Tag Archives: Matheson family

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.”

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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 n 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.”