Snowcats near Whistler give more powder to the people

December 2, 2017

Text CR Jack Christie

Photo CR Louise Christie

Imagine discovering a dream you never knew you had.

That’s how Ken Achenbach describes owning a backcountry snowcat operation near Whistler.

A pioneer at heart, Achenbach—who helped invent the twin-tip snowboard, which revolutionized the fledgling sport in the mid 1980s—bought into Powder Mountain Catskiing and Catboarding over ten years ago and  took centre stage with the company in 2008.

Not that running a business in Whistler is anything new to the forward-thinking entrepreneur, who opened the resort’s first snowboard shop in 1988 and still runs the original snowboard summer camp, the Camp of Champs, on Blackcomb Glacier.

On the phone from Powder Mountain’s day lodge, Achenbach said that the opportunity to run a snowcat business was too good to resist.

“How can you say no to an area 15 minutes from your home that gets twice as much snow as Whistler Blackcomb?”

In fact, on Achenbach’s  location on the ideal slopes of five adjacent peaks—including Tricouni Peak, Mount Brew, and Cypress Peak—storms blasting in off the Pacific drop significantly more precipitation than further inland.

Moving through that much white stuff requires legs of steel or a whole lot of horsepower.

Winter travel has spawned innovations from dogsleds to snowmobiles, and nowhere more than in the True North.

It started in the 1940s with Joseph-Armand Bombardier’s first B12s; Allan Drury took things further in 1975 when he brought Caterpillars to the Selkirk Wilderness Skiing lodge in the West Kootenays, the world’s first snowcat-skiing operation.

Drury’s larger-than-life persona is reflected in the passion Achenbach and his operations partner, snowboard maestro Don Schwartz, have brought to their venture.

It didn’t take long for the partners to spread the powder stoke among old friends, such as Jake Burton and Tony Hawk.

In January, 2008, with an elite international roster of snowboarders, skateboarders, and surfers, Burton and Hawk met up to shoot backcountry scenes with Powder Mountain for the action-sports feature film, Life as a Movie, directed by Taylor Steele.

As Achenbach explained, “Taylor changed the face of surf movies. His idea this time was to gather top riders from the three different board worlds and shoot them experiencing life from the other side of the mirror. I had big-wave surfers from Hawaii trying to manage armpit-deep powder asking me, ‘How do you ride this?’ ”

One of the charms of exploring the backcountry by snowcat rather than helicopter is the sense of camaraderie fostered by riding with a dozen other powder hounds in a heated cab mounted atop a PistenBully snow groomer.

The experience is less like the aerial assault of a mountain and more like catching your breath on a chair lift with friends while comparing notes on the previous run.

Just over the Pemberton Icefield north of Whistler lies the Hurley Pass, far enough inland for the powder snow that falls there on the South Chilcotin peaks to be freeze-dried by arctic outflow winds.

Those gusts may rattle a few windows of Backcountry Snowcats’ 10-person lodge at the top of the pass.

Still, that’s a small price to pay for the powder that mounds up in deep drifts and the clear skies that invariably follow winter storm systems.

Half of the fun of getting to the lodge is the snowmobile ride from owners Reg and Kathy Milne’s base in Pemberton Meadows.

Reg cut his teeth grooming snowmobile trails, servicing microwave transmitter towers, and coordinating snowcat operations for film crews.

The Milnes started their business in 2006 after working for almost two decades on obtaining a backcountry tenure permit from the provincial government.

“There were many years when we thought it would never come,” Reg said when reached by phone in Pemberton. “But we knew that with the rising demand in the marketplace for untracked powder terrain we’d succeed, especially with snowboarders who are looking for a surf experience.”

Snowcats offer a mid-range option for backcountry exploration, positioned between lift-serviced resorts and pricier helicopter adventures.

A typical snowcat day is $549, whether you head off on a day trip with Powder Mountain (1-877-793-73491-877-793-7349; ) or overnight with Backcountry Snowcats (1-604-932-21661-604-932-2166 or 1-888-246-11111-888-246-1111; ).

Some of the best conditions of the season occur between now and the end of April.

For a comprehensive listing of snowcat and helicopter ski and snowboard companies in B.C., visit

West Vancouver’s Whyte Lake Trail welcomes all hikers

November 1, 2017


Brian Murfitt's dog Kali leads the way along a West Vancouver trai.

Even during this season of occasional snowfalls, hiking and dog-walking trails on the North Shore maintain a magical charm, none more alluring than in West Vancouver’s upper lands.

ACCESS: Take Exit 4 from the Upper Levels Highway and follow Westport Road a short distance west to the trail-head parking lot. For a detailed map, as well as dog-walking regulations in West Vancouver, visit

In the run-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, highway construction around Horseshoe Bay left noticeable changes in West Vancouver.

Foremost in many minds was the destruction of an ecologically sensitive area at the foot of Black Mountain to make way for the bypass connection toward Squamish and Whistler.

One puzzling aftereffect of the reconfigurations was the sudden appearance of vehicles—now regularly parked—along the south side of the Upper Levels Highway near Nelson Creek.

In a quest to unravel the mystery, we recently enlisted the aid of a local resident, architect Brian Murfitt, who frequently explores trails on the North Shore’s upper lands with his dogs.

Thanks to directions from Murfitt, it turned out that the cars tucked into the modestly sized, treed space belong to visitors bent on exploring an extensive section of the Trans Canada Trail with links to both the Baden-Powell Trail and West Vancouver’s Whyte Lake Trail.

