The call of the wild in Squamish, Canada
Wispy white clouds hang long and low over the mossy green mountains, as I prepare to make my ascent. To my right, the gushing torrents of Shannon Falls; to my left, the famous Stawamus Chief, the second-largest granite monolith in the world.
It’s an 885-metre climb above sea level to the summit of Mount Habrich and I take a deep breath as I look up to the clouds, adjust the strap on my backpack and step on board the shiny green carriage of the Sea to Sky Gondola that will sweep me high above the pristine coastal forest during a 10-minute trip with show-stopping views on all sides.
Since it opened in 2014, the gondola has changed the fortunes of Squamish, a sleepy corridor community known as the outdoor recreation capital of Canada and inhabited mainly by fleece-and-Gore-Tex-wearing locals, all enthusiastic hikers, mountain bikers or climbers.
For the rest of the world, Squamish tended to be a halfway point where you stopped for petrol or coffee on your way between the traditionally more exciting spots of Whistler and Vancouver. Now, however, Squamish has transformed into a destination in its own right – it was even named as one of the 52 Places to Go in 2015 in The New York Times.
The gondola has changed things for people like me, too. I wish I were the kind of gal who effortlessly races up mountains, but I’m really not. I’m far more at ease on a rambling hike than a challenging vertical march, but thanks to the gondola, I can take on a whole world of trails and treks through alpine terrain I’d never have been able to access before.
After leaving the gondola, I take photo after photo from the viewing platform looking across the sweeping misty blue-grey Coastal Mountains range and the network of fjords that make up Howe Sound.
I spend a morning happily hiking the well-maintained trails, crossing the gently swinging 100-metre-long Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge (for a low-octane thrill), into the forests and learning more about the history and myths of the Squamish and Stawamus First Nations people – whose ancestral lands I’m exploring – thanks to the interpretive panels along the way.
There’s a cosy fireplace and world-class views in the rather good Summit restaurant at the Lodge, and it’s worth checking online to see if there are any special dining events you can book, such as a fun fondue night.
The journey down proves just as enjoyable as the one up, but it’s time to drive the gloriously scenic Sea to Sky Highway now, which winds along the coast from Vancouver, climbing up into the mountains past glacial lakes towards Whistler.
I’m heading to Sunwolf to check in to a cabin on the river. I’m prepared to rough it, but the heated bathroom floor, comfy bed and well-equipped kitchenette puts paid to that idea. Good. A little luxury in the heart of the forest is just what I want, and discovering that Tom, the chef at the on-site cafe Fergie’s, used to work at Araxi – Whistler’s award-winning fine-dining restaurant – seals the deal.
The river bubbling past my window is the Cheakamus. In winter, it’s a gathering place for bald eagles, who come in their thousands to feast on the salmon that spawn in the river and then die. Sunwolf runs winter Eagle Float tours so you can get up close to these stunning birds as they devour the silvery salmon.
But from June to early September, you can enjoy a more adventurous trip, either along 18 kilometres of whitewater through the nearby Elaho Valley on a whitewater expedition that stops off for a salmon barbecue lunch on a private island, or take a more family-friendly, all-ages splash through Class II (novice) rapids along the Cheakamus.
But if rafting seems a little hard core, then you could try the gentler art of kayaking one of the freshwater lakes that surround Squamish. After an easy hike under the shady canopy of intense green leaves of Douglas firs and past the vivid orange bark of the cedars in Murrin Park or Alice Lake, a pleasant paddle through still waters suits even the most unadventurous beginner. Afterwards, I strip to my swimming costume and wade in – rarely has a swim ever been so refreshing. I lay back and float, eyes squinting in the sunshine, feeling the silky water all around me, looking up at the mountains, which still have a light dusting of snow on top. Bliss.
About 20 minutes away from Sunwolf, down a quiet logging road into the Upper Squamish Valley, lies the Diamond Head ranch. “If you’re the only white guy among 1,300 N’Quatqua, then you’d better put on a good show,” Cowboy Jim smiles and pats the neck of a glossy chestnut mare who nuzzles him adoringly.
Dressed in head-to-toe leathers, with long hair, a droopy moustache and cowboy hat, Jim may look like an extra in a John Wayne movie, but he’s the real deal. Jim spent 30 years living with the N’Quatqua Nation, and there’s nothing he doesn’t know about horses. His reputation has spread as far as Hollywood, and he now regularly trains stuntmen – including Leonardo DiCaprio’s double – in trick riding and horseback archery.
Thankfully, you don’t need any special skills to take part in a trail rail with Jim, and beginners are more than welcome to trot through the forest and splash through the crystal-clear waters of the Squamish and Cheekye rivers. If you’re lucky along the way, you might spot elk or grizzly bears, but you’ll almost certainly see the bald eagles wheel and soar overhead, their awe-inspiring eight-foot wingspan throwing shadow as they fly by.
After a long day making like a Gore-Tex-clad local, it’s easy to sleep soundly, but if you hanker after night-time thrills, head for Squamish and its beloved Howe Sound Brewpub, where you can feast on Canadian treats such as poutine (a gloriously addictive snack of chips, squeaky cheese curds and gravy) and enjoy live music and sweeping sunset views over the mountains from its patio.
By day, downtown Squamish offers a fascinating array of thrift stores and one-off boutiques where you can snap up a unique bargain. Browse handmade soaps and beauty products at Be Clean Naturally (www.becleannaturally.ca) or pick up tempting desserts and artisan chocolate treats at the newly opened Xoco (www.xoco.ca). Eat healthy at the Zephyr cafe with its range of smoothies, wraps and rice bowls, or head to the popular Locavore Food Truck (www.facebook.com/LocavoreFoodTruck), before exploring the shops at the quaint On the Farm Country Market.
Or you could just take a break from all that activity and laze on your deck at Sunwolf instead, listening to the song of the birds and soothing rush of the river as you ponder heading over to Fergie’s for just one more piled-high plate of their rightly famous corned beef hash, before calling it a night and dreaming of embarking on more Squamish adventures the following day.
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Updated: June 25, 2015 04:00 AM