Discover Garibaldi Provincial Park’s charms

September 29, 2009


Provincial park ranger Dominique Mossier tries to keep Garibaldi Lake's trails looking their best.

Access: The well-marked Garibaldi Lake–Black Tusk trailhead lies 100 kilometres north of Vancouver, just east of Highway 99. For a detailed description of the Garibaldi Lake-Black Tusk area, pick up a copy of my Whistler Book.

Current conditions in Garibaldi Provincial Park are posted at

A good perspective on the current state of B.C. Parks is posted at

Care to take a hike in the footsteps of pioneers? Follow the trail to Garibaldi Lake and the Black Tusk north of Squamish and you’ll be doing just that.

A decade or more before the creation of Garibaldi Provincial Park in the 1920s, climbers from Vancouver’s fledgling B.C. Mountaineering Club were already clearing a route to the glacier-fed, turquoise-hued lake and sombre volcanic pillar, one of the most iconic natural features in the Sea to Sky corridor.

With the exception of Stawamus Chief Mountain, no other rock formation in the surrounding fortress of coastal peaks is as noticeable or so readily identifiable in a region that’s a living lesson in geological history.

If that isn’t inducement enough, consider that in autumn the colour of Garibaldi Lake is at the apex of its intensity.

Garibaldi Lake is often compared to Lake Louise for its splendour. Vicki Haberl, planner for B.C. Parks’ Lower Mainland regional office in Squamish, agrees with the comparison.

However, Haberl feels that Garibaldi appears even better than its Alberta counterpart because visitors have to earn the view by first undertaking a nine-kilometre (5 mile), three-hour hike to reach its subalpine shore rather than simply walk a short distance from a parking lot, as is the case with Banff National Park’s centrepiece.

During the ascent to the lake, one of the most arresting sights is the Barrier, an enormous lava-flow dam that blocked the valley to originally form the lake.

In the mid-1800s, a large portion of its red rock face calved off.

Remnants of the avalanche are easily spotted along the banks of aptly named Rubble Creek, which vents from the base of the Barrier, and in the debris fan on both sides of the Cheakamus River.

For the best perspective, pause at the six-kilometre viewpoint. Rocks dislodged from the sheer wall continually tumble down into Rubble’s percolating white water below.

Garibaldi Lake Trail is surprisingly smooth and welcoming, unlike other rocks-and-roots paths, such as the Helm Creek Trail, an alternate approach to the lake from the Whistler side.

Thanks to crews of hydrologists dispatched to the lake in the 1930s to investigate the energy-generating potential of the region, accompanied by wagonloads of summer hikers, today’s trail covers much the same gently switchbacked path.

Just as then, hikers are advised to carry emergency supplies to cope with ever-changing conditions in the backcountry. B.C. Parks still provides outhouses at Garibaldi Lake, but the Environment Ministry’s latest budget afforded no funds for toilet paper, so hikers must bring their own.

In 2002, Victoria instituted pay parking in provincial parks. Given the current deficit, pay toilets may be next.

In many ways, the summer of 2009 has been particularly taxing for B.C. Parks’ staff.

Among the new duties assigned the remaining three rangers who supervise Garibaldi Park’s massive 1,946-square-kilometre range is backpacking in maintenance equipment.

Due to cutbacks, annual helicopter supply flights were cancelled.

Staff visits to the park have been so fleeting that B.C. Parks didn’t bother opening the lake’s ranger cabin, part of a nest of shelters that housed youth work crews several decades ago.

Whistler-based photographer Paul Morrison, whose wife, Gail, cooked for the 25-member crews in the late 1970s and early 1980s, recalls that trail-building and maintenance once went on full-time in the summer.

The Morrisons, who annually camp at the lake, find that in recent years their pet peeve is that no day-to-day maintenance is done on the entire Garibaldi Lake Trail, just patchwork repairs where needed.

This is a surprising situation, given that every day hundreds of visitors hike the trail.

Indeed, Garibaldi Lake’s three campgrounds overflow on weekends between May and October with outdoor buffs drawn from the Lower Mainland, Europe, and Australasia.

At times, foot traffic to and from the lake is so busy it rivals vehicle congestion on nearby Highway 99.

Both the Morrisons and Haberl agree that Garibaldi Lake draws a crowd because of its predictable access coupled with majestic scenery.

Whether you sport a light backpack for a day’s visit, come more heavily laden to camp, or spiral around the Black Tusk in a paraglider, as some intrepid people do, the view of the lake from Panorama Ridge is a wonder to behold.

In the same breath, Paul Morrison can hardly find words to say how disgusted he is  to see a natural treasure being run into the ground.

Although Haberl asserts that Garibaldi is one park where the rules are more stringent, such as no dogs or campfires, she does admit that enforcement is problematic with so few staff.

From former ranger Dominique Monnier’s perspective, the best time to visit Garibaldi Lake is before snowflakes begin to fly at higher elevations.

A self-described “dirt-bag climber”, Monnier‘s summer work finances her mountaineering exploits the remainder of the year.

As she leans on a shovel in the silence, the voice of a creek below Sphinx Glacier on the wide lake’s far shore can be heard.

