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Trail and tribulation in Powell River

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Make it to the top of Tin Hat Mountain and you will be rewarded with 360-degree views of more than two-dozen lakes. Plus you’re half way to finishing the trail! Photos courtesy Eagle Walz

Connecting Sarah Point, near Lund, to the ferry terminal at Saltery Bay, the 180-kilometre Sunshine Coast Trail now ranks among the greatest hiking trails in the world, according to Explore Magazine’s Top-50 list. Not only is it more than twice the length of the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, it’s Canada’s longest hut-to-hut hiking trail, and it’s free!

The trail’s mix of old growth forest, mountain peaks and sandy shoreline, attract thousands of visitors from around the world each year. Fifteen beautifully constructed huts en route provide overnight accommodation on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“It’s beginning to be seen as an economic driver in Powell River,” says Eagle Walz. “It’s the biggest recreational tourism resource we have.”

Walz is a trailblazer, one of a handful of outdoor enthusiasts who in 1992 realized that accessible old growth on the Upper Sunshine Coast was fast disappearing. They formed the Powell River Parks and Wilderness Society (PRPAWS), a non-profit committed to setting aside protected areas on a trail sufficiently unique to lure locals and tourists alike.

Eagle Walz in his element, hiking the Sunshine Coast Trail. Walz is a co-founder of the Powell River Parks and Wilderness Society, the non-profit behind the trail’s creation and upkeep.

PRPAWS mobilized volunteer work parties and began connecting the bushwhacked paths, deactivated roads, and disused railway grades left behind by a century of logging. In some places that meant constructing bridges – some 120 feet long – to ford creeks and rivers. They found enduring allies in a group of bloody old men, otherwise known as the BOMB (Bloody Old Men’s Brigade) squad. Comprising mostly retirees, many of whom practiced their trades at Powell River’s paper mill, the BOMB squad helped build bridges and huts, and are still counted upon for help in the trail’s never-ending maintenance.

The first time I interviewed Eagle for a story back in 2000, he was fending off criticism from a variety of sources over liability issues and the environmental concerns about sensitive wildlife areas. Walz and his cohorts had run into a host of jurisdictional challenges, too. Crown forest land, private land owned by logging companies, and Tla’amin Nation land are among the eight jurisdictions through which the trail crosses.

Seventeen years ago, he addressed those questions with a question of his own: “Would the trail have been built if we’d settled all these issues first?”

When I caught up with Eagle earlier this year, that question at least, appeared to have been answered. “You couldn’t start this trail now and try and make this happen,” says Eagle. “But that doesn’t mean the logging companies won’t stop logging. Western Forest Products, with their tree farm licence, they are the biggest interest. We manage to work together and eke out considerations. I only wish it would be a bigger buffer along the trail than we get most of the time.”

That buffer can be from 10 to 30 metres, sometimes more. Occasionally, the trail must be relocated in places. Overall, says Eagle, compromise and varying levels of protection ensure the trail’s viability.

“Our vision is that in 100 years, we’ll have no more logging near the trail,” he says. “It will be designated an old growth trail to be enjoyed by future generations. It needs someone to be the champion for it. We’re hopeful the younger generation will take over and certainly a lot of younger people are using it. People of all ages.”

Perhaps more challenging to PRPAWS is pressure on the trail from non-hikers.

“Mountain biking is very popular here, as it is everywhere else. The pressure is always to turn something into something else. But a multi-use trail wouldn’t have the same appeal as a single-use trail. We’re struggling to remain a hiking trail only because that’s what’s given us the edge in the market place. That’s what is bringing people by the thousands from all over the world to Powell River.”

In the meantime, trail maintenance keeps Eagle busier than ever. Ten years retired as a teacher, Eagle says he has time to enjoy the trail, but it’s usually when he’s part of a work party. The day I call him, he’s about to leave on just such a mission – a five-night trip to Confederation Lake, a steep section of the trail in Inland Lake Park, north of Powell River.

Eagle Walz takes in the view from the hut atop Tin Hat Mountain.

