Hanging on to our heritage
Once the reason people came to Alta Lake, fish have survived thanks to the efforts of volunteers
By G.D. Maxwell
On a cool spring day 84 years ago, 22 anxious Vancouver fishermen boarded a ship belonging to the Union Steamship Company and set out from Vancouver harbour, up Howe Sound. Skies the colour of British Columbia in May — gunmetal grey — hung low over the water, obscuring the local mountains receding in the distance and those they knew lay further ahead. The water in the sound, reflecting the almost featureless sky, was cold and green and looked as though it may have no bottom to it at all.
The fishermen had each paid six dollars for the chance to find out if the rumours they’d heard were true. That up the coast and inland by rail, there lay a string of crystal clear, cold water lakes so full of feisty rainbow trout they had to be seen to be believed. That on the shores of one of those lakes, a new fishing lodge had been built and was open for business, promising good fishing, good company, good food, and a warm bed at the end of a perfect day.
A couple of hours out of Vancouver, the fishermen left the chill of open water and boarded coaches of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway in Squamish. Almost immediately after the train left the station, it started climbing from sea level into the Coast Mountains off the Sound. The scenery was spectacular for those who dared look out the windows of the observation car. At some places along the line, land gave way on one side of the track and plunged precipitously into the void below while, looking out the windows on the other side of the aisle, mountainsides rose so near vertical, craning one’s neck still wouldn’t afford a view of their false horizon or of clouds scudding past overhead.
Coal heaters provided what stingy warmth there was to be had against decreasing temperatures as the train chugged its way up and into the mountains at a top speed of 25 miles per hour. Beyond the 100 foot right of way carved out of the forest for the railway just nine years earlier, Douglas fir and towering cedar grew in abundance, their intertwined boughs offering only glimpses of the dark understorey where shafts of filtered light penetrated in random patterns. Some of the fishermen, tiring of the view, passed the time reading magazines or munching sandwiches peddled by concessionaires, or simply nodded off to catch brief dreams of the fishing to come.
Five and a half hours after they’d departed Vancouver, the ride seemed to level a bit and shortly after that, rounding a turn in the track, the sparkling water of Alpha Lake came into view. Excitement mounted as the train rolled past the lake and, almost immediately, past tiny Nita Lake as well. When the train stopped at the original Mons station at the southern end of Alta Lake, everyone knew their destination was close at hand. Window seats on the right side of the observation car were coveted as the fishermen strained to take in the size and details of the lake once the train started up again and travelled slowly along the western shore.
Finally, near the north end of the lake, the train slowed, then stopped within sight of the rough log main building of Rainbow Lodge, only recently completed. It was the second weekend in May, 1915, and the nascent Fishermen’s Excursion had successfully delivered its first 22 fishermen to the lodge in what would, over the next couple of decades, become a ritual played out many, many times over.
It had been only 10 years earlier that Alex Philip, proprietor of Rainbow Lodge, had left his native Maine for the coastal islands of British Columbia and only five since he’d married Myrtle Tapley, a young teacher who had boarded with the Philip family and captured his heart during one of his visits home. If the events that were set in motion shortly after their marriage had been foretold by a wizened gypsy fortuneteller — events which would give rise to a popular fishing resort which would, in turn, give rise to a world famous ski resort — no one would have believed the implausible tale.
But a year after they were married, John Millar walked into the Horseshoe Bar and Grill in Vancouver where Alex was slinging hash and dreaming of building a fishing lodge somewhere in the Canadian wilderness. A former cook, a rumoured gunslinger, and a wild and woolly trapper, John Millar mesmerized Alex with tales of his current home near Alta Lake. Of abundant game and snowcapped mountains and sparkling lakes just brimming with fat rainbow trout that had never seen the working end of a fishing line. Of land for the taking, fortunes to be made, adventures to be savoured.
Alex brought John home to tell the tales all over again for Myrtle to hear, knowing for sure she would never believe them if he had simply shown up and spun them himself. After listening and dreaming, the couple made a decision to come see this land John Millar described for themselves. In August of 1911, after a three day trip by steamship, horse and buggy and packhorse, they arrived.
