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by Karoline Cullen
(For Travel Writers’ Tales)

As we rattle along the tracks, it gets progressively darker and distinctly cooler. The guide extinguishes her light and we are engulfed in total blackness. Not a speck of light anywhere! When she turns on her headlamp, the 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 here at Brittania 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 Brittania 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 in windows as we go. The A-Z building shows through photos and artifacts what life in a mining town was like. Mining requires big machines and we crane our necks back to look up at some super-sized ones. I stand dwarfed by the tire of a haul truck that is easily twice as tall as I am.

Photo 1 Haul truck big tire

The train ride into the mine is the visit highlight. We don hard hats and clamber into the open cars of the cheery yellow train. As thousands of miners did, we chug along one of the tunnels leading into the mountain. The walls ooze with moisture and a blue vein of ore glistens in the passing light. We stop at the explosives cabinet, which had the only stationery light in the mine and kept it dry. The 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 a day, which then got moved 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.

Photo 2 Britannia Mill

With an atmosphere the polar opposite to dark tunnels and loud machinery, the Audain Art Museum in Whistler houses the Audain ’s British Columbia art collection. Ranging from First Nations carvings and masks to paintings by Emily Carr and post-war modernists like E.J.Hughes and Jack Shadbolt to the photographs of Jeff Wall, the permanent collection is as superb as it is diverse. As I stroll through the galleries, I find the spacious placement of the art encourages quiet contemplation.

Photo 3 Audain “The Dance Screen”

One gallery flows into the next, taking me on a timeline tour from the traditional to the 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 the natural greenery outside.

Photo 4 Audain Museum

Not far from the Audain, I walk past two tall carved poles and into the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. These two First Nations claim Whistler as part of their shared traditional territories. Bathed in soft natural light from two story tall windows are spindle whorls, intricate weavings, longhouse posts representing family stories, a large Squamish canoe for ocean travel and small Lil’wat ones for on lakes and rivers, and interactive displays.

Photo 5 Cultural Centre

Great Hall Before our tour guide explains the cultural significance of these, he sings a welcome song to which another guide dances with her arms outstretched like a bird’s wings. In the Museum Gallery, we hear the tale of the Wild Woman of the Mountains and browse elaborate colourful masks matched with other legends.

Photo 6 Thunderbird Mask

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 less in the dark than before about mining, British Columbia art, and First Nations culture.



The Brittania Mine Museum is a Canadian National Heritage Site.
At over 5000 sq meters, the Audain is the first museum in Canada solely dedicated to the art of a single province.
At the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations Cultural Centre, one hour tours start every hour on the hour.

PHOTOS: As attributed below:

1 Haul truck big tire -- G. Cullen photo
2 Britannia Mill – K. Cullen photo
3 Audain “The Dance Screen” – P. Simson photo
4 Audain Museum – K. Cullen photo
5 Cultural Centre Great Hall – K. Cullen photo
6 Thunderbird Mask – K. Cullen photo

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