It’s a favourite spot, he says, before adding: “I think usually where I’m working, I like that part the best.” Eagle’s other cherished locations include Tin Hat Mountain with its 360-degree views of more than two-dozen lakes; and Mount Troubridge, popular for its magnificent stands of Douglas fir and yellow-cedar old growth.

When Eagle’s not on the trail, he’s writing about it – though not in the way he might have envisaged in 1972, when he moved to Powell River to write poetry: “I write hundreds and hundreds of emails,” he says in a deadpan voice. “That’s basically the extent of my writing.”

  • Visit http://sunshinecoast-trail.com/ for everything you need to know about planning a trip, including the definitive guide to the trail, written by – who else? – Eagle Walz.
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Men of Steele

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Next time we'll bring snowboards and deckchairs.

Next time we’ll bring snowboards and deckchairs.

My friend Tom and I had been planning a trip to the Tetrahedron for about 10 years. This weekend we finally did it. In hindsight, hiking to Mount Steele cabin would have been easier when I was 36, not 46.

At the base of 5,114-foot Mount Steele, the cabin is one of four two-storey cabins in Tetrahedron Provincial Park, each built to accommodate 16 people – first come, first serve. The others are at Bachelor Lake, above Edwards Lake, and between McNair and Chapman Lakes. The cabins are connected via a 25-kilometre trail network and are maintained by the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club.

Lower Mainlanders enjoying lunch at Edwards Cabin.

Lower Mainlanders enjoying lunch at Edwards Cabin.

We set off on snowshoes from the trailhead up Grey Creek Forest Service Road. In true Sunshine Coast fashion, the Tetrahedron is not signposted from the road, despite being a Class A provincial park. That might explain why there are only three other cars in the parking lot on a sunny January weekend.

Six thousand hectares of mountains, lakes, streams, wetlands and forest, the Tet, as it’s fondly known, has long been cherished by the backcountry enthusiasts who can actually find it. We finally meet some of those enthusiasts about two hours into our hike at Edwards Lake. They’re a group of 12 skiers and snowshoers from the Lower Mainland who are planning to stay at Edwards Cabin. We stop for lunch with them there before pushing on at 1 p.m.

So far we’ve been hiking for about two hours. There’s been no new snow for a week, temperatures are above freezing and the sun’s out. The sign at Edwards Cabin says it’s just three more kilometres to Mount Steele Cabin. It doesn’t mention the elevation gain of 1,300 feet, but that much is obvious from the contour lines on Tom’s map, which look like an intense low pressure system; that and our occasional glimpses of Mount Steele – white, jagged and way up there beneath the bright blue sky.

Downtime at Edwards Lake. We opted not to test the ice.

Downtime at Edwards Lake. We opted not to test the ice.

The climb begins almost immediately, as does the sweat, pouring off me and soaking me from head to toe. The steeper it gets the happier Tom becomes. He shouts encouragement and I try to ignore the chafing of 20-year-old longjohns and the borrowed 40-pound rucksack on my back. Following tree markers, we zig-zag our way through amabilis fir, mountain and western hemlock, yellow cedar and white pine while Tom yells to me about his merino wool base layers. “Not a drop of sweat,” he shouts. “This material wicks all the sweat away!”

I don’t say anything. I’ve stopped talking to Tom.

After an hour of this I’m resting every 10 steps. I’m eating snow to try and and conserve my water. We appear to have cleared the forested section but that brings its own problems. We can’t see any more tree markers. So Tom checks his map and his compass and we decide to climb one of Steele’s lower open slopes, figuring the cabin will surely become visible as we ascend. But with no more markers in sight, we get cold feet – actually, mine are soaking wet. (Tom’s aren’t. He has merino wool socks … or something.)

So we descend, covering the same distance in 10 minutes that took us 30 minutes to climb. It’s 3:30 p.m. and for the first time all day, I have one eye on the time. The sweat is freezing on my back and it will be dark in 90 minutes. After some searching though, Tom spots a marker and we’re off again, climbing in a different direction toward a ridge that he swears will take us to the cabin. From the ridge we’re treated to views of the Tantalus Range and the markers continue to guide our way.

