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Feature - In search of Whistler’s other

If early explorers couldn’t bring themselves to name a mountain, they named the mountain after the marmot



Living in Whistler, it can be tempting to overestimate our town’s actual standing on the world stage. On any given day, the place can seem like some sort of prototype for Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village as Ski Town, with representatives from most if not all continents here to blow their bucks and have a blast in our fair resort municipality. We built it and they came. Soon they came in droves, to Whistler.

Sure the town’s name has been dropped from the "official" bid for the 2010 Olympics, but everybody knows rainy Vancouver wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in Kits at getting the IOC’s OK if it weren’t for wintery Whistler providing the white stuff for the Games’ marquee outdoor events.

But with all of Whistler’s world-class this and world-class that, the hill for which the town is named is actually only one of three Whistler Mountains located in Western Canada, with the other two situated in Alberta’s Rockies. Donating my truck to help a friend relocate from one mountain town to another provided the excuse to go and explore the other two peaks belonging to this trio of treeline-toppers.

The first stop of this peaky pilgrimage was to a mountain that overlooks historic Jasper, a small town justly famous in its own right. It too is a tourist town with a healthy per capita percentage of ski bums but the differences are many: Churches are everywhere but there is as of yet not a single Starbucks. There are many more moustaches but no monster homes. (In fact, because the town is located inside a national park, homeowners can only own the dwelling itself, not the land, and so most houses are refreshingly modest.)

Jasper is also very much a company town but the Employer is Parks Canada, not a multinational mega-corporation. The local bars feature Happy Hours, not nightly drink specials, and not a single one is without a prominent selection of the severed heads of indigenous wildlife – usually those once belonging grizzlies, moose, wolves, bighorn sheep, caribou, wolverines and elk – staring blindly at patrons through the ever-present haze of cigarette smoke. The prudent soon learn to avoid roaming gangs of elk on the streets at night, not drunken, bejewelled thugs from the Lower Mainland. And locals here don’t wear cowboy hats just to make a fashion statement.

There seems to be some confusion over the spelling of the mountain that overlooks Jasper, which is known alternately as either "Whistlers Mountain" or "Whistler’s Mountain", depending on who you talk to. As with Whistler, B.C., it too is named for the distinctive shriek of alarm given by the hoary marmots who call the mountain home. The potential prey of just about any passing mammal hungry enough to be bothered with it, the hoary marmot ( Marmota Caligata ) has become known for the shrill, whistling cry it gives when danger is sensed. They are commonly referred to as "whistlers". For a grey-haired rodent that spends a full eight months of the year in hibernation, it probably beats being nicknamed hoaries.

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