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The legacies of Michael Thompson

Naturalist passes quietly in hospital in West Vancouver



If you've lived in Whistler for any length of time, you probably knew Michael Thompson by sight even if you didn't know his name. He was tall and silver-haired with thick glasses, but what set him apart was the massive pair of binoculars strung around his neck as he scanned the trees and shorelines around Whistler for birds.

He was very much a mechanical engineer in everything he did, fastidious and organized. As a young man he started out operating plants for the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, working his way from town-to-town until he landed in the position of CEO for Prince Rupert Grain. He retired early and moved to Whistler with his family, immersing himself in the community.

He was a man who both knew things and did things, quietly and humbly, whether it was watching birds or working in his wood shop.

Thompson passed away on March 12 in West Vancouver, where he was in a long-term care facility battling illness for over a year. His wife Shirley was at his side.

Peter Shrimpton knew Thompson through the board for the Whistler Village Church, which evolved from the Whistler United Church that he helped found, and the Whistler Inter-Faith Society, which was formerly the Whistler Skiers Chapel.

"He was extremely generous in his contributions and donations, whether they were of time, talent or money," wrote Shrimpton. "Shirley and he were pillars of the faith communities here, and when they were forced to relocate to Vancouver for his care that left a great void.

"Michael was wise and well-read and loved to share his knowledge in his humble and compassionate way. Until his final years he was energetic, was skilled in carpentry and loved his nature walks. His wonderful, wry sense of humour disarmed everyone and he was a terrific role model for the younger members of the local churches.

"A great light has been extinguished, but the after-glow will last a very long time."

In the bird-watching community, Thompson was the engineer. He led monthly bird walks and took part in count events. He dutifully logged that information every month and sent it out to the database compiled by the Audobon Society. He did it for his love of nature and birds, but he was also a believer in the larger mission that uses the pattern of bird sightings and migrations to determine the health of species and whether there were any larger environmental issues affecting the wellness of bird species. Scientifically, every bird is a kind of canary in a coal mine.

Heather Baines knew Thompson for more than 15 years, going back to Ontario. While a lot of bird watching is done in silence with a pair of binoculars, she knew Thompson well.

"He was a really nice man, easy to get along with and always helpful," said Baines.

Thompson helped to produce the first checklist of Whistler birds back in 2005, which birders use to record species. That checklist helps watchers identify rare birds and determine what birds are native to the area — birds that should appear every year or every few years if all is well in nature.

Baines remembers standing on the shores of Green Lake when a flock of Ross's geese flew by — a species that never usually ventures past the eastern part of Alberta.

"We were standing there talking and, lo and behold, a whole pile of these geese flew past us. It was really exciting for the both of us, it's the only sighting for here and they don't usually come through here, or anywhere near here."

These days local birders are excited about the discovery of a Northern mocking bird in Squamish, which has been hanging around for three weeks — it's the kind of find that Thompson would have jumped in his car and rushed out to see.

Karl Ricker also knew Thompson through the birding community.

"He was just a stellar individual, embarrassingly honest," laughed Ricker. "He always tried his hardest to help the Whistler Naturalists as best he could, and he made a big effort to get the bird list out in 2005. He took on all the big jobs that nobody else wanted but needed to get done."

Thompson used to joke that he was actually a terrible bird watcher, giving the credit to other members of his small community for all the best finds. He did, however, have great ears for hearing birdcalls; so much so that one local birder would joke, "You could go blind tomorrow and it wouldn't affect your bird-watching at all."

Thompson's involvement with the Whistler chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada is also a matter of local history. Thompson and Shirley's only child, their daughter Wendy, was a paramedic who was killed in a 1995 helicopter crash while coming to the aid of a family in the Queen Charlottes. Wendy grew up in Whistler and was a ski patroller on Blackcomb for five years until she made the move to the B.C. Ambulance Service.

Thompson, who had no lack of resources, provided most of the funding to build the Wendy Thompson Hut, located in the Marriott Basin area off the Duffey Lake Road — a two-storey backcountry hut that could comfortably sleep 16.

Thompson and his wife would hike to the area and every spring would volunteer to clean and repair the building.