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Archive for October 2015

Vegas on two feet

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It's hard to miss the 550-foot High Roller in Las Vegas, especially if you're staying at The LINQ Hotel and Casino.

It’s hard to miss the 550-foot High Roller in Las Vegas, especially if you’re staying at The LINQ Hotel.

When I was 19 and backpacking the U.S., Las Vegas was not on the itinerary. It was 1986 and I was still two years’ shy of Nevada’s legal gambling and drinking age. I ended up on The Strip though, staying at the Imperial Palace because at $20 a night, it was cheaper than camping on the beach in San Diego. I ate like a king for under $10 a day, and I walked The Strip from end to end. Midweek during the heat of August, there were few cheaper places to stay.

Almost 30 years later, The Strip is unrecognizable. No one walks The Strip from end to end. Fifteen of the world’s 25 largest hotels by room count are here, linked – barely – by a narrow ribbon of sidewalk that morphs into escalators and overpasses that seem to be designed to deter pedestrians at all costs. If you’re walking, you’re not spending.

Two parts of Las Vegas though, buck this trend: one on The Strip, and the other in downtown Las Vegas, sometimes known as old Las Vegas.

550-feet tall and 520 feet in diameter, the High Roller is the world's biggest observation wheel. What else would you expect in Las Vegas!

550-feet tall and 520 feet in diameter, the High Roller is the world’s biggest observation wheel. What else would you expect in Las Vegas!

On The Strip, The LINQ Promenade is a pedestrian-only marketplace, fronted by stores, bars, restaurants and casinos. Yes, even on the hottest midweek night in August, it’s busy, but unlike The Strip proper, The LINQ offers visitors the chance to stroll without worrying about falling off the curb into traffic, or being accosted by hawkers and celebrity impersonators.

Better yet, the area once home to the Imperial Palace is now anchored by two memorable attractions, plus a hotel that places you in the middle of it all. First, the High Roller – what people my age would call a Ferris wheel – is the world’s biggest observation wheel at 550-feet tall and 520 feet in diameter. Unlike a Ferris wheel, you’re not left dangling in a chair with a bar across your shoulders. The High Roller’s passenger cabins or capsules will be familiar to anyone who has experienced the London Eye in the UK.

To ride a full rotation takes about 30 minutes and, day or night, the view is unsurpassed in Las Vegas. We boarded after dark and were treated to an ever-changing perspective of the city, from the dazzling neon of Caesar’s Palace and The Bellagio to a sight much grander as we ascended to the High Roller’s apex – the outline of distant peaks in the west beyond Red Rock Canyon with Vegas itself looking all the smaller for it.

Walking through the cooling mists on the LINQ promenade.

Walking through the cooling mists on the LINQ promenade.

There’s room for 40 people in a cabin, but avoid sunset hours like we did, and you’ll probably be sharing with half a dozen others. Alternatively, private cabins are available, complete with bar service, for that special occasion!

A few doors down from the entrance to the High Roller is the Brooklyn Bowl, which mixes 10-pin bowling, live music, and comfort-food dining. Travelling with teens meant we had to exit by 8 p.m. when the venue becomes adult only, but until then we relaxed on the leather chesterfields, bowled for an hour and listened to musicians warming up. I drank a Rogue Dead Guy Ale but swore I’d return some day for a Bourbon Street Shake with Nutella and a shot of Bourbon.

The Roots and Elvis Costello opened the Vegas edition of Brooklyn Bowl (other versions are in London and Brooklyn – surprise!) last year. Its 2,400-capacity showroom makes it one of Las Vegas’s more intimate concert settings.

The LINQ Hotel and Casino anchors the pedestrian-only complex, which is about half way down The Strip opposite Caesar’s Palace. Not only is the location great, but the hotel offers welcome convenience, including the option of an automated check-in process that reduces lineups to a fraction of what’s normal in some Vegas hotels. Like many hotels here, there’s a decidedly adult vibe about The LINQ, including its swimming pool, which is off-limits to under-21s. Guests with children can use the pools at neighbouring Harrah’s and Flamingo.

