Sea-to-Sky

By Jenny Manzer

Photo: Michael Bednar

It’s a landscape of hyperbole. Snowy peaks that pierce the clouds. Glimmering blue sea and rushing green rivers. Lush, towering trees. One imagines a mad deity creating this corridor, surveying his handiwork and commanding: “Steeper! Deeper! Faster! Higher!” The Sea-to-Sky Highway follows the eastern slope of Howe Sound, a deep, U-shaped fiord carved into the Coast Mountains by glaciers. The route hugs the base of the Coast Mountains and winds through scenery so stunning it shakes and amazes the most jaded commuter.

The photo-ops are a geographic dream team: the Stawamus Chief, a granite-scoured monolith and rock-climbing mecca; the waters of Shannon Falls cascading from 335-metre cliffs above the highway; the glacier-topped Tantalus Range; and the swift rapids of Cheakamus Canyon. Not to mention 2,678-metre Mount Garibaldi and the volcanic rock of The Black Tusk, seen scratching the sky as you approach Whistler.

“It’s so breathtaking, it’s hard to explain,” says writer Doreen Armitage, who has travelled the highway for 25 years.

The Sea-to-Sky, also known as Highway 99 and the Squamish Highway, connects the two communities that will host the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. Athletes and spectators from around the world will make the roughly 120-kilometre journey from Vancouver to Whistler. If the Olympic Games call for an epic setting that is steeped in history, this corridor obliges.

The highway has known its share of tragedy—something the ancient Greeks understood. Even in modern times, rockslides, floods, and debris torrents have thundered down on Highway 99, damaging bridges and buildings and taking lives.

Early settlers had to perform Herculean tasks just to travel and trade. The Pemberton Trail, created in the late 1800s, was an attempt to forge a cattle route from Burrard Inlet to Pemberton. The trail took years to complete and, perversely, proved too tough for the animals.

Residents of the corridor relied on steamships and piecemeal rail routes until 1956, when engineers finally extended the Pacific Great Eastern Railway line from North Vancouver to Squamish. Two years later, workers completed the Squamish Highway, linking communities on the 100-kilometre stretch from Horseshoe Bay to Whistler to the rest of B.C.

These days, weekend warriors jam the corridor, their cars laden with kayaks and mountains bikes, golf clubs, skis and hiking poles. The Sea-to-Sky is a gateway to year-round outdoor adventure, including Whistler Blackcomb, one of the world’s top ski resorts.

Yet the road has been infamously treacherous, even dubbed the “killer highway.” There are about 300 accidents on the highway each year, far surpassing comparable routes in the province. In the 1980s, a series of deadly debris flows north of Horseshoe Bay prompted new safety precautions and restrictions on development.

Now, a $600-million highway improvement project, slated for completion this fall, will make the route wider, faster, and safer. Improvements include installation of concrete medians, earth-filled retaining walls reinforced with metal grids, 80 kilometres of passing lanes, and straightening of the most knuckle-whitening turns.

The upgraded road will be able to move more people. Official community plans along the corridor suggest the area’s population will double over the next 25 years. Average daily traffic is expected to spike more than 60 percent between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish, and 56 percent between Squamish and Whistler, according to B.C.’s transportation ministry.

Armitage, author of Around the Sound: a History of Howe Sound-Whistler, lived for seven years in Lions Bay, a village of about 1,400 with a gallery, post office, and café. She was a resident in 1983 when a debris torrent killed two young men who had been sleeping in a trailer outside their home. She says the recent improvements have gone a long way in smoothing the dangerous curves and making the route safer. Still, she considers the Sea-to-Sky ultimately “untameable.”

Horseshoe Bay

A holiday destination since the 1900s, Horseshoe Bay has the energy of a leisure junction: a place to lick an ice cream cone, or dash for a ferry. There is a waterfront family playground, a stately 1975 Tsimshian totem, and a fountain fashioned from an old sea tug’s enormous bronze propeller. The scent of fish and chips lingers in the air.

The elegant Queen of Oak Bay muscles headstrong into the harbour, completing the postcard scene. Car ferries have travelled from Horseshoe Bay since 1951, when the American-owned Black Ball Ferries won the right—on a crest of controversy—to start the first route. In 1961, BC Ferries bought the fleet and now runs ships from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo, the Sunshine Coast, and Bowen Island. The community of roughly 1,000 is the first stop as you head north along the Sea-to-Sky Highway.

Porteau Cove

Porteau Cove Provincial Park has a scenic picnic spot and a long ferry jetty for strolling. Bird’s nests cling to the paper birch trees lining the shore. The park’s waterfront campsites fill up in good weather, despite the fact that the Whistler Mountaineer rumbles past regularly on nearby tracks.

Porteau Cove—from the French porte d’eau, or water’s gate—has a hidden past. Starting in 1908, John F. Deeks set up operations for a sand and gravel company to supply Vancouver construction, and the area was once a thriving community, complete with tennis courts.

The settlement is long gone, and today, Porteau Cove is known as a diver’s paradise. Shipwrecks and artificial reefs support more than 100 species of marine life, including octopuses, plumose anemones, and lingcod.

Britannia Beach

Scenic beauty is a constant companion on the Sea-to-Sky, like a hand on the shoulder. But the corridor also has a long history of disaster, particularly the community of Britannia Beach.

The town was born in the early 1900s after a hunter chanced upon a copper seam at Britannia Mountain. While it has known incredible prosperity—becoming the largest producer of copper in the British Commonwealth by 1929—the area has also endured calamity, including homes and lives lost to avalanche, fire, and flood.

“They did have their share of disasters, but I think that helped bind them together,” says Jane Iverson, one of about 300 current residents. “Strength through adversity.”

