Tag Archives: wildlife

A Squirrel Named Rigor Mortis

You may have heard of Teddy, the orphaned bear cub raised by Myrtle Philip in 1926, but have you heard of Rigor Mortis the squirrel? In an oral history from 1989 about growing up in Alta Lake, later known as Whistler, Louise (Betts) Smith was asked about local character Charlie Chandler, who passed away peacefully on his porch the winter of 1946. Charlie was found frozen and carried to Alta Lake station for a raucous celebration of life, before being taken away by train for burial.

Being a child at the time, Louise remembered this event vividly. “Some of the men got concerned about him, so they hiked back in there and he had just had a heart attack and died in his chair and he was all stiffened up.”

You can read more about Charlie Chandler’s wake on the Whistler Museum blog. Today’s musing centers around what Louise said next. “I knew at that age that it was called rigor mortis because somebody had a squirrel named ‘Rigor Mortis’ and my mother had explained to me what rigor mortis was, and it really wasn’t a nice name for a squirrel.”

How had a squirrel become known as Rigor Mortis you might ask? We do not know for sure, however the biology of squirrels may give us a clue.

A Douglas Squirrel in Florence Peterson Park. Photo by Jillian Roberts.

The squirrel commonly seen scampering up and down trees, or making mischief during the day in Whistler is the Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii). Whistler’s other local, the Northern Flying Squirrel, is nocturnal.

Similar to beavers, rats, and other rodents, the squirrel’s front teeth never stop growing. Douglas Squirrels primarily feed on conifer seeds, peeling off the scales of the pine cones to get at the seeds. Douglas Squirrels have also been known to eat fungi, fruit, nuts, insects, and other plant material. (Oh, and they love dinosaur candy. I have a vivid childhood memory of watching a Douglas Squirrel run out of the house with my hard-earned bag of gummy dinosaurs. The candy was never seen again; the squirrel continued to visit often.)

The saying ‘to squirrel away’ refers to the fact that squirrels are larder hoarders. In mid to late summer Douglas Squirrels begin stockpiling cones, conifer seeds, and fungi in one or more middens located within their territory. Middens may contain enough food for one or more seasons and squirrels will defend them against competition and theft. The genus name Tamiasciurus references this behaviour, being derived from the Greek work Tamias, meaning animal that hoards food. Additionally skia means shadow, and oura refers to tail, so this is the genus of tailed shadows that hoard food.

Predators of the Douglas Squirrel include Pine Martens, Bobcats, raptors and owls. They can also become prey to domestic cats and dogs. In response to stimuli, such as predation, we often hear about the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. However, this could be more completely described as ‘fight, flight or freeze’, bringing us back to Rigor Mortis. Like other squirrels, the Douglas Squirrel may have a freeze response when alarmed. For example, if a squirrel has been caught by a predator it may respond by freezing up, becoming completely rigid. Douglas Squirrels that have been caught for relocation have exhibited this behaviour.

The freeze response is physiologically much different to rigor mortis – freezing is a mechanism to assist and ensure survival, for one thing. However, it could be perceived as similar to what happens during rigor mortis where the body becomes rigid. The freeze response in Douglas Squirrels may have been how the pet squirrel Rigor Mortis got its name.

Bill Bailiff’s Records of Alta Lake

Living in a place with such a beautiful landscape, where people spend a lot of time enjoying activities outdoors, environmental concerns are always relevant.  One of the first residents to voice concern for the environment was Bill Bailiff, back in the 1950s.

John William Bailiff moved to Alta Lake from England and lived in the area for 45 years.  Reportedly, his fiancé had died and left him heartbroken, so he picked up and moved to British Columbia.  Bailiff joined a construction crew for the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, but in 1913 he had an argument with the foreman over the safety conditions of his work and ended up quitting.  He then moved to settle at Alta Lake permanently.

(L to R) Bill Holloway, Jimmy Fitzsimmons, Bill Bailiff, Bill MacDermott, Alex Philip Sr. and Tom Wilson prepare to head out to Fitzsimmons’ mine, about 1916. Philip Collection.

Bailiff kept a whitewashed log cabin near Mons Creek and Alta Lake, as well as additional shelters at each end of Cheakamus Lake.  He became an excellent trapper and would spend five weeks at a time out in the wilderness.  He also had trap lines in the Spearhead Range and Callaghan Creek areas that he tended to over the winters, snowshoeing between them.  The traps would catch wolverine, mink, marten, lynx, and weasel.  One continual nuisance was squirrels that continued to get caught in his traps.  In 1928, Bailiff caught 28 squirrels, so he froze them and stored them in his woodshed, where they were stolen by a marten and then hidden in a rockslide.

