Tag Archives: environmental history

Discover Nature at Family Après

If you’ve been at Family Après in Olympic Plaza over the past couple months, you might have recognized a tent from the Discover Nature summer program at Lost Lake.  In July and August the Discover Nature team shared its knowledge of Whistler’s natural history through touch tables, activities and nature walks around Lost Lake.

Discover Nature at Family Après focuses on some of the animals that are active in Whistler during the winter.  The challenge is to identify eight mammals in Whistler that neither migrate nor hibernate using replicas of their skulls, tracks and claws.  This may not sound like a whole lot to go on but the teeth can give you clues about what an animal eats and the shape of the skull can indicate traits such as a keen sense of smell or better than average night vision.  Hints and help are also on hand if you get stuck.

The touch table at Discover Nature in the summer. Some of the same skulls, pelts and tracks are on display this Monday in Olympic Plaza.

While hiking, biking and even skiing around Whistler I have encountered over half of the animals featured at the Discover Nature tent, but one that I have never seen is the wolverine.  After learning about an encounter John Millar once had with a wolverine, I’m not so sure I want to.

Wolverines are the largest members of the weasel family, which also includes martens, mink and river otters.  Sometimes described as a mixture of a dog, a bear and a skunk, wolverines have short legs, long hair and distinctive markings, including a dark mask around their eyes and a light stripe on each side running from their shoulders to the base of their tails.  Although wolverines are typically about the size of a medium-sized dog they are effective predators and can even smell prey hibernating beneath six metres of snow.  Their diet can range from berries, rodents and ground squirrels to mountain goats and moose.

John Millar outside his cabin (today the area of Function Junction). Millar Creek was named for this early settler. Photo: Philip Collection.

Millar is perhaps best known as the trapper who introduced Myrtle and Alex Philip to Alta Lake.  A Polish immigrant, Millar arrived in the valley sometime before 1906 by way of Texas, where he worked as a cook at a cow-camp.  He purchased some land along the Pemberton Trail near the junction of Millar Creek and the Cheakamus River (today the area of Function Junction) and built a roadhouse for travellers, supplementing his income from trapping by charging 50 cents for a bed (meal not included).

From the account of Dick Fairhurst, Millar may not have always been the most successful trapper.  He regularly caught marten, rabbit, mink, muskrat (the basis for a memorable stew), and beaver.  Once, however, while out on his trap line Millar caught a wolverine.  Thinking it was dead he added it to his pack and walked on.  Unfortunately for him, the wolverine was still very much alive and came to while still on his back.  It ate a hole through Millar’s pack and “grabbed John by the seat of the pants.”  While Millar managed to extricate himself from the angry wolverine it was awhile before he could sit comfortably again.

Discover Nature will be back at Family Après in Olympic Plaza this Monday, March 5.  If you think you can tell a wolverine from a bobcat, come by and say hello.

The Origins of Whistler’s Interpretive Forest

After the arrival of the Great Eastern Railway in the fall of 1914, logging and other industrial activities started to develop in and around the Whistler Valley.

Logging was a vital industry in the Whistler area throughout the 20th century and evidence of its impact can be found throughout the valley, from the abandoned Parkhurst logging town on Green Lake to various patches of forest in different states of regrowth.

The forestry industry has a long history throughout the Whistler valley and many of the valley’s early settlers worked in logging. Photo: Fairhurst Collection

The Whistler Interpretive Forest, located off Highway 99 adjacent to Cheakamus Crossing, was created in 1980 as a joint project between the British Columbia Forest Service and Pacific Forest Products Ltd. to provide forest interpretation and education opportunities while demonstrating integrated resource management.  The area is approximately 3,000 hectares.

The earliest logging in the Interpretive Forest began in 1958 and continues into present day.  The area now consists of old growth stands plus a variety of plantations of differing ages.  The Forest Service manages this area to provide benefits for large numbers of people with diverse interests.  Many things are considered in planning for human needs in the forest: hiking, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, biking, as well as continued logging operations.

This photo was taken by Don MacLaurin during his time working in BC’s forestry industry. Photo: MacLaurin Collection

The Whistler Interpretive Forest became part of the Cheakamus Community Forest (33,000 hectares) in 2009.  The Community Forest is managed under an ecosystem-based management approach and run jointly by the Lil’wat and Squamish First Nations, the Resort Municipality of Whistler, and the Ministry of Forests.  This means that indigenous flora and fauna are given a chance to flourish and recreational opportunities and expand, while new sustainable forestry practices are explored and refined.  Under this management regime, an average of 40 hectare per year is harvested.

