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.
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.