Tag Archives: environmental history

Records of Environmental Change: Why the Stories Matter

For our last 2018/19 Speaker Series on Thursday, April 11 the museum had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Ian Spooner of Acadia University for his presentation on environmental change in Alta & Lost Lakes.  The head of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, Spooner and his students, working with Cascade Environmental Resource Group, have been using lake sediment cores to study Alta Lake for the past five years.  In 2018 Spooner took a core from Lost Lake.

Alta Lake has seen a lot of change over the past 150 years, both around its shores and in its water and sediment. Fairhurst Collection.

Sediment cores provide a record, not entirely unlike tree rings, of minerals and organic matter found in the lake sediment.  The core taken from Alta Lake was about 40 cm long and went back around 500 years.  By dating the different layers, Spooner and his student Dewey Dunnington were able to tell a lot about how the lake has changed over time and, by connecting the dates to historical records and stories told by locals, what might have contributed to these changes.

During his talk, Spooner highlighted the changing presence of copper and arsenic in Alta Lake.  Though there is always some change over time, the presence of both copper and arsenic increased considerably from the 1880s, as the Pemberton Trail and PGE Railway were built and the area became more settled.  While both have shown a decrease in more recent years, a spike in copper sometime around the 1960s illustrates how important stories are to adding context to this data.

The building of the PGE Railway and the development that followed disturbed the landscape around Alta Lake, changing the presence of minerals in its records. Philip Collection.

From the data and records, it had been assumed that the spike in copper was part of the increasing and continued development around the lake.  However, during a talk Spooner did at the museum in 2016 one audience member offered a different reason.  He got up and informed Spooner, “No, you’re wrong.  We dumped that copper in the lake, back in the 60s.  We wanted to get rid of an invasive species.” (Copper is used in some places as a biocide as it effectively kills parasites such as those that cause Swimmer’s Itch.  It also, however, will kill all the fish.)

When asked where one might find records of or a permit for this action, the man told Spooner there was none, they “just did it.”

There is no doubt that as stories are collected to add context to the core taken from Lost Lake, this attitude of “just do it” will come up again.  After all, we already know of some such cases.

In 1977 a group of Whistler freestyle skiers made plans to build their own ski jump on the shores of Lost Lake.  With no development permit or any official permission from the district, Lost Lake offered an inconspicuous, out-of-the-way site.  To go with the lack of permission, the ski jump also had no funding for materials or labour.  Timber was scrounged from a number of sources and the plastic grass ski out from the Olive Chair was taken from the dump and given a second life as the ski jump’s new surface.  Once the materials were gathered construction took only two weeks.

A jumper unfolds their flip into Lost Lake.  Whistler Question Collection,

The finished ramp projected out 20 feet over the lake (not too far from where the sediment core was taken) and willing skiers could launch themselves up to 40 feet above the water.  According to David Lalik, one of the original workers on the ramp, “Injuries were commonplace but [an] acceptable risk in the sport and environment of the day.”

In 1981 the ski jump began hosting competitions and the next summer saw the first Summer Air Camp at Lost Lake.  Freestyle skiers came to Whistler to train with Peter Judge, the national team coach.  Far from being inconspicuous, film crews arrived to record events for television broadcasts.

Stories like these aren’t always included in the official records (permits weren’t always applied for in the 1960s and 70s) and so contributions from people who have been in the area are incredibly important for explaining the data.  As Spooner puts it, “The science isn’t worth anything without the stories.  We get it wrong.”

If you have your own stories to add, you can send them to Dr. Ian Spooner at ian.spooner@acadiau.ca or come visit us at the museum and we can pass them on.

Frontier Fish

When  Vancouver-based mountaineers first began exploring around and beyond Mount Garibaldi in the early 1900s, they encountered vast mountainscapes that soon became the focal point of their clubs’ activities. Beyond the allure of the regions countless mountaineering challenges, these early visitors were equally enthralled with the overwhelming beauty of what they took to be a pristine wilderness.

