adventure for the outdoor enthusiast
Squamish - Whistler - Vancouver

National Geographic Adventure, August 2000 Article by Dan Koeppel, British Columbia "Where sports are born"
(reprinted with permission from the publisher)

It was late spring, with snow still showing on the peaks of British Columbia's Coast Mountains, when Christy Lightowlers and I burst from the woods in rubberized suits, booties, and hoods. Reaching the shoulder of a rutted dirt road eight miles north of Squamish, we sighted a battered 4X4 headed our way. We waved our arms and the woman pulled over and rolled down her window. She was muscular, about 35 years old, and was wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt. I could see a bike helmet in her back seat and eagle feathers dangling from the rearview mirror. Want a ride?" As if she needed to ask. Grateful, we piled into the back seat. We explained that we'd been bouncing down the rapids of the nearby Cheakamus River for three hours, and that we'd gotten cold and had decided to walk the two miles back to our car. "Hmm," she said, easing the truck into gear. "Pretty cold for paddling." "No," said Lightowlers, her teeth chattering. "We didn't have a boat." The driver glanced back at us. "Down the river and no boat, eh?" She took a breath. "I might have to try that."

When it comes to the outdoors, almost anything goes in Squamish, thanks to varied topography and an apparent willingness on the part of the locals to attempt even the oddest sports at least once--sometimes on what seems like a flimsy premise. The group I joined on the Cheakamus, for example, was composed of government scientists; the boatless technique was their idea of a great new way to measure the river's population of steelhead trout. On a recent four-day visit, I adopted the locals' open-minded attitude as I sampled the athletic highlights of Squamish, and learned about the growing pains of a spectacular but still mostly unknown outdoors sports town. What makes Squamish a great adventure base? "You can see for yourself," local mountaineering expert Kevin McLane told me early in the visit, "if you don't mind a little climbing." Mclane and I were five minutes southeast of the city at the base of 2,100-foot Stawamus Chief, a monolith that rivals El Capitan as a North American climbing destination and offers 300 beginner-to-expert routes. It's not for a duffer like me, though, so Mclane and I crossed Highway 99 to Malamute, a smaller (400-foot-tall) outcropping that offers easier climbs and scrambles. I slipped and snatched at tree limbs as we scuttled up its slick granite slopes.

From the top, we could see Howe Sound, whose consistent breezes attract windsurfers from around the world. Moisture sweeps in off the ocean, creating snowstorms that dump on dozens of nearby peaks, including 8,782-foot Mount Garibaldi, and Alpha and Omega, both over 6,000 feet. Whistler-Blackcomb, just 30 miles northeast of Squamish, is the largest ski resort in North America. Come spring and summer, the prodigious snowmelt fuels five kayaking and rafting rivers--the Squamish, Stawamus, Cheakamus, Cheekeye, and Mamquam--which snake around the town of Squamish. The 200 miles of biking routes in the area range from gently rolling dirt roads to slippery forest single tracks with tight switchbacks and sudden drop-offs. Even with this recreational potential, Squamish is only beginning to see itself-and to be seen-as a sports haven. With 15,000 residents and a forestry-based economy, the place is still known to most outsiders as a lunch stop between Vancouver and Whistler. The town's 12 square blocks hold a jumble of discount outlets, burger joints, sports shops, and a dairy Queen. Squamish is a deepwater port, dedicated to transporting lumber cut from surrounding forests to points around the world. The local chamber of commerce, though, is considering the slogan "The Outdoor Recreational Capital of North America." The phrase has yet to be adopted, not because it's hyperbolic-you could make the case-but because of a backlash against the city's burgeoning sports culture, McLane, who has written a history of Squamish, says that the town's population divides equally between old-timers, many of them involved in the timber industry, and pro-environment, pro-outdoor-sports newcomers. The tension has occasionally been ugly: The windsurfing club's trailer was vandalized prior to its removal in 1996; fistfights broke out between loggers and climbers at the 1997 ceremony establishing Stawamus Chief and its surroundings as a Provincial Park. "This place," McLane said as we admired the view, "is very intense."

