Shadows of Whistler: Kenneth R. Racey and friends in Alta Lake
By B. Max G_tz
Whistler’s recent history has been one of constant change. But what was here before the railroad brought the loggers and the tourists? What was Whistler before the first European trappers and prospectors slogged their way over the Pemberton Trail?
Bands of Salish natives hunted and fished here, and maintained seasonal encampments, but the forests and the rivers that emerged from the melting ice were hardly influenced by human activities for 10,000 years.
Abundant insects, raining down from towering trees that leaned precariously over Alta Lake, were eaten as fast as they fell by legions of hungry trout. Grizzlies roamed. Black bears with dark, glossy coats, protected from the bleaching sun, walked through the valley bottom on a carpet of moss. Above them, a dense canopy of branches laden with lichen and topped with moss and ferns, blocked all but a few fingers of light. In the inky blackness of the night forest, Spotted Owls made their strange, hesitating calls, perhaps still clutching a Northern Flying Squirrel which moments earlier had been scampering high in the canopy, cheeks bulging with seeds.
These scenes, less than a century old, will probably never be repeated in Whistler. So how do we know they occurred at all?
The wildlife observations and collections of Kenneth R. Racey are doubtless the most comprehensive ever made in Whistler. His studies in Whistler span over three decades (from 1920 to 1951) and are summarized in two papers published in The Auk, an ornithological journal, in 1926 and 1948.
Racey was born in Ile d’Orleans, Quebec in 1882, and arrived in B.C. in 1909. He worked as an accountant at a Port Moody sawmill, then as a manufacturer’s agent for timber and mining operations in Sea to Sky Country; an occupation requiring extensive travel throughout the area while cultivating excellent relations with a wide range of people.
His publications generously credit a host of contributors: Alex Philip finding downy young of the Common Loon on Lost Lake; Osprey observations from Alfred Barnfield; P.D. Lineham’s observations of Trumpeter Swan; Mrs. Burbridge calling in a Common Loon on Alta Lake; numerous sightings from Billy Bailiff, as well as Fred Woods, Dr. Naismith, and of course, Mrs. Racey and their children Joyce, Allan, and Stuart.
One of Racey’s earliest friends in Whistler was J. W. "Billy" Bailiff. A trapper, rail worker, and prospector, Bailiff was an experienced naturalist, and spent months at a time in the backcountry. Bailiff’s trap lines included the Cheakamus River valley from the Cal-Cheak to Naden Pass. Working the trap lines up the Cheakamus meant building and stocking a series of rough huts followed by a two to three month snowshoe tour, often pulling a sledge.
Racey was a founding member of the B.C. Ornithologists’ Union and the Burrard Field-Naturalist Club and was a prominent bird collector in B.C. Collecting birds, until later this century, meant using a shotgun. Today it seems odd that for several decades in British Columbia, a small group of amateur ornithologists were licensed under the Canadian Migratory Bird Protection Office to shoot birds, but they were "dead" serious:
" The specimens assembled by that small group of private collectors of birds in British Columbia served the immediate purpose of increasing the knowledge of the collectors and providing them with the source material for their publications. More importantly, the specimens in their collections were available to others, were frequently used to illustrate talks to school classes and natural history society groups and eventually, with one exception, they were deposited in one of the major museums in Canada or the United States where they are now part of the database for studies of the systematics and distribution of birds.
Collectively, some 30,000 specimens along with accompanying field notes, representing about 50 man-years of labor, were donated to public museums by this small and dedicated group of ornithologists."
– from: Birds of BC vol. 1, 1990, R.W. Campbell et al.
Racey established the presence of 137 bird and 41 mammal species, collecting well over 500 specimens around Whistler. Racey’s talent as a preparator is still evident from the superb condition of the specimens he stuffed. His private bird and mammal collection formed the basis for the Cowan Vertebrate Museum at UBC, and his specimens now reside in museums across North America. Racey’s achievements seem all the more amazing when one considers that he had no formal training.
