Tag Archives: Ice harvest

Chilly Days at Alta Lake

Unsurprisingly, the sub-zero temperatures and arctic winds have left the museum feeling a bit chilly.  Rather than dream of warmer climes, this weather has inspired us to look back at photos of winters from Alta Lake’s past.

Cutting ice was a big event at Alta Lake. Here is Sewall Tapley (Myrtle Philip’s father) in foreground and Rainbow Lodge guests. Philip Collection.

Some photos in the Philip Collection were donated to the archives with notes on the back detailing who is in the image and what they are doing.  A few of these photos (such as the one above) portray an activity that you would be surprised to see happening on Alta Lake today: an ice harvest.

Before hydro lines came to the valley (and then for an additional few years before that power could be accessed) most residents kept food from spoiling using cellars dug into the ground or ice houses.

Ice houses were double-walled structures that were tightly insulated and packed with sawdust.  Once filled with blocks of ice, these houses could keep food from spoiling through the hot summer months.  Places such as Rainbow Lodge cut blocks of ice out of Alta Lake in February, when the ice was usually thickest.  As Myrtle Philip noted on the back of one photo, “They cut the ice with an ice saw… like a big crosscut saw.”  The ice was then dragged to the ice house on a sled, by person or by horse.

A chore for every winter until Hydro came in: Alex Philip with an ice saw cutting blocks of ice out of Alta Lake.  Philip collection.

The ice harvest on Alta Lake could be a social event for those spending the long winter in the valley.  William MacDermott, also known around Alta Lake as “Mac,” had his own ice house and once his harvest was done those who helped harvest gathered in his cottage to celebrate with jugs of Mac’s homebrew brought out from under the floorboards.

Winter tales from Rainbow Lodge often seem to end in a celebratory drink.

In an audio recording Myrtle relates the story of a railway crew she accompanied through the snow from Rainbow Lodge to the Cheakamus Canyon around 1913 or 1914.  The crew arrived at Rainbow Lodge to rest for a couple days after walking from Pemberton on wooden skis.  Myrtle fed them pea soup and baked beans and then accompanied them to a camp somewhere between Alta Lake and Squamish.  At the camp the group waited for an older and exhausted engineer to catch up.  He arrived two hours late, saying, “I’m all through boys, I can’t go any further.  I’m going to lie right here and die.  I’ve had it.”

Myrtle and her sister Jean Tapley pose with their skis and an unidentified friend outside Rainbow Lodge. Philip Collection.

From the camp they were able to call for an engine and caboose to come from Squamish.  The crew met the train almost 10 km south of the camp; it had run into the snow at the end of a bridge over the Cheakamus River and could go no further.  It was here that they, like the ice harvesters, were rewarded with a drink,

As Myrtle described it: “I’ll never forget the bucket of tea they had sitting on the stove.  A big ten quart bucket and it was full of boiling water and a man came in and poured practically a pound of tea in that pail wanting to give us a nice warm cup of tea.  It could have pretty well stunned a horse it was so strong!”

Though some drank homebrew while others had tea, in the early winters of Alta Lake everyone seemed to welcome a chance to get warm after being out in the snow.

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Ice harvest on Alta Lake

Usually, we don’t think about ice very often, unless there’s none in the freezer. The cold, slippery truth is that our local ice deserves more consideration than that. Wrap up warm, and we’ll take you back to the times when the ice harvest was a hard, but fun, event in our valley.

Cutting ice was a big event at Alta Lake. The Photograph shows Sewall Tapley (Myrtle Philip’s father) in foreground and Rainbow Lodge guests. Whistler Museum, Philip collection, 1920s

Cutting ice was a big event at Alta Lake. The Photograph shows Sewall Tapley (Myrtle Philip’s father) in foreground together with Rainbow Lodge guests. Whistler Museum, Philip collection, 1920s

Since amenities were few before the 1960s, ice was one of the only ways to keep things cool and food from spoiling. Ice blocks were cut out of the frozen Alta Lake during February, when the ice was thickest. In the 1920s, it would take Myrtle and Alex Philip, the owners of Rainbow Lodge (Whistler’s first resort lodge), about two weeks to get enough ice to last the summer. The ice cutting was very hard work – as one can imagine due to fact that our early settlers had no modern tools. “They cut the ice with an ice saw… like a big crosscut saw” noted Myrtle on the back of her photos. Blocks were cut out of the chilled Alta Lake, loaded onto a sled, and pulled to an ice house where the blocks were kept to provide refrigeration through the summer months.

A chore for every winter until Hydro came in: Alex Philip with an ice saw cutting blocks of ice out of Alta Lake. They were stored in sawdust in an ice house for summer use. Whistler Museum, Philip collection, 1920s

A chore for every winter until Hydro came in: Alex Philip with an ice saw cutting blocks of ice out of Alta Lake. They were stored in sawdust in an ice house for summer use. Whistler Museum, Philip collection, 1920s

A couple of small ice houses dotted the valley’s landscape at this time. Ice houses were double-walled, tightly insulated structures packed with sawdust, capable of keeping large amounts of ice through the warm months. At first, Myrtle and Alex built their ice house near Rainbow Lodge. It was later moved closer to Alta Lake to cut down on the distance that the ice needed to be hauled.

The early Rainbow Lodge with the ice house close by. It was later moved closer to Alta Lake to cut down on the distance that the ice needed to be hauled, Whistler Museum, Philip collection, 1919

The early Rainbow Lodge with the ice house close by. It was later moved closer to Alta Lake to cut down on the distance that the ice needed to be hauled, Whistler Museum, Philip collection, 1919

Of course, the hard work had to be duly celebrated. In her book Whistler Reflections, Florence Petersen, founder of the Whistler Museum, remembers that after the ice-cutting work Alta Lake locals like Alex Philip would gather at the cabin of Bill MacDermott, an American who settled on the south end of Alta Lake in 1919: “His jugs of homebrew would be brought out from under the floorboards to help celebrate.”