I discovered Squamish's athletic intensity on my first morning in town as I stood by the roaring, ice-cold Cheakamus River and squeezed into a dry suit, hood, and gloves. I had learned from a local friend about the group of six government scientists, including biologist James Bruce and cartographer Christy Lightowlers that was heading out to run the river sans rafts. They represented a coalition of agencies from forestry to fisheries. "We need to get a better idea of what's actually living in the water," Bruce explained as we duct-taped cleats to our felt-soled boots. The team is trying to find out what is killing large numbers of trout in the river; the problem is probably due to damming upstream. "Just try to stay inside of the curves," Bruce advised, handing me a snorkel. The next three hours was an intoxicating blend of glee and terror. In eddies, I'd peer beneath the surface and watch as two-foot-long steelhead nudged by. The rest of the time I felt like I was on a spin cycle in a Maytag filled with rocks. (Later, I learned that scientists and foolhardy journalists aren't the only ones who can try this quasi sport: Paradise Found Adventure Adventure Tours, on nearby Vancouver Island, runs swim-with-the-salmon trips on the Campbell River.) "Relax. Let the water take you." Bruce's prelaunch instructions echoed in my head. Easier said than done. I'd come up to breath, then hit a rock with extremity-numbing force. Two miles from the intended takout, Lightowlers decided enough was enough, and I agreed. My right hip had taken a severe knock; I was stiffening up. We dragged our bodies out of the water and picked our way around boulders and fallen logs to the road. Still, we were grinning like fools when we spotted the woman in the 4x4.

That evening, I limped over to the Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Company, on Cleveland Avenue. I needed a beer, but the pub was closed to normal business; a spirited town meeting was in progress. At issue; a wood-chip storage that may be built right across the street from the Inn. Critics charged that the plant would be an eyesore (its 50-footmoundsof chips would sully the downtown landscape, they said), and that it had been approved without proper public consultation. Accusations and counter-accusations flew: the outdoorsy newcomers were trying to kill local industry; no, old-timers were standing in the way of Squamish becoming a gold mine. An elderly woman stood up and pointed at Squamish's mayor, Corinne Lonsdale, "You're not for all the people," she said. "You're only for your own!' It hardly mattered which side the woman was on. The mayor stared at her, and suddenly began to weep. I felt like a houseguest caught in the middle of a family argument.

On my third morning, I grabbed a bike helmet and headed for the Loaves and Fishes Diner to meet an old friend, Dick Cox, who designs heavy-duty, dual-suspension bikes that are perfect for local trails. Though the cafe is a loggers' hangout, the owner was happy to see us. "Mountain bikers get an extra egg free," he said, " and all the homemade toast they can eat. Riding in Squamish is unlike anything you've ever done on two wheels. Local bikers are legendary for their ability to bomb terrain that outsiders would consider suicidal. The Banzai Pipeline, for example, located in the Smoke Bluffs north of Squamish, is cut nearly vertically down granite faces. Meet Yer maker, which is in the Crumpet Woods northeast of town, is another drastically steep trail, with numerous obstacles. But there is plenty of tamer terrain as well. The Lost Loop Trail (also in the Crumpet Woods) is a narrow but non-technical forest route; the Ring Creek Rip (east of the Woods) rewards with a stunning and well-buffed single-track descent down the Mount Garibaldi lava flows. After breakfast, Cox and I met Alan Ross, the owner of a local bike shop, and one of his employees, Armand Hurford. Then we headed eight miles north to Cat Lake area for the season's first Twoonie Race. I wasn't optimistic about my chances. ("Don't ride where the 12-year-olds are tougher than you are," a California biking buddy had advised me before I came up here.) As the race began, 80 competitors hurled themselves uphill. After a mile, we banked into the woods, cruising along mossy single track. Cox yelled as he skidded by me in a patch of mud. Then the trail opened up on a mostly flat gravel logging road, where the more competitive racers pedaled hard to gain distance from the pack. The last section included a tiny hike-a-bike, a small boulder drop, and a sprint to the finish line. I crossed it in 42nd place. Respectable I thought, until I remembered that I ride all winter in Southern California. For many of these guys, it was their first time on a bike since autumn.

Afterwards, the racers headed to a local auto repair shop; eight kegs of beer and a dozen pizzas arrived a few minutes later. At first, it was just the riders, but soon all of Squamish seemed to be there. People who I'd seen arguing at the town meeting were drinking and laughing together. When the police appeared, the explanation given to them was simple: "It's a Twoonie Race," Ross said. The cops nodded; the show went on. I asked Hurford if he'd join me on a ride the next day, and expected an affirmative answer. After all, he was a classic outdoor sports nut: His house, which I'd seen earlier, was packed with bikes, skis, snowboards, and skates. Clearly, he seemed to represent the "new" Squamish. So I was surprised at his answer; "I'm doing logger sports tomorrow." Hurford's father, I learned, worked in timber, and Armand has been entering logger competitions since grade school. Last year, he won the regional logrolling championship. He makes pocket money by demonstrating ax-throwing skills in Vancouver hotels: His specialty is hitting the bull's-eye of a target set against plate glass. Hurford doesn't see incompatibility between the old and the new versions of Squamish. "There are more people in both worlds than you'd think," he told me. "Guys come home, take off their calks (studded boots), and go mountain biking." People, he said, will get along. "Get them out on the trail," he said. "Then it's just a matter of time.


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Copyright 2003 Bill McComish
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