In 1925, at a Burrard Field-Naturalist Club meeting at the Carnegie Museum on 1st and Blenheim in Vancouver, Racey met a keen 15 year old named Ian McTaggart-Cowan. Ken Racey knew a good naturalist when he saw one, and invited the young man to view his already extensive bird and mammal collection. This encounter began an association which would profoundly influence the lives of both men. By 1928 Racey and McTaggart-Cowan were good friends and together made frequent collecting expeditions around Whistler.
McTaggart-Cowan received a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of California under the direction of leading ornithologist Dr. Joseph Grinnell in 1935, and began his long and highly distinguished career. In 1936, Dr. Ian McTaggart-Cowan married his mentor’s daughter, Joyce. Joyce Racey was already a skilled naturalist, field assistant and specimen preparator, and as Joyce McTaggart-Cowan became an invaluable partner to the young zoologist.
Before the construction of the railway in 1914, humans played a minor role in local ecosystems. Billy Bailiff provides an eyewitness account:
"Before the advent of the railway in 1914 the only access (to Alta Lake) was by a pack horse trail which ran... through a virgin forest of magnificent timber... It followed a line of least resistance, a mere thread winding through the valleys and dells... Alta Lake was timbered right to the waterline. Tall, stately pines raised their heads above all the majestic firs which seemed to dwarf their more stocky neighbors, the hemlocks and cedars.
The forest floor was carpeted with nice soft moss and was remarkably free from windfalls and brush."
– from: J.W. Bailiff, 1956. A History of Alta Lake
Bailiff’s essay on our natural history is one of few historical accounts of the area.
It is somehow comforting to know that he also found the weather to be "a little on the unpredictable side," but almost everything else has changed.
The pines Bailiff refers to are Western White Pine, and the largest examples were prime targets for loggers. The younger pines were ravaged by pine blister rust, a plant disease introduced to B.C. by imported ornamental currants. In about two decades, Bailiff’s "tall and stately pines" were reduced to pathetic remnants.
"Cutthroat trout" that "grab a bare hook" could be caught in Alta Lake "fifty in an hour" when the white men first came, according to Bailiff, but later were reduced by fishing and by logging and sawmill operations, and then squeezed by the introduction of "Kamloops" and "Kokanee" trout in the 1930s, when the native trout were likely at low numbers.
Bailiff’s comments may be enthusiastic, but the original trout species that once inhabited Alta Lake is still a mystery. It is unlikely that an experienced naturalist like Bailiff could misidentify the distinctively marked Cutthroat Trout. Yet what happened to them? Even if hybridization with introduced Kokanee and Rainbow Trout occurred extensively, occasional reports of hybrid Cutthroat Trout should pop up, but apparently do not.
The scale of logging operations and the race to high grade lumber did not limit the destruction to pines and trout. Virtually everywhere under 950 metres elevation where machinery could be brought in, slipshod logging operations decimated forests.
In 1948, Racey pointedly wrote:
"Unfortunately, logging and sawmill operations... are doing an immense amount of damage... careless logging methods... leave debris and desolation everywhere... Worst of all is the fire hazard created... great areas have been burnt... and left barren, with but little or no signs of natural reforestation taking place. Deer and grouse have very greatly decreased in number... once abundant rainbow trout in Alta Lake are being adversely affected by the sawdust now entering the lake."
– from Racey, K. R. 1948. Birds of the Alta Lake region, B.C. The Auk 65(3): 383-401.
Trees and wildlife were considered inexhaustible by the ignorant. Trumpeter Swans, then thought to be on the abyss of extinction, were shot for target practice by loggers on Alta Lake, and left to be eaten by coyotes.
"...it all seems to be lawful..." Bailiff pleaded in 1956 "...but I do wish to point out if we are to save our forests from partial or total destruction in the near future and for perpetuity, then drastic laws will have to be brought in and enforced."
Two years later, Bailiff died. His prescient comments are a tribute to the knowledge and understanding of the early Whistler naturalists.