The Brooklyn Bowl. Go for the 10-pin, the food, live music and the Bourbon Street Shake with Nutella and a shot of Bourbon.

The Brooklyn Bowl. Go for the 10-pin, the food, live music and the Bourbon Street Shake with Nutella and a shot of Bourbon.

No such restrictions exist at the Downtown Grand, which features a rooftop pool and is on the doorstep of Fremont Street – Las Vegas’s other pedestrian-only area. Known for years as Glitter Gulch, the Fremont Street Experience occupies five city blocks and is covered by an LED display canopy that blasts music and light extravaganzas every night, while zipliners zoom across the ceiling for $40 a turn. Roaming celebrity impersonators, near-naked showgirls, Chippendales, and several live music stages combine to make Fremont Street feel like a high-octane circus. Every cheesy T-shirt you’ve ever seen is on display here, from Kiss Me, I’m Irish, to One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor.

We lasted an hour before fleeing around the corner to the Triple George Grill on Third Street. Ranked one of the city’s best steakhouses, Triple George didn’t disappoint. Private booths, sumptuous dark wood, and brass fittings all conjure up a bygone era of triple-Martini lunches and deals sealed over a dinner of 16-oz ribeye done just right. It might as well have been a million miles away from Fremont Street, or the Hogs and Heifers’ biker saloon next door, for that matter.

Three of the Judds spent their last day in Vegas on the roof of The Grand, flaked out in a cabana by the infinity pool. It may have been the combined effects of the Triple George, plus an all-American breakfast at the Grand’s S&O Restaurant that eventually got me off my lounger and walking again.

Up on the roof of the Downtown Grand in a cabana by the infinity pool. Like bosses.

Up on the roof of the Downtown Grand in a cabana by the infinity pool. Like bosses.

I strolled across the street to Stewart Avenue and the Mob Museum. Once inside the former Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse, I realized that I would need a day to fully explore this museum. The mob and its relationship with Las Vegas, the United States, and law enforcement are put into historical context via three floors of photos, movies, and compelling exhibits. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is macabrely brought to life with the actual blood-stained wall on display, alongside an electric chair, a tommy gun, plus a numerous artefacts relating to the mob’s involvement with gambling, drugs and prostitution. The world’s first slot machines look a lot easier to figure out compared to today’s versions.

Craving caffeine with little time before our departure, I found The Beat Coffeehouse and Records three blocks down Fremont Street. Vinyl for sale in one corner, free magazines and newspapers, and great coffee, The Beat is the perfect antidote for anyone craving life after the party. Like the Mob Museum, I wish I’d found it earlier.

I told the lady behind the counter I was worn out.

“It’s only the tourists who insist on partying 24 hours a day,” she said.

For a moment, I felt like a local.

Fremont Street Experience: 5 city blocks of neon chaos.

Fremont Street Experience: 5 city blocks of neon chaos.

 

If you go:

Between now and Dec. 31, The Downtown Grand will accept Canadian money at par when Canadian visitors stay and play the hotel’s slots. The offer is up to Cdn$500 a day, which is worth about US$375 – equal to $125 in free play. Visit downtowngrand.com or call 1855 DT GRAND for details, plus information about The Triple George and the S&O.

Rooms start from US$46 at The Linq Hotel and Casino. Visit caesars.com/linq for information about the hotel, the High Roller ($27-day/$37-night) and the Brooklyn Bowl ($100 per lane for up to 8 people).

For everything else Las Vegas, visit lasvegas.com

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The Missing Link: Connecting the Coast to Squamish

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Yellow sections on this Google Earth map indicate about 10 kilometres of work needed to complete a trail connecting Sechelt with Squamish.

Yellow sections on this Google Earth map indicate about 10 kilometres of work needed to complete a trail connecting Sechelt with Squamish.

