Museum Musings: Cliff Fenner’s lifetime of exploring

Clifford Austin Fenner was a mountaineer, photographer, traveller, outdoorsman, writer, developer of Garibaldi and influential figure in choosing Whistler as a potential Olympic site.

His many interests and talents are reflected in a combination of approximately 2,500 photographs — including slides, negatives, prints and transparencies — and countless pages of textual records ranging from photo details to magazines. The Fenner collection reveals a life spent in constant exploration.

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Fenner was born in Sussex, England in 1909. While in England, he built a career in the lumber industry with an expertise in buying and selling lumber, and mill production. When the Second World War hit, Fenner worked for the Ministry of Production and Supply, managing the flow of commodities. After the war ended, Fenner moved to Vancouver. It was the move to Canada that sparked a different career path.

Fenner had always enjoyed the outdoors. He could not get enough of the fresh air, particularly from the mountains. After arriving in Canada, Fenner joined the parks division of the B.C. Forest Service, and assisted in running Mt. Seymour. The work was mainly administrative, but to get his outdoor fix Fenner joined the local alpine group and explored several mountains across B.C. All this exploration is captured through the photography of his collection. But what stands out, not surprisingly, is Garibaldi Provincial Park.

In 1953, B.C. Forest Service gained control of underdeveloped Garibaldi Park and appointed this outdoor enthusiast as the park supervisor, and Fenner was perfect for the job. His passion persisted through his work. As Fenner wrote in his job questionnaire, 25 per cent office work, 34 per cent field inspection, 7 per cent reconnaissance, 8 per cent winter snow and climatic checks, 16 per cent travelling and 10 per cent networking was all crucial to thoroughly developing Garibaldi. The development projects initiated by Fenner, such as building roads and trails, made Garibaldi Park accessible to the public.

The intimacy Fenner had with Garibaldi Park and the surrounding area allowed him to provide insight into where the winter Olympics should be held and where a ski resort should be built. With his camera, Fenner captured the helicopter inspection he took with B.C. businessmen such as Don Robinson and Sidney Dawes.

One box of slides holds photographs labelled, “Search for Olympic Site. Site not suitable.” In the same box, one of the slides of Whistler Mountain is captioned by Fenner with “Top of Olympic area.” Accompanying these are his detailed reports of his preference for the Olympic centre — the Cheakamus Lake area. There is no doubt about Fenner’s participation in fulfilling Whistler’s Olympic dream.

Even after retiring from the parks division, Fenner never gave up on outdoor activities. His photography career documents his time spent all across B.C., from Vancouver Island to Revelstoke; there are even photographs of his trip to Nevada, a different outdoor experience. Fenner remained an avid outdoorsman to the end of his days, and is remembered as a great man whose passion impacted the Garibaldi and Whistler area.

It was a pleasure to explore this collection and live vicariously through the adventures of Fenner.

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