There are few places that posses so much biodiversity in such a small area as the Coast Mountain Range of Southwestern British Columbia.
The coastal rain forest fills the deep valley bottoms while high alpine flowers retrace the steps of receding glaciers. The Whistler corridor is a magical place for nature enthusiasts from every walk of life.
The landscape around Whistler is comprised of five main ecological areas. Temperate rainforest, wetlands, sub alpine forest, high alpine tundra and disturbed sites such as logged areas and roadsides.
Temperate Rain Forest
Starting in the valley bottom one quickly notices how rich and green the landscape looks. Whistler is blessed with a fair bit of annual precipitation that comes mostly in the form of snow in the winter and rain in the spring and fall. This climate has allowed what is known as the temperate rainforest to flourish here. This rainforest is comprised mostly of coniferous giants such as Douglas fir, Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, Amabilis Fir and Sitka Spruce.
While signs of recent logging are evident in Whistler there is still quite a bit of old growth forest around. In these areas it is common to see trees that are hundreds of years old. In fact not far from Whistler in the Elaho Valley to the west is a stand of Douglas fir that is over one thousand yeas old!
Due to the limited amount of light that is able to penetrate the rich forest canopy few deciduous trees are able to survive here. Those that do survive do so in forest openings and include mostly Red Alder and Douglas Maple. Towering Black Cottonwoods are commonly found along valley streams and rivers.
The often-thick undergrowth that inhabits the valley bottom includes many types of ferns, mosses and lichens. The most common plants include Skunk Cabbage, Indian Hellebore, Cow Parsnip and the dreaded Devils Club.
While the almost impenetrable rain forest covers much of the regions low lying areas the Whistler area is blessed with one of Southwestern British Columbia’s richest wetlands. This wetland is home to many species of plants and animals alike. Reeds and Pond Lilies are common in the slow moving waterways while Hardhack, Skunk Cabbage and Willows grace the banks.
Interspersed with the thick shrubbery and aquatic pants are small groves of old growth Cedar, Douglas Fir and Sitka Spruce.
Sub Alpine Forest
The sub alpine forest extends from an elevation of approximately 1000 metres to 1800 metres (3000 to 6000 feet). This area has typically poorer, less developed soil and is generally covered in snow much earlier in the fall than the lower elevation rainforest and stays buried well into the spring and early summer.
As you travel up into the mountains from the valley floor Cedars and Douglas Fir are replaced by Mountain Hemlock and Subalpine Fir. Here shrubs such as Huckleberry, Salal and wildflowers such as Lupines and Tiger Lily’s dominate the forest floor. In wetter areas it is common to see Western Coralroot and Rein Orchids.At the upper edge of the sub alpine where the forest canopy becomes thinner, heathers dominate the under story with wildflowers such as Indian Paintbrush, Western Anemone and Asters abounding in meadows and forest openings.
The high alpine extends upward from the edge of the sub alpine zone where the brutal elements have conspired to limit all plant life to but the hardiest of species. This area receives more snow, is subjected to higher winds and increased levels of UV than any of the other ecological zones lower down. Here one can see change in action as pioneering plant species follow the path of the retreating glaciers upward. Low-lying species such as Draba, Stonecrop and Saxifrage can be seen residing in protected areas behind rocks.
“It’s hard to imagine that the Whistler Valley was filled with ice that reached up to the top of Blackcomb only ten thousand years ago.”
These species are the first troops leading a bid to resettle the barren landscape left behind by the last period of glaciation. It’s hard to imagine that the Whistler Valley was filled with ice that reached up to the top of Blackcomb only ten thousand years ago. Since then the glaciers have been slowly retreating leaving behind scoured rock and glacial till (pulverized rock). The first plants to move in are the pioneering plants. These plants take hold in the sterile sol and over time richer soil is collected around them. As each successive generation of plant dies it’s remains are added to the slowly forming soil layer. In time there is enough soil for larger plants to move in.
Plants species such as Red, Yellow and White Mountain Heather soon follow with trees such Subalpine Fir close behind. This is the case in the alpine environs surrounding Whistler. Here you can see this ever marching invasion of plant life on the move as it climbs into what look like totally uninhabitable areas of glaciation.
Throughout the valley are many disturbed sites where the natural ecology has been changed. These sites include logged areas, roadsides, landslides and avalanche paths. Whatever the reason, man made or otherwise, these disturbances have allowed many different species of plants that would otherwise not be unable to survive here to flourish. Many of these plants are important food sources for the larger mammals that live in the area including bears and deer.
Because these sites tend to receive more direct sunlight due to the removal of the forest canopy they have generally warmer and drier microclimates. Species commonly found in these areas include Fireweed, Perley Everlasting, and the important nitrogen fixing Red Alder and Arctic Lupines.