A portion of funds earmarked from the Sea to Sky Highway project financed the hiking trail.

Despite Whyte Lake Trail’s popularity, as attested to by the numerous cars in evidence on a weekday morning, many residents view the legacy as a sop for the obliterated land, a decision that at the time drew vigorous opposition from citizens.

How does the trail stack up?

Despite the creation of 300 metres of boardwalk, a wooden bridge, strategically placed staircases, an elevated A-frame outhouse, and a floating dock on the shore of Whyte Lake, Murfitt felt that portions of the rock-and-roots trail left much to be desired.

“During rainy season, the drainage is awful,” he said. “The puddles get so large, I stick to the Trans Canada Trail, which is really a shame, since Whyte Lake is otherwise a lovely, moody part of the forest, especially at this time of year.”

In silent assent, spokes of sunlight burned through a stand of unlogged Douglas-fir forest, illuminating the ground cover of sword ferns.

The air rang with splashing sounds as Whyte Creek channelled a course downhill through a narrow cleft on its way to merge with the even more boisterous Nelson Creek.

Another trait of the trail that Murfitt found puzzling was its designation as an on-leash dog zone.

“This is makes no sense to anyone, especially as the Trans Canada and the Baden-Powell trails are both off-leash.”

On the day we visited, though, no one on the single-track Whyte Lake Trail made any attempt to harness their pets.

In order to discover the rationale behind the ruling, we contacted the municipality of West Vancouver’s senior manager for parks, Andrew Banks.

“When we were constructing the Whyte Lake Trail, we decided that because this is an environmentally sensitive zone, people access was okay but dogs had to be on-leash. In general, when we build a trail—and there are now over 100 kilometres of trails in West Vancouver—the default is on-leash, much like the speed limit for cars is 50 kilometres per hour unless otherwise posted. Right now, we’re focusing on Ambleside and the waterfront area, where we’re installing signs in response to requests for clarification from dog owners. At the moment, there’s not a defined policy for every trail on the upper lands.”

The North Shore upper lands are honeycombed with trails.

When well marked, they’re a godsend to hikers, whether in the company of canines or not.

Even on the dampest days, dense canopies of evergreens capture the majority of raindrops or snowflakes.

Few routes are level.

Count on experiencing an elevated metabolism and dopamine count as soon as you set out.

Dress appropriately, hike with two-footed companions, and you’ll enjoy one of the most exhilarating year-round outdoor experiences on offer in any urban setting.

One noticeable change in West Vancouver since the creation of the Whyte Lake Trail and expansion of the Trans Canada Trail has been much improved signage, particularly at intersections with the far older Baden-Powell Trail, a 48-kilometre route that links Horseshoe Bay with North Vancouver’s Deep Cove at the foot of Mount Seymour.

Whether you opt to wear flip-flops, waterproof boots, or a happy medium, Whyte Lake makes a satisfying two-hour, round-trip trek via the broad Trans Canada Trail, which offers a welcome to all comers.

For decades, bean-shaped Whyte Lake lay within the municipal watershed and remained off-limits.

That’s no longer the case.

From the parking-lot trail head, the approach passes beneath the Upper Levels Highway’s concrete struts, then climbs a slope near the old Inter-Provincial Bridge—a slice of the past well worth a look—which curves over Nelson Creek.

Carry on uphill to the first of several route choices at the entrance to Nelson Canyon Park.

The well-marked turnoff to Whyte Lake occurs about one kilometre east along the Trans Canada Trail.

Alternatively, hikers and off-leash dog walkers could just as easily follow a more level portion of the TCT west past Nelson Creek and connect with the two-kilometre Seaview Walk Trail in Horseshoe Bay.

Take your pick.

No matter which direction you choose, unleash your curiosity and off you go.

Text CR Jack Christie
Photo CR Louise Christie

Fort Langley trails run up to the riverbanks

October 1, 2017

A formation of Canada geese passes over Tavistock Point in Brae Island Regional Park in Fort Langley (Louise Christie photo)

Access: The historic village of Fort Langley lies 56 kilometres east of Vancouver. For information on the town’s adjacent Derby Reach, Brae Island, and Glen Valley regional parks, consult the latest edition of our best-selling guide book 52 Best Day Trips from Vancouver.

Forged in Fort Langley, yet another link in the chain of greenways between Hope and the Pacific Ocean now extends farther west, almost to the Golden Ears Bridge.

Pioneer trailblazing around Fort Langley has been going on for almost two hundred years.

At the current rate, the pattern shows no sign of slowing.

The forward-thinking “landbanks” planning concept of Metro Vancouver Parks comes into its own in the riverfront town’s Derby Reach Regional Park, site of the original fort built in 1827.

You could say it’s part of a “buy now, play later” scheme.

When reached by phone, Wendy Dadalt, east-area manager for MVP, told us that much of the landscape through which the Derby Reach to 208th Street Trans Canada Trail Connection passes was originally forest cleared by settlers for farmland or timber.

“The S & R Sawmill lands were purchased in 1996 by the GVRD and province as part of the Lower Mainland Nature Reserve. We’ve land-banked them since then until opening the extension in July, which we designed as a drive-through farm,” Dadalt said.