Mount Steele cabin, as seen from the top of Mount Steele.

Mount Steele cabin, as seen from the top of Mount Steele.

Just before 4, I hear Tom from up ahead. “I can see the cabin!”

Thank God he’s not lying, I think as I catch up a few minutes later.

There it is, its red roof standing out against so much white. We savour the last few steps. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a location quite so beautiful. We have the place to ourselves. According to the guest book, we’re only the second visitors this year. An hour later at the metal kitchen table, we’re eating curry and naam bread cooked on the wood stove, washed down with a couple of beers. The cabin is well equipped, with mattresses in the attic, firewood in the basement, a kitchen counter with utensils and a couple of sinks. We melt snow for water and turn the stove down to a slow burn. Pretty soon the entire cabin is toasty warm.

It would seem impossible to put a price on such an amazing place, but the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club came up with $10 a night, which seems more than reasonable. More than a quarter of a century ago, the club used to be known as the Tetrahedron Ski Club. Back in 1987, the club mobilized more than 200 volunteers, 45 businesses, schools, community groups and several levels of government to build the Tetrahedron’s cabins and trail network.

Beer, curry, mates - just another Saturday night.

Beer, curry, mates – just another Saturday night.

The cabins were built at Sechelt airport before being disassembled and flown by helicopter to be reassembled on site. Forestry company, Canfor, and the Sunshine Coast Regional District donated timber, Sechelt Creek Contracting provided logging service, Airspan donated some air time, Gibsons Building Supplies provided crane trucks and the Outdoor Recreation Council pitched in with chainsaws. For one of the few times in Sunshine Coast history, one great idea united governments, businesses, and local volunteers – in the midst of a recession, no less.

For all the day’s exertions, I can’t sleep. After midnight I set up my tripod outside and try and capture Mount Steele by moonlight with varying results. Fog covers Georgia Strait but I can see lights twinkling on Vancouver Island. There’s no bite to the breeze blowing and I feel like the last person on Earth. I may be delusional. I go back to bed.

The moon over Mount Steele. Sometimes not sleeping isn't so bad.

The moon over Mount Steele. Sometimes not sleeping isn’t so bad.

In the morning under clear skies we hike to the top of Mount Steele. It’s difficult to reconcile this rugged terrain and such epic landscapes with the place I call home. For me, the Sunshine Coast typically conjures images of rainforest and beaches, not jagged peaks and frozen lakes. But then visiting this place would surely alter anyone’s perceptions.

Tom vows to bring his snowboard next time. I’m thinking a deck chair. We pack up, sweep up, and head out for the descent to civilization. Yesterday, it took us six hours to get here. Today we’re back at the car in just over two hours.

I relish every step of our tracks with a smile.

  • For more information about the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club, visit www.tetoutdoor.ca
  • Four-wheel drive and chains are essential for visiting the Tetrahedron. For more information about the park, visit www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks
  • There can be a significant avalanche risk on Mount Steele. Before heading out, check with www.avalanche.ca/cac/bulletins/latest
  • For more on the history of the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club, visit my earlier blog post here.
  • If your fitness is kind of sketchy and you’re inexperienced in the backcountry, consider taking Tom with you. I couldn’t have done it without him.

The Icemen Cometh

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Unlike Amundsen, who used dogs exclusively, Scott’s exploration and scientific teams usually man-hauled their heavily-laden sledges, often over great distances. Courtesy RBCM © Bettmann/CORBIS

Unlike Amundsen, who used dogs exclusively, Scott’s exploration and scientific teams usually man-hauled their heavily-laden sledges, often over great distances. Courtesy RBCM © Bettmann/CORBIS

With the benefit of a century’s hindsight, it’s clear only one man could have reached the South Pole first and made it back alive. In 1911-12, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen made his 1,660-mile roundtrip with 52 dogs, four sledges, five men and a single-minded focus on being first.

British Navy Captain Robert F. Scott made his final push for the Pole with 10 ponies, 22 dogs, 12 sledges, two motorized sledges, 16 men and a determination to log as much scientific data as possible. The Brits wore cotton; the Norwegians fur. The Brits brought 35,000 cigars and a pianola. The Norwegians did not.