Her recommendation: set aside three days to ski or snowshoe the route between the Elfin Lakes hut in the park’s Diamond Head region and the Garibaldi Lake campground in late winter or early spring.

Like charity, that’s when snow can be counted on to cover up a multitude of sins.

Just don’t forget your toilet paper.

Original Article
Text CR Jack Christie
Photo CR Louise Christie

Roving the polar bear’s exotic turf—with care

September 10, 2009


Polar boulders. Caribushes. Muskrocks. Victoria-based wildlife guide Andrew MacPherson has seen them all during summer sojourns in the Arctic. Drift through Wapusk National Park near the west shore of Hudson Bay aboard a slow-moving train and you will too, as wildlife melds with the landscape. A quartz boulder suddenly morphs into a polar bear sprawled in a grove of white birch. All at once a patch of spongy, bleached-yellow moss sprouts a sik sik —an arctic ground squirrel the size of a cat—curious about passersby.

Wapusk is a national park most Canadians will more likely cross by rail rather than on foot and which was created in 1996 with pregnant polar bears in mind. In fact, wapusk is a Cree word for “white bear”. Female polar bears head to dens as far as 100 kilometres inland, MacPherson explained during a recent visit. The naturalist emphasized the uniqueness of this transition zone at the 60th parallel, where Arctic tundra meets boreal forest. All three North American bear species are found here: black, polar, and grizzly.

The word barren neatly sums up this mantle of peat. Roly-poly is another way of looking at it: summer heat causes the tundra to ripple. Across the taiga, Via Rail’s Hudson Bay glides delicately over a gravel rail bed layered atop muskeg and permafrost. When warmed, the undulating ground slows train travel to a crawl, not great for business if you are hauling grain to the port of Churchill but a trance-inducing pace for wildlife watchers.

Between now and November is prime time to catch the show, both in Wapusk National Park and Churchill, as polar bears rouse themselves from summer semihibernation and gather on the shores around Hudson Bay to await the arrival of shelf ice.

Just as unpredictable as the annual freeze-up is the future of train travel in northern Manitoba itself. According to Catherine Kaloutsky, Via Rail’s senior communications officer, this may be either one of the last years the Hudson Bay operates or the dawn of a new era, depending on whether or not the U.S.-based owner, OmniTRAX, puts money into upgrades. When approached during the 1,700-kilometre journey north from Winnipeg to Churchill, Kaloutsky estimated the cost of repairs at one million dollars per mile.

Parks Canada commemorates the construction of the Hudson Bay Railway in the 1920s as a National Historic Event. Before the passenger-train was named the Hudson Bay in 1997—the year OmniTRAX took responsibility for the rail line as well as operations at the Port of Churchill—the twice-weekly run was called the Muskeg Express. In 1964, pianist Glenn Gould drew inspiration from the train trip he took to Churchill for an hour-long radio documentary, The Idea of the North . At the time, he was quoted as saying that he had long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and subarctic.

With one notable exception, not much has changed since Gould’s northern journey. In 1999, the creation of Nunavut meant that Churchill became a crossroads for the new federal territory, as it has been for citizens of northeastern Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. As meteorologist Carmen Spiech explained during a walk along the shore of Hudson Bay, if you want to set foot in Nunavut, all you have to do is wade into the bay’s chilly surf. Nunavut is huge, she said, almost a third the size of the whole country. Its land mass includes the ocean floor beneath the bay. A lot of its residents journey here for health care, which means Churchill’s population is made up of Inuit, Dene, and Cree, as well as every other nationality that arrived in more recent times.

Arresting sights for visiting southerners are the firearms carried as casually as umbrellas by many northern residents. As a precaution, both Spiech and MacPherson shouldered rifles. One look at the size of polar bears, which range from 400 kilograms to 680 kilos on average, is explanation enough. Long-necked Ursus maritimus makes grizzly and black bears look downright cuddly in comparison. Spiech, who until recently lived on the outskirts of Churchill, wouldn’t consider even walking from her home to her car without protection. Not for nothing are these bears referred to as polar boulders, as they silently shape-shift to fool potential prey, whether seals, beluga whales, sik sik, or humans, all of whom are featured on the omnivore’s menu.

Certainly the most popular way for tourists to explore the taiga is aboard one of the lumbering tundra buggies, enormous fat-tired vehicles designed to inflict minimum imprint on the delicate landscape while delivering maximum visual rewards to riders. Note: travellers prone to motion sickness would be well advised to self-medicate or wear acupressure wrist bands, as tundra buggies rock jarringly from side to side when crossing creek beds and pebble beaches.

By far the most enjoyable way to experience this exotic countryside is on foot. Delicate features, such as boletus mushrooms, Labrador tea, and cloudberries, which resemble salmonberries and taste like apricots, provide a surprisingly complex ground cover. Just mind those white boulders as you wander.

Access: For information on Wapusk National Park, visit Information on Churchill is posted at, and Via Rail’s Hudson Bay train schedule is posted at To learn more about Glenn Gould’s The Idea of the North project, visit Check out more of Louise’s Churchill images at the photo gallery section of Web site posted here and here or watch the video Winnepeg to Churchill posted at the Where Are Jack and Louise.

Original Article
Text CR Jack Christie
Photo CR Louise Christie