Although much of the 2.8-kilometre route, a western extension of the Township of Langley’s existing 11-kilometre Fort-to-Fort Trail, runs through green pastures, a short stretch of two-lane blacktop, Allard Crescent, leads past the home and barns of the Normand family, proprietors of Craigentinney Farm for 93 years.

The road has always cut through the Normands’ front yard.

According to Dadalt, that’s the way the family patriarch wanted it.

“I questioned Fred [Normand] why the road goes where it does on their property,” she recounted. “He said his dad was asked where to put it and he said, ‘Right through.’ ”

These days, more cyclists and hikers pass by than vehicles along this quiet back road.

The accompanying pathway constitutes part of a larger plan to establish a new route for the Trans Canada Trail that MVP undertook with the Township of Langley and Trails B.C. for the Experience the Fraser initiative.

There’s not a lot of wiggle room between the broad Fraser River and commercial cranberry fields on the south side of Allard Crescent.The Fraser forms the watery northern boundary beside which the Fort-to-Fort Trail winds.

To do a quick inspection, park at the trail’s 208th Street entrance just north of Allard and begin exploring from there.

Start or finish a visit by cresting the Golden Ears Bridge, with its elevated overview of the Fraser and the Golden Ears’ captivating alpine display above Maple Ridge: a must-ride experience.

The bridge’s wide spiral ramp, well separated from vehicle traffic, is a place of calm.

As the trail winds east through groves of black cottonwoods and red cedars, then crosses fallow fields, opportunities to approach the Fraser and appreciate its steady rolling pace appear at strategic places.One is Muench Bar, one of a number of such fishing bars dotted along the Fort-to-Fort Trail that offer much-needed public access along a shoreline otherwise laced with log booms.

The bars provide picnic tables and washrooms; the largest, Edgewater Bar, at the eastern end of the new extension, features seasonal drive-in campsites and a generous-sized off-leash exercise enclosure for dogs.

Sculptures highlighting Experience the Fraser themes, such as First Nations and the environment, are installed along the extension (including a life-sized iron profile of a farmer and cattle where signs caution visitors to respect working farms and keep quiet).

For added effect, a heady whiff of fresh manure permeates the air where the trail skirts a milking parlour.

The challenge when exploring the trails around Fort Langley is when to call it quits.

On a sunny fall day, cycling the Fort-to-Fort Trail may not be enough for some cyclists.

In that case, tack on a ride out to Brae Island Regional Park’s Tavistock Point opposite the village, where a loop trail offers an unexpected thrill guaranteed to get your whoop on.

Text CR Jack Christie
Photo CR Louise Christie

Chilliwack lakes call out for summer hikers

August 24, 2017


Lindeman Lake sparkles below the peaks of the North Cascades in Chilliwack Lake Provincial Park.

Here’s the perfect summer outing, a perennial favourite among destinations detailed in our best-selling guide “52 Best Day Trips from Vancouver”

Access: Chilliwack Lake Provincial Park lies 150 kilometres southeast of Vancouver. Travel east along Highway 1 to the Chilliwack Lake–Cultus Lake exit (number 104), then head southeast on No. 3 Road through the community of Yarrow. Go east along Vedder Mountain Road. Just over the Vedder Bridge, turn south (right) onto Chilliwack Lake Road at a well-marked intersection. Drive 42 kilometres to the park. It’s an easy two-hour drive from Vancouver. Lindeman Lake is 3.4 kilometres return; Greendrop Lake is 10.4 kilometres return. Details are at

There’s no better time to visit the south Fraser Valley than right now.

Lush fields surround roadside stands stocked with freshly-picked produce.

Just as prized are picnicking and angling sites sprinkled along the Chilliwack River Valley, as well as shaded trails on the slopes above the river’s headwaters in Chilliwack Lake Provincial Park.

While river access comes easily at numerous roadside pullouts, you’ll need to expend more energy to reap the benefits offered by hiking routes such as the popular Lindeman–Greendrop Lakes Trail.

One of the rewards will be an enhanced appetite for those juicy niblets; another prize will be the entrancing sight of sunlight sparkling on the surface of the two lakes towered over by craggy North Cascades peaks.

Beside the trail’s outset, lively Post Creek froths its way down the mountainside from high above, carrying a gentle breeze that helps keep biting insects at bay.

Columns of old-growth Douglas fir line the way.

In less than an hour, you’ll find yourself beside Lindeman, possibly the most beautiful subalpine lake on offer in the Lower Mainland.

Clear green at the shoreline, its chilly waters deepen from a lighter blue to indigo when viewed from the trail.

If you plan to journey on to Greendrop, save a swim here for the return journey.

Picking your way around Lindeman’s north side requires some tricky boulder hopping.

Not only will shoes with good ankle support spare you the misfortune of twisting or wedging a foot in the scree, they’ll also afford you the benefit of improving your balancing skills.

Thankfully, staircases and boardwalks assist hikers around the steepest section of the trail by this lake.

From there, the well-marked trail to Greendrop passes knee-high wild gooseberry bushes and delicate mountain orchids as it wends through a narrow forested valley interspersed with open sections of scree.

With the exception of the occasional whirring hummingbird, the air is thick with a rich stillness rarely experienced in everyday life.

Orange metal markers affixed to tree trunks helpfully guide the way.

While Lindeman Lake has a lock on looks, Greendrop’s special feature is the spectacular size of the western red cedar grove that surmounts its waterfront.