The map looks straightforward at first. As the crow flies, little more than 50 kilometres separate Sechelt and Squamish. Then you notice contour lines, crammed together like intense low-pressure systems, numerous splashes of white, indicating icy peaks, and deep blue streaks showing alpine lakes and ocean inlets. In between are green valleys that never seem to quite connect. Old logging roads, new hydroelectric projects, powerlines and pipelines present an extra layer of complexity revealed by Google Earth.

A cursory Internet search turns up more than 100 years of failed attempts to build a road system between the Sunshine Coast and “the mainland”.

So when Geoff Breckner tells me he’s about 10 kilometres away from completing a 75-kilometre trail connector, I’m interested.

If successful, the trail would reveal a side of the Sunshine Coast unfamiliar to most residents, including a series of spectacular waterfalls between Pokosha Pass and Clowhom Valley.

If successful, the trail would reveal a side of the Sunshine Coast unfamiliar to most residents, including a series of spectacular waterfalls between Pokosha Pass and Clowhom Valley. All photos courtesy Geoff Breckner

“With 10 capable guys and permission it could be finished in a week or two,” Breckner tells me by phone from Squamish. “But there are channels to go through, rules to be followed … funding.”

Breckner is recovering from major back surgery. When his doctor advised him to exercise he began hiking into the backcountry near his home in Squamish. The 53-year-old estimates he spent 200 hours during the last two summers working on the Squamish end of the trail.

A self-described “mountainbiking nut,” and “bush rat,” Breckner grew up in Deep Cove when the sport was still a novelty. He opened Pemberton’s first bike store, High Line Cycles, in 1994. A trail connecting Squamish with the Sunshine Coast makes a lot of sense, he says.

“I thought this was a great place for a bike trail. I knew there were logging roads up there and I researched as much as I could, checking out the feasibility of a route to Sechelt.”

Geoff Breckner’s tent at the south side of Pokosha Pass, near Mount Jimmy Jimmy.

Geoff Breckner’s tent at the south side of Pokosha Pass, near Mount Jimmy Jimmy.

Visit Breckner’s Facebook site ‘Squamish to Sechelt Trail’ and you’ll see a Google Earth image of the proposed route. From Upper Squamish and the Ashlu River Road, the route first heads north over existing trail through 4,000-foot Pokosha Pass before heading south, then due west following Clowhom Lake to Salmon Inlet, skirting the Tetrahedron Provincial Park, and on towards Sechelt via the Coast Gravity Bike Park.

About 55 kilometres of double track roads, and 20 kilometres of single track trails make up the route, says Breckner. The 10 kilometres still to be cleared comprise three sections of one kilometer, four kilometres and five kilometres.

“Once complete, it would be a long ride – two days for most people, but I hope to have a hut or shelter so people don’t need a tent and can travel light,” says Breckner. “The main problem would be lack of use, rather than overuse. The more use the better, to keep trail maintained and established.”

Breckner has received numerous offers of help from this side of the divide. Doug Feniak of Tillicum Bay is among those pledging assistance.

A self-described mountainbiking nut, Geoff Breckner rarely goes anywhere without his ride.

A self-described mountainbiking nut, Geoff Breckner rarely goes anywhere without his ride.

Feniak grew up riding with Breckner in Deep Cove. “It was a dream of ours when we were young, to be able to ride from Squamish to the Coast,” says Feniak. “We hiked into the Tetrahedron in August, looking for the best way. It’s super steep into Thornhill Creek but it shouldn’t be too bad after that because it’s old roads covered with Alders.”

Trails are in the Feniak family’s blood. Wife Jessica Huntington and son Linden both build trails, the latter professionally. Daughter, Holly, was 2012 downhill mountainbike Junior World Champion.

Doug says he expects to have a group working on this end of the trail in the fall.

“It would certainly be good for tourism here and I could see the B.C. Bike Race using it,” says Feniak.

Long-time local trailbuilder, Richard Culbert, says a trail to Squamish is “common sense”.

Culbert built the trail to the summit of Mt. Elphinstone, opening it on his 70th birthday. Now at 75, he’s busy clearing a trail up 4,700-foot Polytope Peak, which connects with Rainy River Road and Port Mellon due south. He believes that a trail from Squamish stands a better chance of completion if it veers south to Port Mellon, rather than to Sechelt.

