Subsistence Living

The early inhabitants of Alta Lake would have left many luxuries from their former lives behind, however, the knowledge that their materialistic sacrifices were required in order to ‘live the dream’ within the wilderness of the mountains must have been reassuring. Traveling into the unknown with only the meagre supplies carried by packhorses would not have sustained many people for long. Learning how to live of the land was fundamental to survival, an art the local aboriginal tribes had mastered for thousands of years through fishing, hunting and eating the local vegetation.


The early pioneers arrival and lifestyle in Canada was a stark contrast to the indigenous people. Land was cleared by the pioneers for the purpose of farming and the changes to the beautiful hunting areas of the aboriginal inhabitants must have been hard to comprehend. Nonetheless, the pioneer’s ability to rapidly grow large amounts and varieties of plants such as corn, peas, carrots, onions, lettuce and cabbages would have been impressive. No doubt, the skilled hunters and fishermen of the indigenous peoples must have been just as perplexing to the pioneers because of the vast difference in techniques.

Collective Spirit

Unlike the convenience stores of today, it was a constant job preparing food for the whole year.  Each person in the family was involved in this process.  Traditionally, men would harvest fish and gather wood while women would dry and smoke the fillets on large frames over the fire.  The younger children were responsible for tending the fire, assisting with berry picking, and other preparation and clean up tasks. All three nations required a collective effort prior to the winter months due to the essential preparation needed in order to survive the winter season. The Alta Lake residents worked from dawn until dusk preparing food. In contrast to the indigenous people who hunted and used the natural gifts of the land, the pioneers kept livestock and tended large, functional, vegetable gardens.

The Barnfield family settled in the Sea to Sky corridor in 1895 and delivered milk to Alta Lake residents from their dairy in Squamish via the railway. They purchased land on the east end of Alta Lake in 1926, making delivery far more efficient. For many years Alfred Barnfield and his son Fred were known to transport milk from their dairy twice a week in large cans to everyone in the area by canoe. The dairy order for Rainbow Lodge, the popular summer destination resort, was eighty quarts of milk, four of whipping cream and two quarts of table cream. [i]

Perishable foods were preserved by brining, canning, jellying or refrigerating. During the winter months keeping produce fresh was as simple as burying it within the nearest pile of snow. When the ice covered lakes were at their thickest, the community would all help to harvest huge ice blocks that acted as an innovative solution to refrigeration during the warm summer months. Transported to ‘ice-houses’ they would have then been packed together using sawdust as insulation to protect the ice from melting during the soaring temperatures of the summer.

Food for thought or for sport?

The primary reason for holidaying at Myrtle and Alex Philip’s Rainbow Lodge was to fish and it is no surprise that fish featured most prominently on the menu. The Lil’wat and Squamish communities’ staple diet also consisted primarily of fish, notably salmon, due to it being in plentiful supply and the most accessible form of food. Dolly Varden and Rainbow trout were the two species inhabiting Alta Lake until Kokanee were later stocked. The local trapper, Bill Bailiff who settled at Alta Lake talks about how rich the Lakes and rivers stock were:

The lakes were all full of cutthroat trout when the white man came and I’ve seen the lake rippling all over in the evening with fresh fish feeding on the insects that were dropping from the trees…You could catch all you wanted in an hour…I’ve seen a man catch fifty in an hour and take them home and smoke them. [ii]

Although illegal, poaching was sometimes a necessity. In an interview with Bob Jardine in June 1989, he explains that the polite way of describing the hunt for deer was to say you were hunting for a “government cow,” however, Bob Jardine said that it was seldom done. [iii] Venison would occasionally feature on the Alta Lake dinner tables in order for the inhabitants not needing to stave off meat for too long, the area was too remote for regular journeys to purchase meat from either Pemberton or Squamish. John Millar, who first came to Alta Lake to pre-empt land in the early 1900’s, often caught game.

He became known for his good fare, muskrat stew, a haunch of bear meat or stewed racoon. During one hunting expedition for wolverine, one of his prey came to after he had put it in his pack. The animal at a hole in the packsack and grabbed john by the seat of his pants. John was unable to sit for some time. [iv]

Fortunately this was all that happened, however, it is a stark reminder of the perils that living in the wild can provoke.

Modern living

Although a great deal was home grown cattle and vegetables, supplies were eventually brought in to Alta Lake upon the completion of the P.G.E railway. Mail orders from the store Woodward’s in Vancouver seemed to be the most popular option, with meat sometimes coming from Pavilion Ranch North of Lillooet. Myrtle Phillip interviewed in 1982, discussed what the residents of Alta Lake lived on during the early years:

(Residents) lived on beans, rice and fish and a lot of wild meet…they had stuff shipped in, there was no market here or anything like that…a couple of chickens and then they’d have eggs and maybe they’d have a pig in the fall. Then you’d have some fresh pork and bacon and cured hams. [v]

There was also a convenience store at Rainbow lodge that supplied basic foods such as cheese, canned goods and of course the essentials; sweets and ice cream.

[i] J.A.Betts interviewed in 1988

[ii] Bill Bailiff writing in 1956

[iii] Bob Jardine interviewed in 1989

[iv] Peterson (1995) 26

[v] Myrtle Philips interviewed in 1982