Although a trail marker beside Greendrop’s wilderness campsite indicates that the Centennial Trail leads east from there into the Skagit Valley, attempts to find the faded route will prove futile for all but the hardiest of bushwhackers.

Chew on that as you dig into some fresh corn.

Original Article
Text CR Jack Christie
Photo CR Louise Christie

Step Down to Surrey Beach

August 1, 2017

Here’s one of the two new destinations featured in the latest edition of our best-selling “52 Best Day Trips from Vancouver.”

Access: 1,001 Steps Park lies south of Vancouver in Surrey’s Ocean Park neighbourhood. Travel south on Highway 99 to Exit 10, then west toward Crescent Beach on Crescent Road, then follow 128th Street south to Kwomais Point Park, located at its intersection with Marine Drive. Park there and walk north three blocks along 126A Street to 15A Avenue and 1,001 Steps Park’s trailhead. For information on both 1,001 Steps Park and the Christopherson Steps, visit the City of Surrey website.

Just like a palindrome, 1,001 Steps Park offers the same experience whether approached from the top down or the bottom up.

With salmonberry bushes in pink bloom, early spring is the best time to appreciate this Surrey pocket park before leaves curtain the steep hillside.

Right now, there’s nothing hidden about the views that stretch west across Boundary Bay to Point Roberts’s green stronghold, where sandstone cliffs mimic the slopes that fall away below Surrey’s Ocean Park neighbourhood.

The sound of a rhythmic cadence of waves rises through the skinny-limbed alder forest, summoning one foot to follow the other.

When reached by phone at his office, Surrey manager of parks Owen Croy fondly recalled his childhood days exploring the 1,001 Steps on visits to his grandparents’ home.

“In the 1950s, neighbours developed the first set of earthen-and-board steps,” he told me.

“We used to clamber up and down on them, shouting: ‘There’s one thousand and one steps!’ As if we could count that high.”

Croy said that in the 1990s, Surrey built the current staircase as well as a companion set (farther north, toward Crescent Beach) that was once also referred to as “1,001” but is now called the Christopherson Steps.

“Although small in size, we treat Christopherson like a park too, since both approaches get people to the wild part of Boundary Bay, a place that doesn’t actually fall under our jurisdiction but is, in fact, provincial land.”

According to Croy, the stretch of coastline between White Rock and Crescent Beach boasts the sunniest, warmest microclimate in Metro Vancouver.

“A visit to Crescent Beach offers everyone the chance to step back in time to a beach community that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the Lower Mainland.”

Croy also offered these words of advice: “As the foreshore area is considered part of the Pacific Flyway, where millions of birds pass through each year, we ask dog owners to keep their pets on leash so as not to harass the wildlife.”

One glance at the rock-and-boulder-strewn portion of the shoreline around the steps is enough to persuade most owners to look elsewhere for a place to exercise their pets, such as a new stretch of greenway that extends between Surrey’s recently acquired Kwomais Point Park and the top of 1,001 Steps Park.

Another suggestion for both two- and four-footed walkers is the quiet back street that leads several blocks east of Kwomais Point along 13th Avenue.

Watch for another staircase, one that traces an up-and-down, 168-step route along the bluff above Semiahmoo Bay, where a viewing platform offers a lookout across into Washington state.

A harmonious sense of convergence awaits those who follow the freshly surfaced pathway from the bottom of the 1,001 Steps (in truth, there are only 228 treads) to the beach via a small underpass beneath the railway tracks.

Offshore, ocean currents wash through three straits—Haro, Georgia, and Juan de Fuca—and two bays, Boundary and Semiahmoo.

A wealth of marine life calls the intertidal zone home.

Time a visit to coincide with low tide, then gently tip up a smallish stone or two at water’s edge to uncover hidden marvels.

During a visit in early April, I witnessed families whooping with excitement at the discovery of ribbon worms as much as a metre in length, eel-like black pricklebacks, and purple shore crabs.

A more exotic menagerie is hard to imagine.

Be absolutely sure to merely watch—not handle—the creatures, and gingerly replace those few rocks in their original position, as the exposed life depends on them for shelter from the elements and predators.

An added advantage of exploring when tides are low comes into play with extra room to walk around the southern headland, Kwomais Point (a half-hour walk from the steps), where winter storms have all but eroded the shoreline.

Although it may be tempting to climb up from the beach and walk a short distance along the tracks, be warned that both freight and passenger trains roll through unannounced.

Instead, pick your way with downcast eyes on the uneven rocks that abut the railway bed, a challenge that would test the balancing skills of a gymnast. Remember to pause occasionally to look around.

On the Boundary Bay side, a parade of peaks marches from Mount Elphinstone above Gibsons Landing on the Sunshine Coast and blends seamlessly with Black Mountain and Hollyburn Ridge on the North Shore.

Step around the point to the Semiahmoo Bay side for one of the most impressive shoreline panoramas in Cascadia, one that rises from sea level to Mount Baker’s 3,286-metre summit accompanied by a succession of snowcapped North Cascades peaks.

Sweep your gaze southwest to the Olympic Mountains, where Hurricane Ridge presents a glaciated wall, then northwest to the chain of Vancouver Island mountains that leads off toward the distant Comox Glacier.

Wow, to the 10th power.

When it comes to stepping out in this neck of Surrey, it’s strictly a numbers game.

South Surrey’s Redwood Park is a forested enclave of calm

July 1, 2017


Redwood Park contains a replica of a tree house where the founders of the park once lived.

