Examining Whistler’s roots 

Researching the origins of our old forests reveals the valley’s history, shapes plans for the future

It’s not often I make the acquaintance of a 1,300 year old, but this summer I found a tree on Whistler Mountain that started growing sometime around 700 A.D.

For historic perspective, sacking and pillaging were more popular than skiing in the year A.D. 700. The Dark Ages held Europe as Huns and Visigoths gave way to Arabic Muslims and the Franks under Charlemagne. It was 500 years before the Magna Carta and Marco Polo, and more than 600 years before the first light of the Renaissance began to flicker in Europe.

Up on Whistler Mountain, the forest must have been pretty quiet.

• • •

Fast forward to the dawn of the modern era, 100 years ago. Whistler’s forests were mostly untouched by humans, other than by the trails and seasonal settlements of the Lil’wat and Squamish people.

The railway’s opening in 1914 changed things. It brought settlers to the area and helped Myrtle Philip build Rainbow Lodge into the most popular resort west of Jasper. For a couple of decades, the forest remained mostly intact, except for farm clearings, the occasional railway fire, and some minor logging. Then the era of industrial-scale logging began. Sawmills sprung up at Parkhurst, Lost Lake, and along the railway. By mid-century, some serious dents were being made in the forest. By 1970, loggers had cut the majority of original forest up to mid-elevation on the mountains. The pace of logging slowed, but then another wave of resort development picked up steam. In the 30-something years since, more old trees have fallen for housing and golf courses and ski runs. And they continue to fall.

I couldn’t help wondering what the forests were like before the railway was built. I wanted to know their age, their origin, and what they’d been through over the centuries. Too bad so many of the old trees were hauled down to Squamish and beyond. I could have asked them.

• • •

That 1,300-year-old tree, a yellow-cedar, was one of 500 I sampled while researching Whistler’s forests for the municipality. My plan was to go to forest stands throughout the valley to find out their age and what disturbance created the conditions that allowed the oldest trees to start growing. Was it a fire, flood, landslide, insect outbreak, fungus, windstorm, or something else?

Fire was the main disturbance type I expected to be able to quantify. When a big fire burns through a forest it kills many or all of the canopy trees. A burned site is colonized by pioneers – fast-growing trees that require full sun. Douglas-fir is the main pioneer in our area at lower elevations; pines and cottonwoods are others. Whenever you see them, you can assume a past disturbance opened up the forest canopy enough to let them establish.

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