Some bird species found regularly in Whistler by Racey and friends have not been noted here for several decades. Certain species with specialized habitat requirements have disappeared. Other species appear to be reduced in number and range.
Western Bluebirds that once bred on the east side of Alta Lake, north of the former Archibald ranch, (most likely in the shelter of Peggy’s Cove a.k.a. Higgins Bay) have not been noted since Racey ominously stated in 1948: "Not as common as formerly and now only occasionally seen." Ditto for the Spruce Grouse near Alpha and Nita Lakes.
It is significant that the Western Bluebird was declining as a breeder in Whistler before the arrival of the introduced European Starling, which has often stood accused of precipitating the Western Bluebird’s decline by aggressive competition for nesting cavities.
The probable cause of Whistler’s bluebird unhappiness was the alteration of their specialized habitat by humans, not just in Whistler but across B.C.
Spruce Grouse, once a regular breeder on the flanks of Sproatt Mountain, above Nita Lake, may still linger in shadowy haunts, but several decades have passed with only a few unconfirmed reports.
The Spotted Owl, that famous lightning rod of emotion around old growth forests, was heard calling by Racey near Function Junction on July 17, 1946, probably the last time anyone familiar with owls, heard this bird in Whistler.
Nesting Common Loons have apparently deserted many lakes since Alex Philip discovered downy young floating on Lost Lake. Canada’s most famous bird was among the first victims of progress in Whistler, just as it was in Eastern Canada, apparently its nesting requirements too specialized to survive the onslaught of development along shorelines.
The generalist species, including native ravens, crows and jays, have increased since Racey’s observations. Introduced exotic birds such as the European Starling and the House Sparrow, more tolerant of human activity, established themselves in Whistler’s suburban landscapes sometime around 1960. Two other newcomers snuck in unnoticed: the ever cheeky and adaptable House Finch, and the infamous Brown-headed Cowbird — the most reviled native bird in North America.
Brown-headed Cowbirds were once restricted to the short grass "buffalo" prairies throughout central North America. Like the cuckoo of Europe, the Cowbird female deposits an egg in the nest of another species which then raise the Cowbird egg as their own. The rapid clearing of forests allowed Brown-headed Cowbirds to follow open landscapes, with the added bonus of newly exposed songbirds pathetically unequipped to recognize the threat of brood parasitism.
Sightings of tiny Common Yellowthroat, or Warbling Vireo, feeding a juvenile Cowbird one and a half times bigger, are comical, sad, and frequent around Whistler. No data exists for Whistler, but in B.C., Cowbird eggs were found in 18 per cent of Common Yellowthroat nests and 49 per cent of Warbling Vireo nests.
The changes to birdlife in Whistler are not all depressing. Trumpeter Swan numbers in B.C. have rebounded dramatically since their legal protection, and this magnificent bird, the largest North American wildfowl, and the second heaviest flying animal on the planet, is again a frequent winter visitor to valley-bottom lakes. In Whistler, encroachment of feeding areas by development and recreation is a concern, but the Trumpeter Swan seems to be recovering nicely.
Birds are an integral part of the ecosystems which support life, and their fate is inexorably linked to our own. More than mere ornaments, birds pollinate plants and disperse seeds. They control rodents and other pests which damage livestock, crops, and property. Many are tasty and nutritious food.
Their importance to our well being cannot be underestimated. If all insect-eating birds suddenly lost their collective appetite, most plants would be eradicated by insect plagues of biblical proportions, and our forests reduced to heaps of dust.
But humans are still far from understanding how large ecosystems function. The traditional reductionist approach seems to falter under the staggering complexity and variation of large ecosystems and their temporal scale, which transcends human lifetimes.
This has led to a situation where many ecological assertions can neither be proved nor disproved. At least not without crippling expenditures of time and money. Biological inquiry has, by necessity, mostly followed the path of least resistance, and the higher ground has yet to be gained.
In the meantime, let’s study the past, and take a precautionary approach toward the future by ensuring the health of birds, bears, fish, trees, and humans. They are all one and the same.