Tiny Redwood Park in Surrey rates high on the list of undiscovered gems in our best-selling 52 Best Day Trips from Vancouver. Here’s why, including an update on its innovative and universally-accessible  children’s playground.

ACCESS: Redwood Park lies 35 kilometres south of Vancouver. Follow Highway 99 south to the King George Highway (Exit 10) in Surrey. Go south on King George to 16th Avenue, east to 176th Street, then north to 20th Avenue and east one block to the park’s main entrance. Alternatively, enter at the trailhead and small parking area on the north side of 16th Avenue just east of 177th Street.

To reserve the tree house, contact the Surrey parks and recreation office, 604-501-5050604-501-5050.


A palpable peace hangs in the air.

With summer now in full swing, it’s time to reflect on the natural bounty that surrounds Metro Vancouver.

One such place to experience these offerings lies in South Surrey.

Even long-time residents  are still amazed to discover hidden corners of this semirural landscape.

Visitors will heartily agree with a quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson on one of the park’s interpretive markers.

“It’s not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim on men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit,” declared the Scottish novelist and travel writer.

A century ago, twin brothers David and Peter Brown were given adjacent acreages by their father on the logged hillside above Hazelmere Valley, where they dwelled until 1958.

Over the years, the twins set about reforesting the slopes with 32 species of trees native to North America, Europe, and Asia.

Among the most successful was the giant sequoia, or coast redwood, from which the park takes its name.

Other evergreens, such as incense and blue Atlas cedars, also thrived and attained sizable proportions.

Spreading chestnuts, maples, and elms border the fields cultivated by Hazelmere Organics.

One of Redwood Park’s recent additions has been a play space custom-designed for children with mobility challenges.

Surrey parks department operations manager Tim Neufeld told us that the focus on Redwood Park has been to meet universal access standards.

“We’ve improved the trails with better grades and made accessible picnic shelters; we’re slowly evolving the park into a destination for those with special needs,” he said.

The Browns probably would have approved of the inventive playground as much as the replica of a tree house where they once lived and which Surrey rebuilt in the 1980s for use by school groups, Boy Scouts, and Girl Guides.

The bachelor brothers were driven to build a cabin in the boughs of a Douglas fir after fire destroyed two previous dwellings.

Neufeld said the cabin could see better utilization, and plans are underway to use it to stage interpretive programs highlighting the park’s heritage and arboretum.
Original Article
Text CR Louise Christie
Photo CR Louise Christie

Kayaking’s easy on the calm Sunshine Coast

June 1, 2017


Powell River Sea Kayak guides Joel Baillargeon and Marianne Lafrance paddle Malaspina Strait.

You’ll find plenty of information on the Sunshine Coast in our best-selling guide book 52 Best Weekend Getaways from Vancouver.

Check out this article to see why heading there this month is a good idea before the summer holiday rush.

Access: Egmont lies 75 kilometres north of the Langdale ferry terminal on Highway 101 via Sechelt. For information on kayaking at West Coast Wilderness Lodge, call 1-877-988-3838 or visit Okeover Arm lies 48 kilometres north of Egmont near Lund on Highway 101 via a 50-minute ferry ride between Earls Cove and Saltery Bay. To contact Powell River Sea Kayak, call 1-604-483-2160 or visit Detailed information on transportation, accommodation, and recreation on the Sunshine Coast is posted at

Late spring is imbued with the expectancy of summer’s imminent appearance.

Nowhere can you experience that more keenly than in a sea kayak on the Sunshine Coast.

Mountains and sunlight reflect off the ocean in flashes of chrome as you drift along.

Beneath the surface, clarity reigns.

An orange sea urchin looks close enough to touch.

In truth, the globe of spines sits a paddle length below.

Reach down and your kayak will roll just enough to momentarily seem about to tip.

Pull back as you snap out of a spell cast by the scene’s overpowering magic.

Although the Sunshine Coast is visible from Vancouver’s western beaches, the Sechelt and Malaspina peninsulas, which dominate this semi-isolated stretch of the Lower Mainland, seem a world apart.

No need to pack a passport. All that’s required to experience the tangible essence of this rarefied cosmos is the will to travel an hour or so beyond your back yard.

How hard is that, especially when the rewards are guaranteed to send you home with a whole new peace of mind?

Before you begin to think that you’ll somehow have to rough it to achieve this sense of release, consider this: life is challenging enough when you’re coping with the pressures of urban living.

As soon as you disembark on the Sunshine Coast, you’ll sense a soothing difference.

There’s more room to breathe—not just between you and others with whom you share the road but in the whole realm of nature that spreads before you.

Take your time.

With the Coast Mountains rising sharply from the shoreline, the inclination here is not so much to explore vertically but to put out to sea in a small watercraft and explore the sheltered bays and inlets.

No boat? No experience?

With plenty of local outfitters and guides, sourcing equipment and directions is hardly an issue.

When reached by phone at his company’s sea-kayak base on Okeover Arm near Powell River, Vallance was buzzing about a recent appearance by several orcas.

“Even though historically orcas used to feed here on salmon before local rivers were dammed for hydroelectric generation, this is the first time in the 16 years I’ve been here that I recall them visiting. That stirs up optimism in me.”

In that same vein, Hansen reported that paddlers around Egmont have been sharing space with hundreds of surf scoters—large, black sea ducks given to ululating while struggling to get airborne—as well as inquisitive minke whales that enjoy people-watching just as much as the seafarers are bent on nature observation.