It’s difficult today, to imagine the scene that greeted them. The shores of Alta Lake in 1911 were inaccessible wilderness: no lodges, no cabins to speak of, certainly no hotels or hostels. It would be two years before Harry Horstman arrived to undertake some of the pioneering mineral prospecting in the surrounding area and another three years before the first train pulled in. Logging wouldn’t scar the valley in any substantial way for another decade. And London Mountain — as well as the yet to be named Blackcomb Mountain — had never been tracked by skiers nor pinstriped with ski runs. Standing on the western shore of Alta Lake, only the terrain above treeline on the eastern mountains looked exactly as it does today: the uniform south slope of Wedge, the disappearing curve of Horstman Glacier, the cirques of Whistler and West Bowls, the gentle shoulder of Bagel Bowl, dipping gracefully into the forest below.
Imagine the torture Alex and Myrtle Philip must have endured during the next two years, haunted by firsthand knowledge of the seeming paradise waiting for them in the mountains while they worked and lived in the city to earn enough money to buy their dreams. By 1913, they were half way home. They purchased 10 acres of land on the west shore of Alta Lake from Charlie Chandler. Alex went back to the city to work. Myrtle remained at the lake where, with the help of her brother and other members of her family who had by then moved west, she cleared land and began construction of the main lodge building. It was finished just in time for the trainload of fishermen who arrived on that day in May, 1915.
After the first Fisherman’s Excursion, fishermen just kept coming to Rainbow Lodge. In short order, the Philips, Alex having by now successfully escaped the city, constructed cabins, dormitories and other additions to the lodge until they could provide hospitality to 100 people. Success begot success and others who visited the area, fished its waters and hiked its trails, came and stayed. Other lodges were built — Jordan’s Lodge, Hillcrest Lodge, Cypress Lodge — and a small town grew up around the shores of Alta Lake.
Mining, logging and especially fishing — the three pillars of British Columbia’s historic wealth — provided the fuel for the continuing expansion of the town of Alta Lake. But in the middle years of this century, well after Alex and Myrtle sold Rainbow Lodge in 1948, fishing as a destination resort business in this valley began to decline. New highways and more widespread ownership of automobiles opened up lakes further inland to avid fishermen. While the local lakes always produced plenty of fish, they never produced very big fish. The granitic soil simply didn’t provide the abundance of nutrients needed to grow a sizeable population of big fish. Lakes around Kamloops and Merritt had, by comparison, monster trout and it is of monster trout that fishermen dream.
As one door began to close though, another began to open and it wasn’t long before skiing in the renamed town of Whistler overshadowed fishing to the point of virtually obliterating it from the collective conscious. Fishing in Whistler became an adjunct to a lifestyle that simultaneously embraced easy living and hard driving.
No one really knows what the state of the local fishery was during those early and middle decades of this century, but the extant anecdotal evidence suggests it was robust. Reproductions of period photos in the museum and others hanging on the walls of our local fishing shop bear witness to a wealth of trout and a gluttonous appetite on the part of fishers of the time. The pictures, all of a type, show no inclination towards, nor even a hint of knowledge of, the concept of catch and release. Long and multiple strings of trout attest to the skill of the fishermen, the gullibility of the fish and the total lack of conservation ethics.
While the numbers of fish being taken out of local lakes certainly had some impact on the health of the fishery, fish habitat was still more or less in a natural state when the town of Alta Lake was morphing itself into Whistler. Resident trout in Alta Lake found productive spawning waters in Scotia, 21 Mile, Rainbow and Lakeside Creeks. Natural recruitment of wild fish stocks in other valley lakes was similarly abundant owing to the network of creeks and streams fed by snowfields on nearby mountains.
