Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 6: Alta Lake 1928

"Clad in her one blouse, she often travels hundreds of miles through the dense wild-animal infested forest, to warn her lover of a plot…”

– Montreal Daily Star, “Cartoons of Canada According to American Movies,” 1923

Although no field journals by Cowan exist for the pre-1929 period, the Racey journals and the family albums for the late 1920s document a full outdoor life of camping and collecting expeditions which included the young Ian. Eileen Racey and her children would spend summers up at Alta Lake, and Kenneth Racey would join them as much as he could after a week in the city, often bringing his young acolyte with him. The trip to Alta Lake consisted of catching a boat from Vancouver up to the head of the Sound near Squamish, then boarding the steam train, riding it up to the Alta Lake Hotel, and walking the short distance to the small family cabin on the lake, nestled amongst the mountains of Garibaldi to the southeast and Mount Callaghan to the northwest. Cowan and Racey’s 1935 monograph on the Mammals of Alta Lake, describe the landscape that Cowan would have encountered as he stepped off the train and explored that region for the first time.

Alta Lake cabin (1932)

A full set of summer correspondence from Eileen Racey to her husband Kenneth in the early 1920s provides an intimate look into the comings and goings of this isolated summer community that became the present-day international destination resort of Whistler, named after the Hoary Marmot’s plaintiff call. Much of the valley today is altered beyond recognition, although Alta Lake hasn’t changed as much and the small cabin is still there and enjoyed by the family. The days then were filled with fly-fishing, bird watching, hikes to waterfalls, berry gathering, swimming in the chilly lake, wood chopping, trips to the hotel to deliver letters (and “swipe” more ink) and domestic chores. Eileen also shared her husband’s interests and provided updates, a role that Joyce would also play for Cowan throughout their lives. “August 23, 1923. The lake was covered with divers [loons] yesterday and they went off in the evening with the greatest of noise you have ever heard. I have never seen so many up here before.” When Cowan first meets Joyce, she is an attractive 15-year-old, a skilled markswoman, camper, hiker and naturalist in her own right. From her childhood letters to her father, which accompanied her mother’s, she demonstrates her growing adeptness at fly-fishing, berry gathering and birdwatching. In an account of a varied thrush nest, she describes it for her father this way: “The nest was made of sticks, straw, mud, pieces of bark, string and leaves. The bird itself had a ring around its neck, a black head, and the breast was the same as a robin.” 

Alan Racey at Nita Lake

The cabin was a small, wooden, largely one-room affair with living, dining and kitchen space in one, with a large, enamelled, wood-burning stove as the hub and hearth. There was a screened veranda in which visitors could bunk. Cowan easily fit into the family routine and joined the women fly-fishing on the lake. He liked to attribute his learning of these finer arts of fishing to his future mother-in-law, whom he admired enormously. From the photographs and Racey’s field notes, it appears the family expeditions between 1927 and 1929 to Mount Garibaldi, Black Tusk, Mount Overlord, Red Mountain and Cheakamus Canyon, Lake and Glacier were a formative time – both for learning and for his developing affection for Joyce.

The photographs of the family with Cowan catch them at the different elevations where they were collecting specimens, from valley bottoms to glaciers. For the growing scientific community, mountains were pivotal at this time for throwing light on evolution. The remarkable adaptations and speciation in the flora and fauna as one moves up the mountain were the focus for many of the pioneering taxonomists – Racey being no exception. He had introduced the young Cowan to the new concept of the Transcontinental Life Zones – the classification system of the landscape developed by C. Hart Merriam in 1889 that took into account not only longitude and latitude but altitude – and by proxy, temperature and precipitation.

Ian McTaggart Cowan with Kenneth Racey (1931)

Merriam’s ideas were to ignite Cowan’s appreciation for the diversity of fauna lurking within the complex zones of the Coast Mountains – Joyce being by no means a minor fauna in his life. One set of photographs captures the family in the old-growth Douglas-fir and Western Redcedar forests of Cheakamus – in what was called the Canadian Zone. Others show the young Joyce in an alpine meadow at the treeline, above 5,000 feet – the Alpine Arctic Zone. One photograph captures them all lined up on a glacier en route to tracking down signs of the maze of tunnels and burrows of the Wrangell Bog-Lemming (also called the Lemming Mouse). Joyce’s aunts from Montreal had sent her Montreal Daily Star cartoons of the Young Canadian Girl and Boy from a series called “Canada According to the American Movies” satirizing Hollywood’s portrayal of Canadians: “Clad in her one blouse, she often travels hundreds of miles through the dense wild-animal-infested forest to warn her lover of a plot.” The Canadian Boy and Girl seemed to have found one another, although anything serious was a long way off; a post-secondary education and the depression were looming on the mountainous horizon.

Cowan had also found the perfect future father-in-law in Racey. Through Racey he was also to meet many local trappers and naturalists, all of whom provided knowledge and skills. They included J.W. “Billy” Bailif who worked Fitzsimmons Creek. Today much of that creek is heavily diked and rip-rapped as it flows through the resort of Whistler. Bailiff’s traplines are long gone and the light tracks of a Bobcat are less likely to be seen, but the legacy of Cowan and Racey’s biological inventory is an important baseline. 

Kenneth Racey field notes (1920-1927) : Alta Lake, B.C.
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