistler Museum 604 932 2019.

The Whistler Museum would like to thank the Community Foundation of Whistler for financial support to develop the seminar.

Kristina is a long-time volunteer with the Whistler Naturalists and is grateful to share information from the knowledgeable naturalists from whom she’s learned over the years during Nature 101.

VIDEO: Bear viewing at the old dump

Among the many autumn rituals in Whistler are watching the changing colours in our surrounding forests, watching the snow line slowly move down the mountainsides, enjoying some relatively quiet time here in the village, and perhaps skipping town altogether with a fall getaway.

For many residents, Fall is a crucial time of year when they eat non-stop and try to put on weight in preparation for the long winter. No, we’re not talking about depressed mountain bikers at Thanksgiving dinner, but our local black bears of course!

Every autumn, black bears enter a physiological state called hyperphagia, which essentially means increased appetite. After having climbing up the mountainsides through the summer they often come back down to lower elevations in search of any calorie-rich foods that might be left, like mountain ash berries, or roots and greens in marshy lowlands.

In a place like Whistler, it also means a time of heightened bear-human interactions, as they are more commonly looking for food in human-occupied places. Increased diligence in securing your garbage, being aware of your surroundings when hiking or biking in the forests, and giving bears plenty of space when you do encounter them is especially important this time of year.

In Whistler we do quite a good job of co-existing with our ursine friends, and are one of only seven officially recognized “Bear Smart” communities in British Columbia. We still have our challenges, but to demonstrate how far we’ve come, here’s a video of black bears feeding at our local dump in the early 1970s.

The dump, located right in the middle of the valley where Whistler Village now stands, was open air, unfenced, and got routinely overrun with bears back then. Many long-time residents recall that it was the preferred bear-viewing spot in the valley, and it’s not hard to see why!

Today, our “dump” (actually called a Waste Transfer Station) is well-fenced in and we manage our garbage far more responsibly. Please do your part to help ensure that our local bears have a smooth transition to winter during this crucial time of year!

For more information on black bears, and how to live, work, and play responsibly in bear country, please visit the Get Bear Smart Society.

 

An Ode to the Beaver

A report on the ecology of the Alta Lake region by naturalists Kenneth Racey and Ian McTaggart-Cowan from 1935 depicts a Whistler we all are familiar with. They reinforce the picture of a diverse and eco-rich valley with an abundance of species of animals and vegetation alike. Today the Whistler Biodiversity Project has documented over 2500 species in the area, expecting that number to be up to 3000 when new records have been finalized.

Despite the whopping number of species in our fertile little valley, there are a few things that have changed since Racey and McTaggart Cowen collated their data back in the 1930’s.

The two men provided the provincial museum with a detailed overview of the species we have in Whistler. This overview included a description of the state of the Castor Canadensis Pacificus, or Pacific Beaver. It states “The Beaver has been completely trapped out in the district for over twenty years.” It goes on to mention that even though the Beaver has been hunted to nonexistence, proof of their lifestyle still exists in the form of dams left behind.

With the halt of killing beavers for their pelts came the slow re-emergence of a creature whose activities literally shaped the waterways of our country. When water depth or quantities are not suitable, the extraordinary beaver will transform a stream in a forest into a large pond with nothing more then gnawed wood, sticks and mud. Several plant species rely on such water sources for habitat, so beavers can also be credited to many a saved plant.

Beaver

Canada, in the form of a swimming rodent.

Beaver lodges and dams can be enormous. The largest on record spans 850 meters, which was found in Northern Alberta in 2007. It is possible that humans got the idea of a “nuclear” family from beavers, whose lodge consists of a pair of parents, their babies and yearlings. Monogamy anyone?

Their lodges can only be accessed from underwater. Beavers are great swimmers; with an extra, transparent eyelid that’s helps them see underwater. They have large webbed feet, which they use as flippers, and a paddle-shaped, rudder-like tail. Their tail is leathery and large, growing up to 38 centimeters. The sound of these large tails slapping the water also acts as an alarm to warn of a predator. On land the tail can prop up a sitting beaver and add extra balance while they are carrying supplies.

Our main industry, tourism, has to give thanks to the beavers as well for assuring that tour companies can operate in hot and dry years. With the improved management of this inspiring species we can assure their continued existence and in turn the continued flourishing of the Whistler valley.

 

Who can resist falling in love with this little guy?

 

By Shayna Ross-Kelly

Summer is the Season to Discover Nature!

Enjoying nature is a year-round activity, but summer is the best time to experience our natural environment in its full splendour. Many species have adapted to our harsh mountain landscape and long, snowy winters by laying low for much of the year. This conserves energy for the flourish of activity and abundance we see in summer.

Bears are probably our most beloved hibernators, waking from their slumbers in spring and chasing plant foods like berries up the mountainsides as the snowline recedes.  Once they reach the alpine in late summer, bears, along with hikers and other visitors, are welcomed by vast meadows carpeted in vibrant colours; alpine wildflowers who need to maximize their visibility to ensure they are pollinated by insects during the short, snowless growing season above treeline.

moss campion

Moss campion offers a burst of lavender amidst the bleak alpine scree. Photo: Bob Brett/Whistler Naturalists.