In some regards the Garibaldi landscape was too pure. For example, despite providing some quality habitat, Garibaldi Lake was completely devoid of fish. Garibaldi Lake was formed relatively recently (geologically speaking) when a massive lava flow from Mount Garibaldi slammed into a glacier and was frozen in its tracks, leaving behind what is now known simply as The Barrier.

This vertical wall blocked off an ancient valley that subsequently filled with water to form Garibaldi Lake. Since the lake’s outlet flows underground through The Barrier to become Rubble Creek (named after the frequent landslides falling from the Barrier’s unstable volcanic rock), no fish population was ever able to colonize Garibaldi’s glacial-fed waters.

And so, despite the celebrated “purity” of Garibaldi’s pristine alpine expanses, its earliest proponents foresaw the district’s potential as a tourism destination and hoped to develop the landscape in that manner. From the beginning they set about building trails and identifying the best  sites to hold summer camps (Paul Ridge, Black Tusk Meadows, Singing Pass, etc). A few years later when these mountaineers began advocating for the creation for a provincial park to preserve the Garibaldi wilderness (mainly from logging and other industrial activities), plans for the development of alpine hotels and a road through the park were key elements of their campaigning.

While the Great Depression and Provincial-Federal government squabbling prevented these more ambitious developments from coming to pass (thankfully, most would argue today), other more modest environmental modifications were pursued.

In 1928, for example, 2 years after Garibaldi Provincial Park was established, 5,000 Kamloops Trout eggs from the federal hatchery at Pemberton were planted in a promising tributary stream of  Garibaldi Lake (Mimulus Creek), and an additional 12,500 were placed there again the next year.

“Kamloops Trout” were a popular game-stocking fish because of its size and strong fight that was believed at the time to be a distinct species. It is now considered a sub-species of Rainbow whose excessive size was probably caused at least as much by environmental factors as it was genetics. The widespread stocking of the Kamloops Trout throughout BC has, according to some fish researchers, led to a substantial decrease in the genetic diversity of the province’s rainbow trout population.

According to the BC Ministry of Environment’s fish stocking database, there has been no further stocking at Garibaldi Lake since 1929. And none further was needed.

When some recreational anglers reported the successful catch of 3 mature trout in 1933, 4 years after the last stocking, the Vancouver Province was ready to deem Garibaldi Lake the second successful stocking of a barren lake in British Columbia. (Does anyone know the first? We don’t.)

Even by 1930, the fish seem to have flourished. In that year the Vancouver Province (a zealous booster of Garibaldi Park throughout this period), joked that the fish should be renamed “Pontoon Trout” since they resembled the pontoons of a  float-plane which had ushered one of their journalists to the lake to write a feature article.

Scientifically, the Garibaldi experiment was a resounding success. The trout population continues to thrive in Garibaldi without further support through stocking.

Garibaldi continues to offer decent, if not outstanding fishing, but angling has never become one of the park’s major attractions. However, a friend of mine did catch what he claims was the “skinniest trout ever”: 17 inches long but “thin as a broom-handle.” A product of the marginal alpine environment, isolated genetic population, or simply an aberration? (Any icthyologists in the house?) In any case, freak fish or not, for enduring and thriving amongst Garibaldi’s once-barren waters, these trout deserve recognition as some of our region’s hardiest and most successful pioneers.

Fishing on Garibaldi Lake, opposite The Table. Circa 1960s. Photo by Cliff Fenner.

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Earlier this summer Pique Newsmagazine published an interesting feature on the history of fish and fishing in the Whistler region entitled “The Ultimate Whistler Fish Story”. Check it here .

Appreciating Whistler’s Cemetery

Earlier this summer after an outing to Rainbow Park some of us museum folk paid a visit to the Whistler Cemetery. None of us had ever been so we figured it would be a good opportunity to see this oft-forgotten but integral local landmark.

