Tag Archives: Betty Jane Warner

Summer Getaways at Alta Lake

Summertime in Canada, especially for children, is often portrayed as a series of long, carefree days spent exploring the outdoors, playing in and on the water and spending time with friends and family.

While this is certainly not how the season plays out for everyone, the Matheson children of Vancouver would seem to have close to the quintessential summer vacation from 1927 to 1934.

In 2011, the Whistler Museum received an account of their summers at Alta Lake from Betty Jane Warner, the youngest of the three Matheson children.  Every year the Matheson family would spend two months renting one of William “Mac” MacDermott’s three cabins (the same cabins later lived in by Bob and Flo Williamson and the descendants of Grace Woollard).

Alta Lake was an amazing summer retreat for the Matheson children, who spent a good part of the time in and on the lake. Philip Collection.

The final days of June would see Betty Jane, her siblings Jack and Claudia, her mother Violet and, in some years, a maid board the Union Steamship in downtown Vancouver bound, eventually, for Alta Lake.  The family did not travel light – they brought a steam trunk and five bags – but unfailingly, Mac would meet them at the PGE station and see them and their luggage across Alta Lake to what Betty Jane called their “summer cottage”.

This cottage consisted of a sleeping porch, a small sitting area, a kitchen complete with wood stove, and two bedrooms.  Mac provided use of a shared outhouse and woodpile and each of his three cabins came equipped with its own outhouse.

Mac at the cabin on Singing Pass en route to Red Mountain. During his time at Alta Lake Mac took many people hiking through the valley and some of his cabins are still standing today. Philip Collection.

As Betty Jane recalled, “We loved Alta Lake and looked forward to our happy times each summer – no matter how basic our living conditions were compared to our city living.”

It’s easy to see why they looked forward to summer.  The three children took walks around the lake picking ripe blueberries, rowed among the water lilies and dragonflies, and joined Mac on treks to Lost Lake and Green Lake where “there were always rotting old logs to climb over and the threat of lots of bees!”

Over the years they got to know their summer neighbours and packed picnics for train excursions with permanent Alta Lake residents.  With the nearest store at Rainbow Lodge, even going out to get groceries could be an adventure.

Baths in the copper tub were reserved for Saturday nights and few days required dressing up.  Once every summer Betty Jane and Claudia rowed up the lake for tea at Mrs. Harrop’s tearoom, requiring them to “shed our blue denim coveralls for something a little more dressy to wear for the occasion.”

Every summer, Betty Jane and Claudia visited the Harrop’s tearoom where they had a floating cottage right on Alta Lake.

The Matheson family chose Alta Lake after their father, Robert, met Mac and the Philips while staying at Rainbow Lodge with Violet and became “enchanted with the area.”

He was unable to join his family in the summers and remained in Vancouver where he worked as an architect.  His firm, Townley & Matheson, designed quite a few buildings still standing in Vancouver today, including Vancouver Motors, the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club, Point Grey Secondary and Vancouver City Hall.

It was after his death in 1935 that the Matheson family stopped coming to Alta and, according to Betty Jane, “our happy summers came to an end.”

Air Travel to Alta Lake

For most of the year floatplanes overhead are a common sight (and sound) above Whistler.  Today, these planes land and take off from Green Lake – an everyday occurrence.  But in the 1920s floatplanes were an adventurous way to arrive at Alta Lake.

The first record of a floatplane landing on Alta Lake was on August 31, 1922.  While floatplanes were not a common mode of transport, a fair number did arrive and take off from the lake.

The first plane to land on Alta Lake, flown by Earl Leslie MacLeod.

In 2011, Betty Jane (BJ) Warner (nee Matheson) shared her memory of a floatplane landing on Alta Lake in the late 1920s.  She was only four or five years old at the time.

The Matheson children and their mother spent the summers of 1927 to 1934 at a cabin on the south end of Alta Lake.  Betty Jane’s father Robert Matheson stayed in Vancouver to work but sent up letters and supplies, most notably marshmallows.  The cabin was rented from William “Mac” MacDermott and Mac became a close friend to the family.  In the summers he chopped their firewood, checked the oil in the lamps, did general repairs when needed and went hiking with the Matheson siblings Jack, Claudia and Betty Jane; in winter he would spend Christmas Day with the Matheson family in Vancouver.

Mac, Mollie Stephenson and Lena Hanson at the cabin on Singing Pass en route to Red Mountain.

One day, Mac had taken Jack hiking, Claudia was reading in the shade and Betty Jane was paddling by the shore of Alta Lake with the young maid who came to keep an eye on her.  What happened next is best said in Betty Jane’s own words.

Suddenly, a loud thunderous sound and something deafening roared across the sky.  It reached the far end of the lake, seemed suspended, turned, then menacingly approached us, skimming the water like a giant torpedo.  It came lower and lower and as it became closer caused all about us to vibrate and rumble.

I was terrified and along with Evelyn (the maid) and the dog we fled into the cabin, followed by my mother, who, fearful of an overhead crash, ordered us to protect ourselves under a huge canvas that covered our woodpile.

It was my father, of course, and his pilot friend who chose that day to surprise his young family on what was, proudly for him, his first flight… What a let-down it must have been for him to be met by the dismal sigh of his terrified children huddled under a tarp and an upset wife, tearful and near fainting, scolding him for traveling in such a dangerous contraption.  My brother missed it all.