A distinguishing feature of the inland waters around small ports like  Okeover Arm is the abiding sense of tranquillity.

At this time of year, few sailboats or yachts appear.

Come summer, all that changes, particularly around Okeover Arm, which opens onto Desolation Sound.

As Vallance pointed out, the sound is one of the Sunshine Coast’s more popular destinations for fair-weather sailors.

“For starters, Desolation’s got a great name and warm water, which is rather special. Plus, it’s got the best intertidal marine life on the coast. Based on their experiences from around the world, our guides tell us there are some unique things going on here, which is why they’ve dubbed our day trips the ‘famous aquarium tour’.

Desolation is sheltered by towering Coast Mountains,” he continued, “and dotted with islands and islets. There are no strong currents. This creates what people are seeking in a kayak tour.”

Extreme currents are one of the chief attractions for visitors to Egmont.

Except at slack tide, the mighty Skookumchuck Narrows at the entrance to Sechelt Inlet south of the small village offers a playground for experienced kayak paddlers who pull stunts in their stubby play boats on the roiling white water within sight of those who journey to viewing spots on foot.

Currents of a decidedly less threatening nature characterize the waters around Paul Hansen’s West Coast Wilderness Lodge in Egmont.

“Compared to the Strait of Georgia that can be choppy, the waters offshore from us are always flat calm. You never feel like you’re in big, open water with winds pushing you around.”

As well, Hansen pointed out that in a kayak you’re not sitting as high above the water as in a canoe. “When it comes to paddling, canoeing is an art, kayaking a joy.”

Whether you’ve sea kayaked before or not, now is the time to spring to it.

Original Article
Text CR Jack Christie
Photo CR Louise Christie

Squamish estuary bliss is blowing in the wind

May 1, 2017

Here’s an update on a spring day-trip destination featured in both our 52 Day Trips from Vancouver and The Whistler Book

Acess: Squamish lies 60 kilometres north of Vancouver on Highway 99. To explore the Squamish River estuary trails, including the Great Blue Heron Trail, turn left off Highway 99 at the town’s main entrance at Cleveland Avenue, then follow Cleveland through downtown to Vancouver Street. Turn right, drive three blocks, and then park beside the gated entrance to the Squamish estuary dike trail system. The entrance to the Nature Trust of B.C.’s Cattermole Creek property and the Great Blue Heron Trail appears on the left side just past an unfinished condo site. To reach the Malamute Bluffs, from Highway 99 follow the turnoff to the Stawamus Chief Provincial Park parking area, then cross the pedestrian bridge to reach the trailhead.

Spring’s here: time to air out your mind.

Set a course north along the Sea to Sky Highway to Squamish.

Chicago may be known as the Windy City, but Squamish could qualify just as easily.

On an outing there recently, stalls at the Saturday summer farmers market were caught up in gusts that threatened to carry vendors as high as the kiteboarders who soared above the nearby Squamish River estuary.

Squamish is a happening place these days.

As home designer Jim Harvey outlined, the town at the top of Howe Sound has transitioned from a working-class, mill-dependent community to a commuter hub with a focus on outdoor lifestyles.

“According to the most recent census, we’ve got the youngest median-age group in the province living here,” said the 57-year-old, who was one of the chief proponents of branding Squamish as the outdoor-recreation capital of Canada.

In his spare time, Harvey and his brother, John, work as volunteer trail builders on regional hiking and cycling routes.

“There’s a simple relationship between our young demographic and trails, something that our current council, unlike previous administrations, is supporting. After living here for 17 years, that’s why I still build trails.”

One historic pathway that invites inspection year-round is the Squamish River estuary’s Great Blue Heron Trail, a rough rock-and-roots affair, much of which traverses a century-old dike built by Chinese workers for pasturage.

In 2000, the Nature Trust of B.C. acquired the ecologically significant Cattermole Creek property, a 5.3-hectare wetland that was once the site of hay fields.

Along with hops for brewing, hay was the principal cash crop grown by non-Native settlers, who first arrived in the late 19th century.

These days, wild roses and thimbleberry bushes wave in the breeze, while sturdy, solitary Sitka spruces anchor the trail.

Squamish Environment Society volunteer Meg Fellowes walks estuary trails on a regular basis, both to observe wildlife and to watch the seasons change.

“I like just sitting and listening to the wind in the sedge marshes while I contemplate what this place will look like in another few centuries. Five hundred years ago, the estuary was in Brackendale [seven kilometres upstream on the Squamish River]. The river is an amazing conveyor belt of rocks and silt. The whole front of the estuary is marching downstream at the rate of about five metres a year.”

Given that Squamish’s most renowned features—granite monoliths— haven’t budged in about 100 million years, such rapid and ongoing geological change nearby is astonishing.

Stand out on the estuary to take measure of the two extremes.

Aside from hydro transmission towers, no other human-made features intrude on a panorama that sweeps from the peaks in the neighbouring Diamond Head region of Garibaldi Provincial Park to the tumbling white water of Shannon Falls, with the largest monolith, Stawamus Chief Mountain, rising front and centre in all its stony glory.

The Great Blue Heron Trail sputters along and finally peters out entirely with waving grassland on one side and the intertidal waters of the central channel on the other.

Several places here suggest themselves as rough picnic spots or shelters from the relentless wind.