The area has become a favourite amongst locals and tourists, with many of Whistler’s most popular trails located in the area.  The trail network includes the Riverside Trail, which explores the Cheakamus River with the help of the MacLaurin Crossing suspension bridge.

Don MacLaurin, Isobel MacLaurin and friends hiking in the mountains. Photo: MacLaurin Collection

The bridge was named after Don MacLaurin, a local forester who helped develop, map and design the area to help people understand the forest and its importance.  Other popular trails include the Loggers Lake Trail, which climbs a rock bluff to a hidden lake and a wooden pier, and the Cheakamus Trail, which wanders through the forest to the glacier-fed Cheakamus Lake.

Scattered amongst the roads and trails in the area are interpretive displays about the local flora, fauna, geology and logging history, along with details about the forest types of the region and the replanting techniques used in the Interpretive Forest.

Peter Ackhurst and John Hammons at work in the Whistler Interpretive Forest.

The Whistler Rotary Club, with financial help from the Community Foundation of Whistler, have been updating the interpretation displays and signs in the Whistler Interpretive Forest over the past two years, as many have fallen into disrepair.  The Whistler Museum has been a supportive partner in this project, helping with the design and, at times, installation of these new signs.

More information on this project can be found at: cheakamuscommunityforest.com.

2017 Western Toad Migration Begins

This past week the annual Western toad migration began again at Lost Lake Park.  Tens of thousands of these tiny toads gradually emerge form the lake to travel to the surrounding forests, though less than one per cent survive the journey.

The tiny toadlets crossing the trail at Lost Lake Park are about the size of a fingertip.

Western toads are found west of the Rockies between Mexico and Southern Alaska.  They will have three different habitats throughout a year: shallow bodies of water during spring breeding season, terrestrial forests and grasslands in the summer, and underground dens for winter hibernation.

The adult toads will migrate to breeding sites in early spring to mate and lay eggs.  One female can lay between 12,000 and 16,000 eggs.  They will then quickly hatch and become tadpoles in three to twelve days.  The speed of their development is highly dependent on the temperature of the water.  In six to eight weeks these tadpoles will then develop into dime-sized, terrestrial dwelling toadlets.  This is when their treacherous journey begins.

By the end of the summer the toadlets will leave the water to join their adult counterparts in the forests and grasslands.  During this life-stage they are easy prey for garter snakes, birds, small mammals and even other amphibians.  They are also easily trodden on because they are so small and well camouflaged.

The toadlets blend in well with their surroundings, making them easy to miss.

Once they have reached their destination, they will hibernate for the duration of winter, usually using existing animal dens or making their own.  It will take two to three years for these toads to mature, and they can live ten years or more, continuing this cycle throughout their lifetime.

Lost Lake is home to the largest population of Western toads in Whistler.  It is unfortunate for the toads that it is one of the most popular beaches in Whistler; however, it creates an amazing opportunity for people to see and understands this process firsthand.  The migration takes two to four weeks, and environmental technicians and volunteers will be on side to direct pedestrians and vehicle traffic, as well as monitor and help the toads cross safely.  Anyone in the park during this time is encouraged to use caution when walking and to get off their bike when travelling on the trails near the park and the beach entrance.

The toads are helped across the trail by volunteers who also encourage people to walk their bikes and step carefully.

Though Western toads are considered relatively common in BC, it is expected that there will be population declines in southern BC as the species has been disappearing in wide ares of their historic range in the US.  This is believed to be a result of a number of factors, the greatest of them being habitat destruction due to development in and around wetlands.  Other causes include rising temperatures, increased UV radiation, and changing water levels due to climate change, traffic on roads and pollution.  The province in monitoring their habits and tracking populations to learn more about how to support this sensitive species.

They are on the provincial yellow list, which means that they are considered a species of conservation concern, and they are a protected species under the BC Wildlife Act.

By Teah Schacter.  Teah is a summer student with the Whistler Museum’s Discover Nature program at Lost Lake.  She recently graduated from Whistler Secondary School and will be attending university in the fall.

Discover Nature this Summer with the Whistler Museum!

