July 07, 1995 Features & Images » Feature Story

feature 227 

Whistler residents seem to wage an ongoing debate about what it takes to be a "local." It's a never-ending stream of barbs, criticism and queries that always starts with "How long have you been here?" In most other towns and cities across this nation that question doesn't seem to mean as much as it does in Whistler. Here, the weight of the question is almost overwhelming as folks who have put in less than one year struggle to define their Whistler existence in terms of months, days and hours. If you're under three years, the answer is always stretched to three years. The ambiguous period between five and 10 years is usually rounded off to "almost a decade now." And if you passed the 10 year mark many would say "I remember when Seppo and I used to go blah, blah, blah…" More often than not, the time in Whistler discussion sounds like conversations between hardened criminals comparing their periods of incarceration. There's a party going on tomorrow at the south end of Alta Lake and hidden on a point behind a curtain of greenery lies the answer to the how to be a local question. Walk down the path to the past — there it is, a quaint log home on the lakeshore. There's someone sitting on the veranda reading "The Private Lives of Winston Churchill." Her name, Betty Clarke and she is without a doubt a local — nobody has been here longer than Betty. She celebrated her 80th birthday in June and for every one of those eight decades, Alta Lake has been Betty's summer home. Tomorrow the Clarke family is having a party at Betty's house to honour Whistler's eldest resident, who first came to Alta Lake in 1915 with her mother, Grace Woollard, at the tender age of six weeks. In the years that passed, Betty spent her summers at Alta Lake, hiking on nearby London Mountain (now Whistler Mountain), swimming and rowing in the cool waters of the lake and visiting with the other residents along the lakeshore. And as we sit in the porch of the cabin Bill MacDermott and Bill Baliff built so many years ago, Betty leans back and gives a hearty laugh over the so-called "local" debate. "I think I qualify," she says. "You hear people all the time saying they came here in the 1970s, they have been here for a long time relative to what Whistler is now… but if you could have been here then…" Betty seems to be as cool and calm as the water of Alta Lake, it's surface rippled by the early July rain. A flock of Canada geese bobs by in the water, the downy goslings trailing noisily behind. Sitting on Betty Clarke's veranda is like taking a seat in the past, the only reminder of the surroundings is the constant drone of Highway 99 in the background. "The highway noise starts at 6 a.m. and goes all day now," she says. "It's not quite as quiet as it used to be." That's a fact. Betty lived in Whistler when it was called Alta Lake, no one lived anywhere else except in the cluster of cottages which ringed the lake. Since then the village, 6,500 permanent residents and the distinction of being the Number One ski resort in North America have overtaken the valley, but Betty has maintained her piece of history at the south end of the lake. The Clarke family could have been very large land owners in the Alta Lake area as Betty's mother, along with the brother and sister pair of Ernie and Grace Archibald, came to Alta Lake just prior to World War I and each laid claim to 160 acres of land on the east side of the lake. Ernie Archibald's land is now Alta Vista. Betty's mother lost her claim to her parcel when the government expropriated it while she was away. "My father was an army officer and my mother was a nurse, so during World War my mother went to England to be near him," Betty recalls. "When she came back there was a padlock on the door." She says the government used a loophole to grab the land back when she failed to dwell on it the set number of months and plow up a portion of the land. "While she was away during the war the government took the land away. How's that for thanks?" Following the expropriation, the Clarke spread at the south end of Alta Lake started out as 10 acres, but Whistler boomed and the size of the property dwindled as Highway 99 took a chunk, the Valley Trail claimed another section and the sewer lines took another piece of the property. Although the size of the Clarke land has dwindled the vivid memories of Alta Lake occupy a large place in Betty's heart and mind. "This place just throbs with memories," Betty says as she looks out the window, across the lake and into the past. "When I was growing up this was always a summer resort. Few people except the Philips (Alex and Myrtle of the Rainbow Lodge) spent the winters here. Then as the logging started to pick up there were all these little mills in the valley." The trip to Whistler was a little longer and somewhat safer than the Highway 99 speedway of today. The Clarke family used to board the Union Steamship in Vancouver at 8 a.m. and after stops at Bowen Island, Woodfibre and finally Squamish they would board the train that would take them the rest of the way to Alta Lake, arriving just prior to dinner time. Betty gave up summer in Whistler and became a permanent resident for two and a half years — replacing Alta Lake's first teacher Margaret Partridge in the late 1930s. Betty taught children with names like Tapley, Jardine and Woods, serving as the teacher in the one room schoolhouse in Chaplinville. The students ranged from Grade 1 to Grade 10 and usually numbered between eight and 10. "A family with five children moved up to one of the logging camps (and) all of a sudden the size of the class almost doubled," she says with a smile. The other thing that brings a smile to Betty's face is the memory of the dances that used to be held in the school, which doubled as a community hall. Mrs. Woods used to play her accordion and everyone would dance. "Everyone came, just everyone… they were just wonderful parties." One party in particular, was memorable as two teenagers, Pip Brock and Peggy Thompson went out and moved everyone's rowboats — the primary mode of transportation on the lake — and tied them to other people's floats. "It took all day the next day to get it sorted out," she recalls. "Everybody had to go out there, find their boat, it was really something." Those parties of old may be only a memory tomorrow as Betty celebrates her 80th year with her three children, seven grandchildren and the rest of her family. But the debate over who's a local may never end.

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