To the west, vehicles line a training wall built in the 1970s to divert the Squamish River’s flow away from the waterfront.

Commonly called the Spit, this launch zone is renowned globally among windsurfers and kiteboarders.

Bring binoculars.

Winged critters of both feathery and fabric species fly by.

Of the two, kiteboarders are distinctly more colourful, both in shape and for their aerobatic antics.

Train your sights on the Chief as well.

Although at this distance it’s challenging to spot climbers on the mountain’s Grand Wall, stick figures are easily discerned directly below on a smooth rock face at the ocean’s edge.

These are the Malamute Bluffs.

Head there for a panoramic perspective on the estuary.

Access is considerably easier since the construction of a pedestrian bridge that links the Stawamus Chief with the bluffs.

Author and seasoned climber Kevin McLane considers the Malamute Bluffs a hidden gem.

“I first climbed there 40 years ago. The rim looks down on about 60 routes. It’s breathtaking. The catalyst that’s begun to bring others beside climbers here was the Ministry of Highway’s decision to build that lovely blue bridge.”

Although not well marked, the main trail to the top of the bluffs leads uphill from the bridge past drifts of blue lupine blooms into a shore pine forest.

Once on top, nothing is hidden, everything is revealed, including the caress of the wind as it airs out your mind.

Time to tackle a portion of the Matsqui Trail

April 8, 2017

A Trans Canada Trail kiosk anchors Matsqui Trail Regional Park’s new path along the Fraser River

Here’s one of our favourite destinations for an early spring day trip

Matsqui Trail Regional Park lies 40 kilometres east of Vancouver.

To get there, take Highway 1 to Abbotsford, then Highway 11 north toward Mission. Watch for the green Metro Vancouver Parks signs that point the way to the park, the main entrance for which lies beneath the south end of the Mission Bridge on Riverside Road. For information, visit

Have you ever stopped and shivered just because you were looking at a river?

The Fraser River makes that kind of impression on people such as Doug Petersen, park-operations supervisor of Matsqui Trail Regional Park in Abbotsford.

On the phone from Metro Vancouver Parks’ East Area office, Petersen explained that exploring the Fraser between Yale and Fort Langley has been one of his paddling passions.

“Do it in bite-sized pieces,” he counselled, “probably spread over three days, with stops in Hope, Agassiz, and Brae Island. It’s not for novice flat-water paddlers. The river has strong eddy lines that can easily catch up a canoe.”

The thought of being caught in the grasp of a river as mighty as the Fraser is enough to make anyone’s adrenal glands flutter.

Conversely, walking, wheeling, or horseback-riding beside the river as the spring season freshens is enough to arouse shivers of delight in the dourest of souls.

Spring has a way of doing that, especially when you detect its scent on the wind where the Fraser Valley begins to widen and flatten around Abbotsford.

This month, breezes bear a decidedly floral fragrance as they waft down from the daffodil fields surrounding nearby Bradner, a welcome counterpoint to the odours from local farmyards.

European settlers on both sides of the Fraser used to tremble when the river began to rise.

High-water markers at the Dyke Crest Gauge mounted beside Matsqui’s main trailhead illustrate the heights that flood waters reached over the past two centuries, including the record eight-metre mark in 1894, as well as lesser inundations in 1948 and 1972, and, most recently, in 1999, all of which prompted refortification of the dike system.

As you explore the main trail, look down to see evidence of modest, earlier levee-building endeavours that predate the existing barricade.

When queried about an extension to the riverside trail below the dike, Petersen explained that Metro Parks had acquired more access to the Fraser, thanks to a land purchase.

A one-kilometre trail now links with the main route to form a loop.

In particular, parents of young children will appreciate the improved path, as it provides easy access to sandy stretches of the riverbank, where kids can toddle or practise their casting.

Cyclists will also enjoy the riverside stretch, especially on breezy days when the dike trail acts as a windbreak.

Matsqui Trail appears deceptively short, but there’s more here than meets the eye.

Decide at the outset how much of its 14-kilometre length you’re game to tackle.

The park’s main jumping-off point beside the Mission Bridge lies midway between the Fraser Valley Regional District’s Sumas Mountain Park to the east and the City of Abbotsford’s Douglas Taylor Park on the western perimeter.

There are advantages to exploring in either direction.

Petersen’s favourite portion is a 4.5-kilometre wilderness corridor that leads west from rolling farmland through Matsqui First Nation territory into a forested setting above the river before dropping down into a marshy area bisected by a small creek.

“This is a spectacular transition with a little bit of everything,” he enthused, “created during an expansion done in 2000. Do this section on one visit; next time, head east to Page Road at the foot of Sumas Mountain. As a benefit to runners, we put up kilometre markers along the way.”

Petersen has witnessed sturgeon breach a metre above water offshore of the trail’s eastern extremity, where the Fraser bends around Strawberry Island and a sense of wild, natural rhythms governs the landscape.

“Depending on the time of year, there are snow geese in the fields and eagles in the cottonwoods. There are lots of First Nations connections along this stretch for traditional fishing rights as well.”

A plaque affixed to Matsqui Trail’s info board acknowledges the influence of the Fraser Basin Council on shaping the park’s current identity.

Bob Purdy, external relations and corporate development director with the Vancouver-based council, pointed to a report his group published in 2000 that detailed how park planners, Matsqui First Nation members, and a myriad of local citizens’ groups began the process of creating a greenway beside the Fraser from Sumas Mountain to Fort Langley.