Cemeteries provide historical researchers with a wealth of useful information that can often be hard to find elsewhere. Rows of gravestones offer reliable data such as people’s full names, places of birth, years of death, etc. Examining gravestone design and cemetery layout can provide clues regarding religion and class structure in a community, among other things.

I was especially interested as my academic background is in environmental history, a field concerned with not only the history of our landscapes, but the history in our landscapes as well.

At first I was surprised by how few grave sites there were. With some thought I recognized that over the years most local people remained connected to their places of birth, or chose to retire elsewhere; only in recent decades have people been born “Whistlerites.” The fact that grave markers were greatly outnumbered by still-unoccupied spaces, perhaps more than anything else, expresses just how young this community is.

Of course, cemeteries don’t only record useful data, they are hugely important community institutions. By paying tribute to our loved ones in an enduring, often highly personal manner, they preserve memories and emotion in their rawest, most human form.

With this in mind, I was equally struck by the landscape design of the cemetery as a whole.

It is refreshingly modest and incredibly peaceful in there.


There are no standing gravestones, only ground-level plaques to mark individual burials. In one corner there is a garden with some stone structures to house urns, as well as a separate meandering path through the forest along which ashes may be scattered. This simplicity and consistency in design ensures that nothing is overshadowed by larger monuments. Everyone has their place.

A simple, but fitting Eulogy for Myrtle.

By all accounts, Seppo was the man.

A few days after our visit, I was pedaling up the Westside Road, tired but content after a solo, late-evening trail ride. As I approached the cemetery turnoff, a hulking mule deer suddenly appeared ahead, staring intently at me over his shoulder. Ignoring my impulse to stop, I instead geared down but kept moving, the deer and I remaining locked in an intensely quiet gaze. Finally, after I had passed the deer and the distance between us grew, he turned his head and calmly wandered into the forest towards the ash-scatter garden.

The deer was at home.

As I rode off, I gained an even deeper appreciation of our community’s cemetery. This thoughtful landmark modestly commemorates  Whistler’s past without  disturbing its present. The local wildlife are far more rooted here than us human folk, after all. An inspiring model of sustainability, and a fitting tribute to past loved ones, one might say.

At the Whistler Cemetery new generations draw strength from memories of our past.

Mining Whistler’s Past

Whistler draws people from around the world for any number of reasons: skiing, biking, wildlife viewing, night clubs, fine dining, mining… wait, mining? Although a largely forgotten aspect of our region’s past, the (mostly unfulfilled) promise of underground riches was one of the Whistler Valley’s main draws in the days before “world-class shopping.”

Our local mining industry is actually 10,000 years old. Squamish archaeologist Rudy Reimer has found obsidian quarries in Garibaldi Park that were in use shortly after the retreat of continental ice sheets permitted the initial peopling of the region. Used for razor-sharp blades and fine jewellery, this volcanic glass can still be found among Garibaldi Park’s ancient lava flows.

Because each obsidian quarry has a distinct mineral composition, scientists are able to “fingerprint” fragments found at archaeological sites and trace them back to their source. Garibaldi obsidian, a valuable trade item, has been found throughout southern B.C. and Washington state.

The first non-indigenous visitors to Whistler–William Downie, a Scottish veteran of the California  gold rush (a “49er”), and Joseph Mackay, a former Hudson’s Bay Company employee (a fur trader, not a retail clerk)–were commissioned by the colonial government to explore the territory between Lillooet Lake (Pemberton) and Howe Sound (Squamish) in September 1858, hoping to find a better coastal access route to the booming gold mines of the B.C. interior. Dwindling rations forced Downie and Mackay to press on to to the coast before exploring the surrounding mountains.

Scouring our archival holdings is a little like exploratory mining. Our archivists recently uncovered a gem, this massive 1916 map of recorded mining claims in southwestern BC. It is currently in a very fragile state and unavailable for public viewing, but we are looking into getting it properly restored.