When it comes to seasonality, however, the hoary marmot, Whistler’s other mammalian mascot, takes first prize. Unlike bears, marmots live in the alpine year-round, and thus hibernate for 7-8 months of the year! This leaves them with a rather a short window to mate & reproduce, pose for tourist photos, and fatten up for the ensuing winter, so they can be quite loud and excitable.

IMG_7649

The Hoary Marmot dutifully poses for a photo op on Whistler Mountain. Jeff Slack photo.

The giant trees of our temperate rainforest are no different, going dormant through the winter and growing through the summer. In fact, the tree rings that we use to determine the ages of trees only exist because of this seasonal ebb and flow; the rings of light and dark matter coincide with periods of rapid and slow growth, respectively. Trees closer to the equator that lack distinct seasons have less prominent rings, or none at all.

Here at the museum, summer causes a spike in activity as well. First off, our brood of staff grows with the addition of summer students. Secondly, summertime means an increase in our outdoor, family-friendly programming. Our Valley of Dreams walking tours resumed in June and continue daily, by-donation, until the end of August. This past week we saw the return of two more family favourites: Discover Nature, and Crafts in the Park.

Now in its second summer, Discover Nature aims to educate and inspire wonder about Whistler’s amazing natural world. It is offered every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday in July and August, from 10am-4pm, at Lost Lake Park. On the lawn above Lost Lake beach we have an interactive table led by professional naturalist Kristina Swerhun. Guests will learn all about Whistler’s rich biodiversity, from bears to bacteria, and the intricate ecological web in which we live. Additionally, guided nature walks will depart from the Passivhaus at the entrance to Lost Lake Park every day at 11am.

See you outside!

Celebrating our swamps

As far as ecosystems go, swamps, bogs, marshes, fens, and other sorts of wetlands don’t get a lot of love. It’s understandable, mostly. Few people would consider a swamp when heading out for an afternoon stroll. When you do end up tromping about in one you generally end up exhausted, covered in mud, and reeking of rot.
Wetlands simply aren’t human-friendly landscapes. This helps explain the word “mire,” which refers to a stressful situation from which it is hard to extricate oneself, but is also another name for a type of swamp.
Who said wetlands are ugly? Bog laurel adds a splash of colour along the water's edge. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

Who said wetlands are ugly? Bog laurel adds a splash of colour along the water’s edge. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

Despite the bad rap, wetlands are extremely productive and important ecosystems. For one, they act as giant sponges that help soak up excess water in the landscape during the spring melt or after heavy rain. Likewise, wetlands mitigate periods of drought by slowly rationing out all of the water they had absorbed and held. Simply put, wetlands help prevent flood AND drought.
As water slowly flows through, the soils and dense organic matter in swamps act as a massive filtration system, removing silt, toxins, and pollutants from the water before releasing it downstream, clearer and cleaner.
Named for their pungent aroma, skunk cabbage flowers start popping up in damp lowlands soon after the snow recedes, and are a favourite early season snack for the local bears. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

Named for their pungent aroma, skunk cabbage flowers start popping up in damp lowlands soon after the snow recedes, and are a favourite early season snack for the local bears. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

What is known as the Whistler Valley is actually more of a long and low mountain pass, a stretch of relatively flat land between the Cheakamus and Green River Canyons. Abundant year-round precipitation supplemented by the slow release of our summer snow melt, flows down from surrounding mountains and is absorbed by the valley’s deep and dense organic soil, characteristic of our coastal rainforest ecosystem, creating perfect conditions for the formation of wetlands.
Although humans may not be so fond of them, wetlands provide crucial habitat for a huge variety of plants, insects, and animals. Some of the most bio-diverse environments in Whistler (or anywhere, for that matter) are wetlands.
A myriad of amphibians can be found in local wetlands, including the Northwestern salamander. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

A myriad of amphibians can be found in local wetlands, including the northwestern salamander. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

Whistler has 5 main lakes and countless creeks and streams, but only about a quarter of the swamps and marshes that historically filled the valley still remain. They are one of the most threatened ecosystems in the area because these are usually very level terrain that can be drained and developed to become the (relatively) dry land that we live, work, and play on.

Still, we’re fortunate to have large and healthy marshes around Millar Creek just North of Function Junction, along Fitzsimmons Creek, in the Emerald Forest and around the River of Golden Dreams, and elsewhere.

Beaver love wetlands so much, they make their own! Castor Canadensis used to be prominent throughout the Whistler Valley, and are once again making a comeback.

Beaver love wetlands so much, they make their own! Castor Canadensis used to be prominent throughout Whistler, and are once again making a comeback. Photo by local naturalist Bob Brett.

Next time you’re passing by a Whistler wetland, whether biking the Valley Trail, or tromping about in the bush, take a moment to stand still and observe. Chances are you’ll discover a cacophony of buzzing, splashing, and chirping, evidence of the thriving communities that call these oft-dismissed places home.

If we were able to translate the dragonflies, tadpoles, and herons’ languages, who knows what peat poets and bog bards we would discover. All that’s certain is the verb “mired” wouldn’t be in their vocabulary!