“Valley bottoms are where 85 percent of species live,” Purdy said. “You build environmental resiliency by creating connections. You minimize fragmentation by maximizing the ‘connectiveness’ of green fragments. When climate change hits, these corridors will be critical for survival.”

Many people who visit here are cycling the Trans Canada Trail, of which Matsqui Trail is a well-forged, spirit-shivering link, indeed.

Original Article
Text CR Jack Christie
Photo CR Louise Christie

Spring break in a day: here are four fun ways

March 1, 2017


Nobody can complain about the hills on Richmond’s Middle Arm Trail, because flat is where it’s at.

Nothing says “March” like the advent of spring school break.

When you’re looking to free yourself from winter’s bonds, there’s no need to venture far from home in Metro Vancouver.

Vernal greenery and good times are on welcome display at every turn.

With those rewards foremost in mind, here are a quartet of day trip tips for spring-break outings chosen from our all-ages, all-activities, all-seasons guide 52 Best Day Trips from Vancouver.

First up: South Surrey’s Redwood Park, replete with some of the best natural hide-and-seek stashes around.

A grove of towering coast redwoods dominates the ridge above historic North Bluff Road, or 16th Avenue, in the Hazelmere Valley.

A century old, the park’s anchor tenants, members of the world’s tallest tree species, still have a ways to go before they match their record-holding cousins in Northern California, the tallest of which top out at more than 100 metres.

No matter.

The redwoods’ drooping skirts encircle them and brush against each other like a troupe of Sufi dancers.

As French writer Colette observed, children only value that which can be hidden. In this evergreen realm, secret alcoves abound.

And not just on the ground.

Look up and you’ll spy a bachelor pad–sized tree house, a replica of the one inhabited for decades by the park’s former owners, brothers David and Peter Brown.

During their lifetimes, the twins planted redwoods, plus 32 additional species, on their property.

When the City of Surrey turned the Browns’ arboretum into parkland, efforts were made to attract families, including expanding a kids’ playground.

That’s where we met Abbotsford photographer Jeff Andrews with four of his 10 children. “Since my wife, Gisela, gave birth to triplets,” he said, “we take things day to day on spring break.”

If you live on an island ringed with dikes, it’s easy to be lured onto a bike and to simply start rolling along.

Next up: Richmond’s portion of Lulu Island boasts a sinuous 47.5-kilometre network of sea-level pathways.

Some stretches touch historic landmarks, such as London Farm in Steveston, where the first Europeans began the dike-building effort.

Other sections, like Middle Arm Trail, pass beside Richmond’s Olympic speed-skating oval, with its massive exterior panelling designed by Musqueam artist Susan Point.

Accenting a bike ride here are numerous other public-art installations inspired by the Fraser River’s proximity.

Watch for a waterfall through which a metallic school of salmon swims.

The best place to stage a visit is Richmond River Park beside the No. 2 Road Bridge, or one of the numerous pullouts along River Road between the Moray Bridge and Terra Nova Park.

Thirdly,Rocky Point Park.

Should your day trip more closely resemble a class outing in size, follow the breeze to Port Moody’s Rocky Point Park.

Without doubt, this multi-activity playground will satisfy the fussiest of little rippers.

Budget an hour or more to cycle, stroll, in-line–skate, skateboard—whatever—around the eastern corner of Vancouver’s inner harbour.

Along the way, poke your head in at the Noons Creek Hatchery to see how the salmon fry are fattening up prior to their release.

Just uphill from the hatchery lies a mellow-flowing skateboard park, always worth a look in, as are the twin PoMo Rotary Bike Trials and Sk8 parks at Rocky Point’s downtown entrance on Murray Street.

Seek out Pajo’s fish-and-chips stand inside the park. Grab some hot fries, strike out for the end of the long pier that out into Port Moody Arm, and let spring breezes freshen your worldview.

Finally, if you go out in the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise, or at least a little magic.

If you go out in Pacific Spirit Regional Park on  Saturday night, March 25, be prepared for something even bigger.

What started as a Boy Scouts night hike has morphed into something called Night Quest.

These days, Metro Vancouver Parks invites spring breakers to experience the heavily wooded forest on Vancouver’s West Side for themselves.

In the safety of hundreds of fellow questers, of course.

Night Quest began when park volunteer and Scout leader Ed O’Brian came up with the idea of observing the changes that happen in the forest as sundown blends into twilight and night eventually envelops all.

Each year, O’Brian dons a glittering, leafy-green robe as he becomes the embodiment of Pacific Spirit Park itself.

From the park’s 16th Avenue entrance just west of Blanca, Night Questers follow a two-kilometre, lantern-lit trail.

Musicians line the route as shadowy forms and glistening eyes peer out on all sides.

The heady scent of cedars blended with the rich loamy aroma of the forest floor lends an air of calm that you could never anticipate.

Fleece up to avoid getting chilled.

Gather around a campfire for entertainment as drumming fills the night.

Bring flashlights or lanterns, and allow at least one hour to complete the quest.

As the Boy Scouts say, be prepared—and come early.

One of the best things about Night Quest is that it’s free, and you don’t need to register.

Just show up.

And remember to duck out of the way of the flying squirrels, of course.

Details on regional park spring-break events can be found on Metro Vancouver’s Web site.

Text CR Jack Christie

Photo CR Louise Christie

Original Article

Next Page »