The unique environment of Whistler is one of the principal elements linking the three nations who inhabit the area, all are unified over the simple isolation. It is this underlying commonality that has shaped the lives of those who live here, past and present. The geography encouraged people to develop and evolve alongside the ever-changing climate, most notably through their culture, economy and society. The breath taking panoramas of lakes, mountains, rivers and oceans that are the background stage to their lives not only had a profound impact on their relationship with the land physically but also spiritually.
Acclimatising to Paradise
Collectively there is a deeply rooted respect for the land and its riches with a commitment to caring for the environment. Especially for the indigenous, aboriginal peoples who have been settled here for thousands of years, they feel a custodial inheritance of the land, inhabiting an area with the knowledge that one’s ancestors did the same, can create a powerful sense of intimacy. A fundamental set of values and shared attitudes within the diverse communities brings all three cultures and people together.
Following the last Ice Age, ten thousand years ago, it is believed that Canada was covered by ice thousands of feet thick and it is thought that upon the receding of this ice cap the migration of peoples and wildlife across a land bridge from East Asia was enabled. With the retreating ice front, forests once again covered most of Canada, enabling the indigenous population to access abundant resources of fish, game and wildlife. Nonetheless conditions could be extremely harsh. Travelling here from more brutal climates must have felt like arriving at a paradise with an abundance of natural wealth.
Wildlife and Landscapes
Whistler is situated at the centre of two formidable mountain ranges that have been the result of ten million years of formation. The remnants of the last ice age ten can still be seen to this day in the form of glaciers; one of which resides at top of Blackcomb Mountain. The effects of the ice age can be measured by Whistler’s rich biodiversity all the way from the alpine in the form of ice fields, forests and alpine meadows, down to the valley floor with the white water rivers, braided river valleys and swamped marshlands. The receding glaciers form the lakes in the Whistler valley. Alta Lake is at the centre of a narrow pass between the mountains and the first community in the valley sprouted around its shores. The Lake was previously linked to the River of Golden Dreams and Millar Creek which subsequently links the rivers to the Lillooet watershed and the Cheakamus River, eventually meeting the Pacific Ocean.
With regards to the species of Whistler, the forests are teeming with wildlife year-round. They supplied food to the early inhabitants in the form of herbs, berries and mushrooms as well as animals such as deer, bears, wolves and fish. The one constant factor to the area’s topography is water, which has been said to be the ‘lifeblood’ of the Squamish and Lil’wat nations. Lil’wat actually translates to ‘where the rivers meet.’ The prime game fish were the Rainbow and Dolly Varden trout, with the Prickly Sculpin, Kokanee and Bull Trout also present. The Lil’wat community lived further inland and utilized extensive networks of rivers and lakes. The Squamish peoples given their coastal existence spent more time on the ocean and other large bodies of open water. These differences are evident when looking at the types of canoes used. Squamish people created large sea going vessels while the Lil’wat used smaller canoes suited to navigating the lakes and rivers. The waterways were the roads and highways of both of these nations and made for an efficient way to trade and attend social gatherings.
In contrast, the transportation method of the pioneers was across land for the most part, unfortunately over rough terrain which took two to three days as there was no trail to Whistler from Squamish back in the 1800s. The first non-indigenous explorer was the Hudson’s Bay chief factor, James Douglas. He explored the area and wrote “the country examined is mountainous, with some fertile valleys and very fine timber, but not attractive as a place of settlement.” [i] A logical reason for the lack early settlement is that the land was marshy and unsuitable for farming. It was hoped by the early pioneers that cattle would be able to be brought back and forth for profit and with more convenience along the trade route from Pemberton to Squamish. However, the trail did not supply adequate grazing land and many cattle died from starvation. Ironically, it was James Douglas’ description of Whistler’s mountainous, timber stricken land that brought so many people to the area. Whistler is largely covered in dense forests due to the damp climate and Cedar, Fir, Pine and Hemlock trees can grow to great heights. Trappers, loggers and prospectors recognized that the terrain could provide the means of making a living. The tranquil environment and spectacular beauty was eventually sought after for recreational activities in the early 1900s and has continued to bring people to the area up to the present day.
[i] Peterson (1995) 1