With help from the Whistler Naturalists and the Whistler Biodiversity Project, the Museum will again be offering a public education program throughout July and August at Lost Lake Park.  The program includes a “pop up” museum at Lost Lake, nature walks and an activity booklet for kids.

Our touch tables let you handle things like skulls and pelts that you won’t normally find out in the forests.

Because last year’s was so successful (the Museum interacted with an average of 250 people per day) the “pop up” museum will be at Lost Lake for 4 days per week instead of 3.  It will be open Tuesday through Friday from 10 am – 4 pm beginning tomorrow, July 4th, and running until September 1st.  Find us at our tent outside the concession by the Lost Lake beach.

Highlights this year will include touch tables showcasing a wide range of Whistler’s amazing nature hosted by nature interpreters and a different theme for each week day of operation – forests, bears & berries, wetlands, things with wings – so come back on different days to discover something new!

Discover Nature will also include nature walks meeting at 11 am at the PassivHaus Tuesdays through Fridays and ending at the Discover Nature Station.  Nature walks will run for about one hour.

Don’t forget to fill in the Discover Nature activity booklet!  This self-guided booklet is full of fun activities that teach about the wonders of nature here in Whistler.  The booklet includes illustrations by local artist Kate Zessel and a completion certificate.  Get your own copy of the Discover Nature activity booklet at the Whistler Museum, Lost Lake, Armchair Books and Whoola Toys.

We’re looking forward to to a fun summer discovering nature!

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.

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. Photo by Bob Brett.

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

Snow!!!

Snow. For all the changes around us, frozen water is still the fuel that keeps this town’s fire stoked and hot.

While mountain-folk like to play armchair meteorologist year-round, we’re currently in the midst of prognostication silly-season. People are dusting off the almanacs, scouring long-term forecasts, and wildly over-reacting to Mother Nature’s every turn. Last season’s uncooperative weather has only heightened the tension that accompanies every updated forecast.

This year is especially tough to call due to a historically strong El Nino accompanied by a weird phenomenon that oceanographers and meteorologists refer to in their highly technical jargon as “The Blob.”

Snow-wise, we’re off to a pretty good start, but that doesn’t really mean much for those extrapolating for the entire season. Here at the museum, we’re more comfortable with facts than forecasts. So here’s one for you: Whistler has enjoyed some amazingly deep winters in recent years, but they’ve got nothing on what Whistler’s first skiers enjoyed.

We speak to a lot of old-timers here, reminiscing about the good ol’ days, and all attest that Whistler just doesn’t get snow like it used to.

Check these photos of the Whistler Mountain alpine from the early 1970s. For those who know the terrain well, pay close attention to familiar features such as The Coffin chute, or the Couloir near the middle of the photo. Of course, the Saddle has a massive cornice here not only due to the snowpack, but also because the entrance had not yet been blasted to improve skier access.

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Compare it to a recent photo of the same terrain and it still looks epic, but it’s clearly not nearly as coated in the coastal powder we all love.

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Whistler Peak in typical (nowadays) mid-winter form. Photo Thomas Quine/Wikipedia.

Certainly some of the discrepancy can be explained by the increase in skiers and avalanche bombs knocking a fair bit of storm snow off of these steeper aspects. Still, there’s data to indicate that this is more than just some old-timers’ nostalgia-induced exaggeration.

Whistler legend, and Whistler Museum President (full disclosure) John “Bushrat” Hetherington, in his years of snow study as an avalanche professional, found clear evidence from many data sets that all across BC the decade from 1965 to 1975 was a period of abnormally large snowfall.

He also experienced it firsthand, arriving in Whistler in the autumn of 1967 with the town still buzzing about how much snow they had received the previous winter.

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Upper Harmony Bowl, including Pika’s Traverse and the Camel Humps, looking especially frosted.

John stuck around to ski more than his fair share of bottomless pow in ensuing years, but nothing compared to the 1973/74 season. As John recalls, “this was the first winter they had really good data on, and it’s still the record.”

By mid-April 1974, the snow study plot (which was ¾ way down green chair at the time, an even lower elevation than the currently used Pig Alley snow plot at 1650 meters) measured a snowpack 17 feet deep. Anyone remember a 518cm base at mid-mountain in recent years? Me neither.

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The good ol’ days when the Roundhouse was still round, and the snowpacks were profound.

Jealousy-inducing? Maybe a little. But if it happened before, who’s to say that we aren’t about to see a return of this near-forgotten weather cycle? That’s the thing about weather, you never know.