Following on their heels, tens of thousands of goldseekers rushed into B.C. during the 1860s. While the majority of them travelled along the Douglas Route up Lillooet Lake then northwards beyond Pemberton,  many other prospectors came up from Howe Sound and rooted around the surrounding creeks and mountains en route. Since mining men are notoriously secretive, however, very few records survive of prospecting activity prior to the twentieth century.

Among Whistler’s earliest known commercial mining operations was the Green Lake Mining and Milling Company, beginning operations at least as early as 1910. Run by Mr. A McEvoy of Vancouver, the Green Lake Co. worked 10 small claims at the 1000 – 1300 metre level on Whistler Mountain above Fitzsimmons creek. The workers lived  on the mountain’s lower slopes in cramped, drafty housing with a regrettable male-to-female ratio. Sound familiar? They found gold, silver, and copper, but never in commercially viable quantities.

Harry Horstman, a lanky prospector from Kansas, was to have greater staying power but similarly meagre returns. Despite his prairie roots, Horstman was at ease up high, living for decades in a log cabin near the 1600-metre level on Mount Sproatt. Digging several tunnels, Horstman found enough copper to eke out a modest living (supplemented by trapping), but he never struck a major load.

Harry Hortsman at his Mt. Sproatt cabin.

The Horstman Glacier on Blackcomb is named after this pioneering local. Horstman was a fixture in the Alta Lake community for decades, but still appreciated the seclusion of his mountain-top retreat. I wonder what he would think of the neon circus that goes on every summer on his namesake glacier!

Beginning in 1916, a group of twenty-odd men began operations as Alta Lake Mining near today’s Alpine Meadows neighbourhood. They excavated bog-iron ore, which occurs when iron dissolved in run-off water forms deposits in bogs or swamps. At their height of operations they sent 150 tons of bog iron a day down the PGE railway to Squamish, where it was then shipped to the Irondale smelter at Port Townsend, Washington.

Other locals also pursued small-scale prospecting and mining. Fitzsimmons Creek, which runs between Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, is named after  Jimmy Fitzsimmons, who prospected throughout his namesake valley. Mining shafts that resulted from his exploration can still be found along the Singing Pass trail.

In the 1930s, locals Billie Bailiff (who also kept a trapline in the Singing Pass/Cheakamus Lake area) and Bill “Mac” MacDermott also dug mine shafts on the north side of Whistler Mountain, hoping to find the north end of the Britannia Mine’s massive copper vein. They didn’t succeed, but interest in Whistler Mountain’s underground remained.

Most of us know that the first ski lifts on Whistler Mountain started from Creekside. Fewer realize that the original plans included lifts and runs on Whistler’s north side, rising from near the present-day village. These plans had to be abandoned, however, because the provincial government chose to protect mineral claims on that side of the mountain now held by two companies, including the Canadian giant Noranda.

Unsurprisingly, mining claims didn’t interfere when plans to develop the north side of Whistler Mountain resurfaced in the late-1970s, as the provincial government was now a key investor in the planned resort expansion.

While never developing on a comparable scale to the Coast Mountain mega-mines at Brittania Beach or the Pioneer Mine, the quest for underground riches still played a formative role in Whistler’s early days. If one knows where to look, traces of this past mining activity can still be found throughout the local landscape. Local whitewater folk are familiar with the abandoned Ashlu gold mine because it is the drop-in point for a popular kayaking run.

Kayaker at the entrance to the abandoned Ashlu gold mine.

Though interesting to history buffs, this hidden legacy also poses significant physical and environmental hazards. For more on this context, track down the Summer 2011 issue of Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine  for a short article on this titled “Rider Dun Gone.” (The article isn’t available on-line, but the magazine is free and can be found here.) For more info on industry and government efforts to track down and regulate Canada’s thousands of abandoned mines, check out the National Orphaned Abandoned Mines Initiative.

If you’re really keen you can even take your new knowledge into the woods and find some old mining ruins that haven’t yet been completely overtaken by the relentless coastal rainforest. But be careful! And remember, although relatively young these are archaeological sites; try to leave them undisturbed for others to enjoy.