But with development came rapidly increasing pressure on this natural ecosystem. Pressure in the form of increased dwellings, pressure in the form of destruction of wetlands, pressure in the form of floodproofing of neighbourhoods, pressure in the form of environmental degradation, pressure in the form of plain, old-fashioned ignorance. It is neither unfair nor particularly unkind to say that many people, including many civil engineers, consider creeks and streams nothing more than unsophisticated waterpipes. Water delivery devices. As long as water flows in an efficient and non-destructive way from where it starts to where it’s going, what’s the difference whether it does so within the banks of a natural stream or the riprapped, barren walls and scoured beds of an engineered flood channel?
Perhaps nothing to you or me. But life and death to trout, char, Kokanee and other fish resident in local lakes that are dependent on complex stretches of water to reproduce. The nature of a creek bed, its balance of gravels and cobbles, its areas of slack water and moving water, its banks and overhanging flora, its ability to move annual and periodic loads of sediment, has to maintain a delicate and sophisticated balance if it is to be suitable for fish to spawn in and young fish — fry — to survive and grow.
Dredge a creek bed to accommodate flow, throw in a metal culvert near its mouth as was done with Crabapple Creek, and you destabilize the banks and silt the spawning gravels, making it problematic for fish to spawn. Block the flow of a creek at low water levels with a dam in order to stabilize the water levels of an upstream lake, as was done to the River of Golden Dreams in 1987, and you make it difficult to impossible for spawned out trout and juvenile fish to make it back upstream to the lake. Build a golf course partially on reclaimed land that was once juvenile rearing wetland habitat as was done with Nicklaus North, you lose a nursery. Divert 21 Mile Creek, floodproof Fitzsimmons Creek, change the course of Whistler Creek and you impact the ability of fish to reproduce.
The point here is not to enumerate the various sins that have been committed against local fish spawning habitat but to illustrate how even benevolent intentions can have negative impacts when flowing water is seen as an engineering challenge instead of a balanced, albeit fluctuating and even threatening, ecosystem. Very few acts of destruction were undertaken with full knowledge of their impact on fish. More often than not, the fish just simply weren’t thought of at all.
Ian Fairweather thinks a lot about fish. A valley resident for the last dozen years, all of them engaged in fishing and most of them as a fishing guide, in 1993, he wasn’t particularly happy with the damage being suffered by the local fishery. "I placed an ad in the newspaper in the spring of ’93, a call to arms to save habitat. We got together in the old portable, the school. As I recall there was me, Harry Measure, Eric Crowe, Eric Sinclair, Rob Meilleur and Dave Rigler. We started to talk and figure out what we could do and that was the beginning of the Angling Club."
What the club started doing, besides actively fishing local waters and anecdotally cataloging the damage development had brought, was to engage the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks (MOE). Throughout the 1980’s and continuing, if not accelerating, into this decade, MOE has had its funding and effectiveness cut by successive governments that seem to mistake issuing a press release with actually accomplishing something when it comes to protecting the environment in general and fish in particular.
By 1993, the Ministry had "completely abandoned this place," as Ian sees it. Ross Neuman and Rob Knight from MOE convinced the club that its first priority should be to prove there were fish spawning in all the creeks around town, in other words, count fish. Fish are not as easy to count as, say, cattle. They move in streams like greased lightning, they know all the hiding places, they hear you coming long before you get to where they are and water’s just not a very good visual medium. To count fish, you need many eyes, emergence nets, up and downstream fish traps, electroshock equipment — you need help.
"It didn’t take long to realize this was a really big job and we needed more people involved than just the club," Ian said. "Rob Meilleur was president of the Rotary Club, so there was an inclination toward fish there. Don MacLaurin, who was Rotary president after Rob has also always been very supportive of protecting and restoring the fishery and playing a leading role. We started talking about projects that needed to be done and the prospects for a joint venture. We approached Parks (RMOW Parks Department) and Keith Bennett, who is an avid fisherman, was tremendously helpful right from the start."
Out of those talks came the Whistler Fisheries Stewardship Group (WFSG). Formed in 1996 as a working partnership between the Rotary Club, the Angling Club and RMOW, the Stewardship Group brought the volunteer strength of the two clubs together with the professional resources, funding and authority of the municipality to address issues of habitat restoration. Perhaps more importantly, it finally put fish back on the radar screen and formed a nucleus group with which others could get involved.
