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The history lurking in Whistler's lakes

Last Thursday, April 11, the museum had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Ian Spooner of Acadia University for his presentation on environmental change in Alta and Lost Lakes.
JUMP UP The Lost Lake ski jump in 1980. Photo submitted

Last Thursday, April 11, the museum had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Ian Spooner of Acadia University for his presentation on environmental change in Alta and Lost Lakes.

The head of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, Spooner and his students, working with Cascade Environmental Resource Group, have been using lake sediment cores to study Alta Lake for the past five years. Last year, Spooner also took a core from Lost Lake.

Sediment cores provide a record, not entirely unlike tree rings, of minerals and organic matter found in the lake sediment. The core taken from Alta Lake was about 40 cm long and went back about 500 years.

By dating the different layers, Spooner and his student Dewey Dunnington were able to tell a lot about how the lake has changed over time, and by connecting the dates to historical records and stories told by locals, what might have contributed to these changes.

During his talk, Spooner highlighted the changing presence of copper and arsenic in Alta Lake. Though there is always some change over time, the presence of both copper and arsenic increased considerably from the 1880s, as the Pemberton Trail and PGE Railway were built and the area became more settled.

While both have shown a decrease in more recent years, a spike in copper sometime around the '60s illustrates how important stories are to adding context to this data.

From the data and records, it had been assumed that the spike in copper was part of the increasing and continued development around the lake. However, during a talk Spooner did at the museum in 2016, one audience member offered a different reason.

The man stood up and informed Spooner, "No, you're wrong. We dumped that copper in the lake, back in the '60s. We wanted to get rid of an invasive species."

(Copper is used in some places as a biocide as it effectively kills parasites such as those that cause swimmer's itch. It also, however, will kill all the fish.)

When asked where one might find records of or a permit for this action, the man told Spooner there was none. They "just did it."

There is no doubt that as stories are collected to add context to the core taken from Lost Lake, this attitude of "just do it" will come up again. After all, we already know of some such cases.

In 1977, a group of Whistler freestyle skiers made plans to build their own ski jump on the shores of Lost Lake. With no development permit or any official permission from the district, Lost Lake offered an inconspicuous, out-of-the-way site.

The ski jump also had no funding for materials or labour. Timber was scrounged from a number of sources and the plastic grass ski out from the Olive Chair was taken from the dump and given a second life as the ski jump's new surface. Once the materials were gathered, construction took only two weeks.

The finished ramp projected out six metres over the lake (not too far from where the sediment core was taken) and willing skiers could launch themselves up to 12 metres above the water. According to David Lalik, one of the original workers on the ramp, "Injuries were commonplace but (an) acceptable risk in the sport and environment of the day."

In 1981, the ski jump began hosting competitions and the next summer saw the first Summer Air Camp at Lost Lake. Freestyle skiers came to Whistler to train with Peter Judge, the national team coach. Far from being inconspicuous, film crews arrived to record events for television broadcasts.

Stories like these aren't always included in the official records (permits weren't always applied for in the '60s and '70s) and so contributions from people who have been in the area are incredibly important for explaining the data. As Spooner puts it, "The science isn't worth anything without the stories. We get it wrong."

If you have your own stories to add, you can send them to Spooner at or come visit us at the museum and we can pass them on.