Up until the late 1950s, the community was only accessible by boat. Until then, residents might travel to Vancouver only once a year by steamship—a journey that now takes 25 minutes by car. The Britannia Mining and Smelting Company store provided for all its workers’ needs, from bootlaces to grand pianos. In 1926, residents even launched an annual pageant to crown a local Copper Queen.

Today, the circa 1916 wharf threatens to sag into the sea. The mine closed in 1974; the following year, the BC Museum of Mining opened in Britannia Beach. It is a town heavy with history—in sharp contrast to new planned communities along the highway, such as Furry Creek and Porteau Cove.

“I was fortunate to have met a lot of the old-timers and hear their stories,” says Iverson, assistant curator of the mining museum. The highway changed everything for locals. “They had the whole world at their disposal then. They could go to Squamish for a beer.”

Squamish

At the head of Howe Sound, the District of Squamish has its roots in logging but is gaining fame as an outdoor adventure hub. The fleece-wearing set come to climb the Chief, windsurf on the Sound, swim or paddle at Alice Lake Provincial Park, hike and bike the surrounding trails.

Residents have mixed feelings about Squamish’s popularity and rapid population growth. Retiree Wallace Audley moved to Squamish in 2003 from bustling Frankfurt, Germany.

“The kids said I sat in front of the television too much,” shrugs Audley, whose children also live in the province. He prefers Squamish “as it was,” but stays put because of his fondness for the area’s people.

Audley volunteers at the local West Coast Railway Heritage Park, a pleasingly rugged five-hectare property with more than 90 vintage locomotives and railway cars, and a miniature railway for passengers of all ages. There are china dishes from once-elegant dining cars, rows of mailbags in a restored postal car, even a rare Pacific Colonist sleeping car, circa 1905. For decades, Squamish served as the southern terminus for the Pacific Great Eastern line, with steam locomotives carrying freight and people as far north as Quesnel—and the exhibits evoke the era when trains were indispensable.

The park also houses the famous Royal Hudson No. 2860 steam train, built in 1940, and pulled from regular duty in 1956. Revived in 1974, the Royal Hudson ran as a tourist attraction from North Vancouver to Squamish until 1999. These days, the Whistler Mountaineer is the only passenger train in the corridor, though the Hudson makes select appearances.

“When it does go out, it stops traffic,” says Audley.

Cheakamus River and Lake

North of Squamish, the Cheakamus River is named for the Squamish First Nation word meaning “salmon weir place.” Both the Cheakamus and Squamish rivers have been mighty sources of salmon traditionally, and each winter hundreds of bald eagles feast along the banks.

The three-kilometre Cheakamus Lake trail, one of many in 1,950-square-kilometre Garibaldi Provincial Park, follows the Cheakamus to campsites along the lakeshore. Midway on the path, under a dense old-growth canopy, a chipped plaque reads: “Matthew Wayne Cormack, born here on July 20, 1985”—with thanks to Whistler search-and-rescue attendants.

“Just beyond the first campsites is a cathedral-like grove of trees that for many visitors will crown their journey. For the scale of the forest at Cheakamus is imposing,” writes Jack Christie in The Whistler Book: An All-Season Outdoor Guide. “There is a hush here found only at exalted elevations.”

On the teeth-rattling forest service road back to Highway 99, drivers with a keen eye for wildlife may catch sight of a black bear nosing around for food—a reminder, like the plaque in the woods, that new development has not tamed this wild area.

Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre

Inside the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, which bears the motto “where rivers, mountains, and people meet,” three hosts sing a Lil’wat welcome song to a rhythmic drumbeat. A rapt three-year-old visitor is handed an eagle rattle to shake in time.

The First Peoples of the Sea-to-Sky include the Lil’wat and the Squamish, who, along with the Musqueam and the Tsleil-Waututh, are actively involved in the planning and execution of the coming 2010 Winter Games. The Four Host First Nations Society sees the Games as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show the world who we are” and promises the event will be “[t]he biggest potlatch the world has ever seen.”

The Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, whose carved cedar doors opened in July 2008, will be a portal into the past and present of these two nations, with displays of photography, regalia, stone tools, canoes, and contemporary art. Visitors can view a Squamish longhouse, eat venison chili, make a cedar basket, and enjoy a cultural performance.

“When I am holding a drum and dancing our Lil’wat songs, I am me,” reads a quote from Marie Joe of the Lil’wat Nation in one of the exhibits. The Lil’wat and the Squamish, in partnership with B.C.’s transportation ministry, are also redesigning highway signs on the corridor, signalling stops of cultural importance, underlining the connection between landscape and legend.

Whistler

Set between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, Whistler Village owes its name to the distinctive whistle of the hoary marmot—a suitably whimsical story for a place known for fun and recreation. In 1966, the same year the road to the town finally was blacktopped, Whistler Mountain opened for skiing. Blackcomb Peak followed in 1980. Since then, Whistler’s popularity has exploded; the ski destination is continually rated as the best in North America. In 2010, Olympians and visitors from around the globe will discover these mountain slopes.

Street life in the village mixes couch-surfing snowboarders with travelling millionaires. A hotel worker waiting for a bus lugs a 15-pack of Dude Beer. A middle-aged visitor, emboldened by local microbrew, strips his shirt off in a restaurant, shouting: “This is all natural, ladies! Not the product of a gym!”

Expect to meet some rowdies, along with hikers, bikers, skiers, snowboarders—and Australians. Check into a Whistler hotel and you’re likely to be greeted by someone far from home, working abroad in this legendary place.

Whistler resident Paula Palmer says she has friends from overseas—many of them colleagues of her ski-instructor spouse—who just came to visit and got hooked on the area.

“They always say ‘We’re just going to stay a year,’ then they stay 15 years,” she laughs. The world, it seems, already knows the way here.

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Christine Ly

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