Salmon Inlet from the top of Gray Creek Forest Service Road, looking north across Thornhill towards Clowhom valley. It's about 60km from here to upper Squamish.

Salmon Inlet from the top of Gray Creek Forest Service Road, looking north across Thornhill towards Clowhom valley. It’s about 60km from here to upper Squamish.

“The trail I’m working on is about a kilometer from a logging road, which appears to connect with this route,” says Culbert pointing at a printed version of Breckner’s route. “It also avoids Thornhill Creek [near Salmon Inlet] where the road is covered in alders.”

Warren Hansen concurs. “That gap after Salmon Inlet is some of the most rugged terrain I’ve ever walked in,” says Hansen, forester/area manager for Chartwell Consultants and an avid trailbuilder. “A lot of that area was logged in the 60s and 70s, so we’re talking about logging roads half a century old – many of which have been heavily deactivated and are covered in alder.

“I admire following an idea, but I worry about the sustainability of it,” adds Hansen. “The skeptical side of me thinks that there won’t be enough people using it. It will need to be on a lot of people’s bucket lists to make it sustainable.”

Hansen identifies with Breckner on one level.

“I believe in unfettered access to crown land. You live in the city, you can’t do this and that, but you have spoon-fed amenities. In a rural environment you don’t have those amenities, but you do have unfettered access to crown land. You can hike it, bike it, pick mushrooms in it, build trails. So you use it as you see fit, knowing that one day, it might be logged.”

Perhaps the person most excited about a possible connection is Bjorn Enga. The Granthams Landing-based filmmaker is the founder of Kranked, an online store for electric-assisted mountainbikes. They may upset purists, but bikes capable of climbing mountains in minutes, as opposed to hours, are catching on, says Enga.

“I’ve been riding on the Coast since 2000, and it’s an amazing coastline,” he says. “Suddenly, I’m thinking how much more I can see up there riding an e-bike. Imagine how phenomenal it would be to offer overnight tours with a fully charged battery for the next day.

“The Sea-to-Sky Corridor could become the e-bike capital of the world.”

Enga is helping Breckner with route planning and believes that trail completion is a matter of when, not if.

“Geoff goes way back to the start of mountainbike culture, before the glamour of the parks,” says Enga. “He’s done the hard part and one way or another, the trail will happen.”

In the meantime, some adventurers will continue to blaze their own trails. It seems as though everyone on the Sunshine Coast knows “a guy” who knows a route to Squamish. But their identity can be as elusive as the route.

More falls in the backcountry between Squamish and the Sunshine Coast.

More falls in the backcountry between Squamish and the Sunshine Coast.

Not so, Todd Lawson and friends, whose epic three-day trek from Lake Lovely Water, Squamish, to Sechelt via Clowhom Lake and Salmon Inlet, was featured in a 2014 issue of Mountain Life magazine. The trio packed inflatable stand-up paddleboards for the trip, which featured untold hours of bushwhacking through endless alder roots and Devil’s Club – an experience Lawson described in the story as “torture”. (He also wrote of the route, “It looked good on a laptop.”)

A different hazard awaited Denis Rogers of Sechelt, and fellow Coasters Mark Guignard and Al Jenkins, who hiked to Squamish in 2004 after being dropped by boat at the head of Narrows Inlet.

“It took us five days,” says Rogers, whose group followed a route from the head of Tzoonie Valley to a 4,800-foot pass, and then down to Falk Creek and a logging road leading to the Ashlu River and Squamish beyond.

“The third day was an interesting one,” recalls Rogers. “I fell in a lake and broke my watch, and Mark, the only one of us who didn’t bring bear spray, had an encounter with a black bear. Mark was about 20 yards ahead of us, picking his way through the boulders, when we shouted to him that a bear was taking an interest in him.

“The bear started down towards him, but then turned back. We suggested that perhaps the bear had been deterred by an offensive smell.”

Some hazards you won’t find on any map.