Almost immediately, WFSG commissioned two studies. The first, by BCIT fisheries student Lucyna Krzesinska, reviewed existing studies of local lakes and streams that had been conducted over the years and documented important conclusions or recommendations they contained. The second, by Alan Thomson, a fisheries consultant, involved drawing up a preliminary five year plan for habitant enhancement and restoration of the important streams within RMOW boundaries.
In conjunction with this latter plan, WFSG organized the collection of baseline data on spawning streams by conducting laborious fish counts on important creeks. By now, the resources of the group had grown considerably. Heather Beresford of Parks was spending a lot of time on WFSG-initiated projects. Summer students Channa Pelpola and Veronica Sommerville seemed to spend almost all of their time hip deep in moving water. The core of WFSG had expanded by the addition of representatives from Whistler-Blackcomb, the Nicklaus North, Chateau and Whistler golf courses, MOE, and other RMOW departments — Roads and Utilities, Planning and Engineering.
"We’re very fortunate to have a working group like that," Ian explained. "The resources and wealth of this community, combined with the volunteer efforts of many people, can be brought to bear on a project for a fraction of what it would cost otherwise. We say we’re going to do some stream work and bang, heavy equipment shows up from the golf courses. Bang, Arthur (DeJong) shows up with rootwads or boulders we need to complex a stretch of water."
The group has managed to undo some of the damage done during the building spree of the ’80s. Two summers ago Crabapple Creek from Crabapple Drive to the River of Golden Dreams was rehabilitated. On a couple of rainy days in August, a large culvert was removed, boulders were added to the creek bed to break up the flow of water, large rootwads were anchored against banks to provide shelter and eddies, and the whole project was fuelled by volunteerism and a couple of celebratory beers. Similar projects on Scotia Creek and a passage around the fish weir on the River of Golden Dreams improved habitat on those two, very important waterways.
This summer’s projects include more work in Scotia Creek, Lakeside Creek, Millar Creek and the River of Golden Dreams. Progress on habitat is being made incrementally, each summer. "Now we need to add education to our focus," Tom Cole, current president of the Angling Club explained. "There are continuing habitat projects we have to accomplish under our five year plan and we, as a community, still don’t have a comprehensive management plan in place. But one of our biggest challenges going forward will be to educate the fishing public as well as members of the community who don’t fish on the impacts their actions have on the fishery. It’s amazing how co-operative people are once you point out to them that, for instance, the gravel spread on the roads during winter that they’re washing into ditches outside their house doesn’t just go away. It ends up in the steams and that’s an on-going problem."
"Our future challenge will be to manage pressure from anglers coming here more than focusing on habitat restoration," Tom said. "Environment (MOE) is understandably wary about human intervention in the fishery but we’ve already disturbed the natural order of things around here. I’d love to see us manage the resource so that we have some lakes where you can catch a few big fish and some where you can catch a bunch of little ones."
At the end of the day, there’s an inescapable irony surrounding local fishing. You have to wonder how it went from being the primary focus of the nascent community of Alta Lake to being an afterthought of Whistler Resort. You have to wonder why, in the late-middle 1980s, when the movers and shakers who’d nurtured the resort past the shoals of economic uncertainty were casting about for activities to remake it into a four-season attraction, fishing never made the list. You have to wonder why the WRA has only recently seen fishing — which is, after all, the single most popular pastime in North America if not the world — as something worth touting in their promotional literature.
"It’s important to me that my kids, 20 years from now, can enjoy fishing the waters around here," Ian mused. Maybe because of the work of the Stewardship Group and the tireless efforts of many, many volunteers, and especially the concern of local anglers and fishing guides, they’ll have a chance. One thing is very clear. The days of sitting back and hoping some higher form of government will take care of the fish is past. If there continues to be a healthy local fishery, it will be because of the work put into it by the community.
Much of the historical information presented in this article was derived from an unpublished manuscript prepared by Janet Love-Morrison and Florence Petersen. It was used with their gracious permission.