This was the first time Betty Jane had ever seen an airplane, a memory that remained with her for over eight decades.  As she recalled, “The Space Age was upon us, but to this young person the marvel of it all was the gigantic tin of Moonlight Marshmallows that came with it.”

Ol’ Mac

Last week’s post profiled a former Whistlerite who came to this valley with dreams of resort development, so I figured I’d switch it up this week and recount the story of a local figure who came here with very different intentions, to escape from the stresses of modernity into a quiet life of mountain-bound solitude.

William “Mac” MacDermott was born somewhere in the American Midwest in 1869 or 1870. We know little of his early life, but his experiences as a soldier during World War 1 eventually led him to the Canadian wilderness. Mac suffered severe injuries while fighting (some Alta Lake contemporaries mentioned that he also suffered from shell shock) and he left the army disillusioned with the senseless violence of modern civilization.

Mac (left) with local guest-lodge owner Russ Jordan and a boy (possibly Russ’s son) near Singing Pass, 1920s.

After the war he spent a brief stint prospecting for gold in the Cariboo before heading back down the PGE railway to Alta Lake, where he settled in 1919. The tranquility of this quiet mountain valley was perfectly suited to his gentle demeanor; Mac made Alta Lake his home for the next 25 years.

He built a handful of log cabins at the south end of Alta Lake, one for himself, the others he operated as rental properties during the summer months. I guess, in a sense,  Mac was a real estate developer too.

Vancouver’s Matheson family spent two months at Mac’s cabins every summer from 1927 until 1934. Betty Jane Warner (née Matheson) was just a young girl during this period, but in correspondence with the Whistler Museum from June of 2011, she vividly recalled those action-packed summer getaways.

We children thought [Mac] was wonderful, truly a favourite of ours and we would visit him often in his cabin. He played the juice harp, smoked a lot, was a great spitter, swore and turned his flapjacks by tossing them sky-high, hitting the ceiling and miraculously catching them back in the pan. A marvellous feat… He was a great hiker and would take [Matheson siblings] Jack, Claudia and me on many treks to Lost Lake and Green Lake.

A lifelong bachelor, Mac endeared himself so much with the Matheson family that he would often trek down to the city during the winter holidays, which could be quite cold and lonely up in the mountains. As Betty remembers

We would pick him up at the Abbotsford Hotel on Pender Street… He would always present each of we three children with one green dollar. There was no better gift or more welcome guest around our festive table than to have Mac join us for Christmas Day.

While beloved by children, other Alta Lake locals recall Mac’s cabin as a preferred spot for some of the men to “get away from the wives” for a few hours. On one occasion, Some of Alex Philip’s Vancouver friends were having such a good evening that they didn’t want to get back on the train to head back to the city, even though they had to work the next day. Knowing the PGE wouldn’t let them on the train soaking wet, the two men accidentally “fell” into the lake. Now stuck at Alta Lake, the men had no choice but to return to the party.

Ice-cutting day was an Alta Lake February tradition (ice blocks were cut out of the lake ice to provide refrigeration in insulated through the summer months), and after the work Alta Lake staples like Alex Philip and Bert Harrop would come over to enjoy some of Mac’s popular homebrews.

Aside from managing his cabins, Mac supported his simple mountain lifestyle with a variety of casual jobs; carpentry, building rowboats, and trapping, but it as a guide for work crews and hikers heading up into the mountains that he is best remembered.

Mac (2nd from left) with a crew of men helping Jimmy Fitzsimmons set up a load of dynamite to be hauled up to Fitzsimmons’ copper mine on the north flank of Whistler Mountain, circa 1919. The creek that they followed to get to the mine is known today as Fitzsimmons Creek, which runs along the edge of Whistler Village and provides the hydro-electricity for Whistler-Blackcomb mountain operations.

Mac’s stamina and enthusiasm on the trail were renowned among locals. Bob Williamson recalled how Mac would brew extra-strong tea to keep energy levels up ( “Awful tasting stuff” Bob remembered), and when that wouldn’t suffice, he’d engage in some “verbal coaching”: “holy ol’ moccasins can’t you climb that little bit?’ he’d shout. Everybody loved Mac.”

Mac’s favourite destination was up the Fitzsimmons Valley along the  Singing Pass Trail. In the sub-alpine meadows there was an old trappers’ cabin maintained by Mac and fellow Alta Lake mountain man Billy Bailiff, which they used on overnight hikes towards the larger peaks at the back of the Fitzsimmons Range.

In the Whistler Archives we have a great collection of photos from a 1928 hike that Mac took with Myrtle Philip, and two of her young staff from Rainbow Lodge, Lena Hanson and Mollie Stephenson.

Mac with Lena Hanson and Mollie Stephenson at the Singing Pass trapper’s cabin (photo by Myrtle Philip), 1928. The Seventh Heaven ski area and Blackcomb Peak are visible at far right background.

 

Inside the cabin.

After spending a night at the cabin, they headed up over Cowboy Ridge to Fissile (then known as Red Mountain).

Mac and the girls snow-climbing on the flanks of Fissile Mountain, during the same 1928 hike.

This was exactly the life that Mac had envisioned when he first escaped to this remote Canadian outpost. He stayed on at Alta Lake until his death in 1946 at the age of 76.