The summers were spent by Bailiff putting in railway ties and clearing trails around the lakes for the government.  He was also a prospector, looking for copper on the Fitzsimmons side of Whistler Mountain.  He and Bill MacDermott were looking for a vein that ran north from Britannia but, despite years of looking, they were never successful.

Bill Bailiff (far left) waits for the train at the Alta Lake Station with a group in 1937. Clarke Collection.

Surviving on subsistence living, Bailiff used any food available.  He was known to make the best bread using potato water and Pip Brock, whose family had property on Alta Lake, said he enjoyed his time with Bailiff “sharing his bottled beer and Blue Jay pie.”

Bailiff was often chosen to be Santa Clause at school Christmas parties and the descriptions people remembered him by explain why he was a clear choice for that position.  Brock said Bailiff “had a large belly which shook when he laughed,” and he was also described as a gentle man with round rose cheeks.

An active member of the Alta Lake Community Club (ALCC) and even president in 1958, Bailiff wrote an ongoing series about the history of Alta Lake and preserving the environment in the ALCC newsletter.  He dedicated his column, which included pieces on geography, forestry, topography and more, to the one room Alta Lake School.

This illustration accompanied Bill Bailiff’s article on black bears in the Community Weekly Sunset in July, 1958.

While describing the topography of the area, Bailiff wrote that “Before the advent of the Pacific Great Eastern Rly in 1914 the only access to [Alta Lake] was by pack horse trail which ran from Squamish to Pemberton through a virgin forest of magnificent timber as yet unspoiled by human hands.”  In the next issue, when discussing progress in the area, he described how the construction of the railway led to the “first despoilation (sic) of the forest.”  He also talked about the Hemlock Looper and other insects that attacked the local trees in the early 20th century, the dangers of human caused fires in the area (including a fire by Green Lake supposedly started by a cigarette butt “thrown carelessly into dry slash”), and the decrease in wildlife sightings as human activity began to destroy habitats.

Although he spent a lot of time on his own in the wilderness, Bailiff was a well known and well liked member of the Alta Lake community until his death later in 1958.

The Great Toad Migration

Whistler Western toad migration is almost done!

If you’ve been up at Lost Lake recently, you may have seen these tiny toads behind the black carriers in the wetlands or crossing the paths around you.  You may have even helped us move them off the path (thank you!).

Just in case you didn’t have a chance to see them or to speak with one of the Nature Interpreters at our Discover Nature booth, we’ll be providing answers here to some of the questions people have about the toads and the steps taken to protect them.

The great Western toadlets on their annual migration at Lost Lake. Photo: Kristina Swerhun

Every spring, a female Western toad will lay approximately 12,000 eggs in shallow water.  These eggs become tadpoles in just three to 12 days and are ready to leave the water after six to eight weeks.  At Lost Lake, this means crossing the beach, the Valley Trail and the road to join the adult Western toads in the forests and grasslands.  In nature, less than one per cent of these toads make it to breeding age.  It is our responsibility to make sure human activities don’t increase their mortality rate.

To help the toads survive this journey, the RMOW is working towards a more “toad friendly” environment around Lost Lake Park.  Barriers and fences have been put in place to direct toads towards the forest and nature interpreters from the Whistler Museum’s Discover Nature program educate passersby about this sensitive and protected species.

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

At some point, the toads must cross the Valley Trail and Lost Lake Road on their way to the upland forest areas where they will hibernate for the winter.  To protect them on their journey, Lost Lake Road is closed and people are asked to please watch their step and walk their bikes.

Although the toads are pretty cute, visitors to Lost Lake are asked not to touch the toads with their bare hands as the toads’ skin is very sensitive to human oils and sunscreen.  Picking up the toads or poking them can cause them serious harm or even kill them.

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

These steps, which may seem inconvenient, are taken not only to protect a sensitive species but also because Whistler is home to many different creatures, including people.  All of these creatures deserve to be respected.

If you are interested in the Great Toad Migration and would like to help, come visit the Whistler Museum Nature Interpreters at Lost Lake.  We can supply you with gloves and cups and teach you  how to handle the toads without harming them.

If you see the toads anywhere other than Lost Lake, we would love to know!  To report sightings or if you have any questions, please contact us at DiscoverNature@WhistlerMuseum.org.

Kara is a Nature Interpreter with the Whistler Museum’s Discover Nature Program and a recent graduate of Whistler Secondary.  Find her at Lost Lake under the white tent by the concession or on our Nature Walks meeting at the PassivHaus at 11 am Tuesday to Friday until the end of August.

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.