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TRAVEL: Mining memories on the Whistler museum trail

A s we rattle along the tracks, the light grows progressively dimmer and the air, distinctly cooler. Our guide extinguishes her light and we are engulfed in total blackness, with not a speck of light anywhere.
The Thunderbird mask in the Audain Museum in Whistler.

As we rattle along the tracks, the light grows progressively dimmer and the air, distinctly cooler.

Our guide extinguishes her light and we are engulfed in total blackness, with not a speck of light anywhere. 

When she turns on her headlamp, thin wavering light shines on rough rock walls and the tunnel’s low ceiling. This is how miners saw their world.

For more times than I can count, my husband and I have zipped along the Sea to Sky Highway en route to Whistler. 

Every time we passed through Britannia, I always said, we should visit the mine museum — but have we? 

Nope. Not until today.

This is our first stop on the Whistler museum trail. We are starting at Britannia to learn about mining, then heading to Whistler for an art museum with a formidable collection and finishing at a First Nations cultural centre.

The Britannia mine operated from 1904 to 1974 and was once the largest producer of copper in the British Empire. People came from all over the world to work here and only employees of the mine and their families could live in the town. 

We wander past residential and industrial buildings, peering into windows as we go along. 

The A-Z Building depicts, through photos and artifacts, what life was like in a mining town. 

Mining requires big machinery and so we crane our necks to look up at some super-sized rigs. 

I stand, dwarfed by the tire of a haul truck that is easily twice as tall as me.

The train ride into the mine is the highlight. We don hard hats and clamber into the open cars of the cheery, yellow train. Just as thousands of miners did, we chug along one of the tunnels leading into the mountain. 

Its walls ooze with moisture and a blue vein of ore glistens in the passing light. 

We come to a stop at the explosives cabinet, which had the only stationery light in the mine and kept it dry.

Our guide starts up a drill almost as big as her and demonstrates drilling into the rock. Even with our ears covered, it is incredibly loud. The noise of the scoop car gathering up rocks was not any quieter. 

Workers were expected to move thousands of pounds of rock each day, which then was transported to the mill for extraction. The soaring 20-storey height of the building allowed the ore to be moved by gravity as it was crushed and ground.

How noisy the rumbles echoing around this tall structure must have been.

And then, with an atmosphere polar opposite to dark tunnels and loud machinery, we visit Audain Art Museum in Whistler, which houses the Audains’ British Columbia art collection. 

First Nations carvings and masks, paintings by Emily Carr and post-war modernists E.J. Hughes and Jack Shadbolt, photographs from Jeff Wall — this permanent collection is as superb as it is diverse.

Strolling through the galleries, I find the spacious placement of art encourages quiet contemplation.

Each gallery flows into the next, taking us on a timeline tour from traditional to contemporary. 

The minimalist building is a piece of artwork unto itself. 

I spend as much time looking at its details as I do perusing the art. 

Shafts of light beaming through slats of hemlock wood cast intricate shadows, while expansive windows showcase natural greenery beyond.

Not far from the Audain, I walk past two tall carved poles and into the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre.  

Both of these First Nations groups lay claim to the town of  Whistler as part of their shared traditional territories.

Bathed in soft, natural light from two-storey windows we view spindle whorls, intricate weavings, longhouse posts representing family stories, a large Squamish canoe made for ocean travel and a small Lil’wat canoe for lake and river travelling. 

Our tour guide explains their cultural significance, but not before singing a Welcome Song, to which another guide dances with outstretched arms, mimicing a bird’s wings. 

In the museum gallery, we hear a tale of the Wild Woman of the Mountains and then browse through the elaborate and colourful masks, matched with legends.

Outside, there is a traditional Coast Salish (Squamish) longhouse and an Interior Salish (Lil’wat) istken, or pit house. The design of this semi-subterranean house ensured it would be warm in winter and cool in summer.

By visiting each of these museums, I have been transported to vastly different worlds. 

After following the Whistler Museum Trail, I am now less in the dark about mining, British Columbia art and First Nations culture.


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