Hindsight doesn’t diminish the enormity of what both men set out to accomplish, or the sacrifices they made. Their decisions drive the compelling tale of ‘Race to the End of the Earth,’ the feature exhibition at Victoria’s Royal B.C. Museum.

The noise of howling winds greets visitors to the exhibit, which recreates an epic story of triumph and tragedy through original artifacts, photographs, letters and authentic re-creations.

Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition had set out to be the first to reach the South Pole, a feat Scott and four companions thought they had achieved Jan. 17, 1912, only to discover that Amundsen’s team had beaten them by 33 days. Trapped in a nine-day blizzard without food or fuel, Scott and his party died on their return. The Norwegians made it back to their ship and a heroes’ welcome in Hobart, Tasmania, where their triumph was made public in March 7, 1912.

Roald Amundsen. Courtesy RBCM © AMNH Library

Roald Amundsen. Courtesy RBCM © AMNH Library

The exhibit is divided into seven sections, which chronologically tell the story of the men and their shared goal. Amundsen’s binoculars, chronometer, shotgun and sledge are on display, complemented with letters and photographs. A sledge pennant owned by Cecil H. Meares, Scott’s dog handler, is also among the original artifacts. True to the British tradition of Arctic exploration, sledges featured colourful silk flags to be spotted during blizzards. Meares’ pennant is one of only a few that has survived from the era and is locally significant because Meares moved to Victoria in the late 1920s.

Meares isn’t the only connection to Victoria. Scott himself visited the city in 1889/1890 as a Royal Navy Lieutenant. He developed a friendship with a local family and corresponded with them during the next 20 years. And a Canadian member of Scott’s team, decorated scientist Charles S. Wright, worked at the Pacific Naval Laboratory in Esquimalt, and at UBC and Royal Roads before retiring to Salt Spring Island. He died in Victoria in 1975.

The life-sized reconstructions of Scott’s living quarters and Amundsen’s underground workrooms are impressive. So, too, is an Emperor penguin diorama, vividly recreating ‘the worst journey in the world,’ an apt description of a five-week scientific expedition undertaken in winter by three of Scott’s men to collect Emperor penguins eggs. The three barely made it back alive.

And another of the savvy Norwegians’ decisions, that of building underground quarters out of the extreme wind and cold, is dramatically realized in a life-size re-creation

But it’s the smaller details that are memorable; the sepia photos of both men in their living quarters, on their skis and hauling sleds (the Brits felt hauling their own sleds showed strength of character); and the farewell letters written by Scott, in which he urges, “for God’s sake, take care of our people”. The British public was inspired to raise more than $75,000 ($7 million today) for those widowed and orphaned by the expedition. In 1913, King George V attended a standing-room-only memorial service for Scott’s team in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The Royal B.C. Museum includes interactive and hands-on educational activities, allowing visitors to see how scientists live and work in Antarctica today. “Touch-this” stations are a nice addition, too, encouraging visitors to feel Reindeer fur and an Emperor penguin’s egg, among other items.

RBCM’s conservator Jana Stefan recently returned from her second visit to Antarctica, where she’s been helping to restore Scott’s expedition base camp – still standing after more than a century! Her work preserving more than 10,000 of the camp’s artifacts is presented on video. And for film on a more epic scale, IMAX Victoria in the RBCM is screening Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure. British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1916 Antarctica Expedition is an extraordinary story of survival – beautifully filmed, and narrated by actor Kevin Spacey.

The RBCM is the only Canadian stop for Race to the End of the Earth, which runs until Oct. 14. Children’s summer camps and a lecture series featuring B.C. adventurers who have explored Antarctica are scheduled. For details, visit www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca or call 1-888-447-7977.

During the winter, Amundsen’s men dug an extensive network of tunnels and rooms under the snow, including a bathroom and even a sauna. This life-sized re-creation shows an underground workroom in which his crew was able to work on their expedition gear away from the extreme wind and cold outside. Courtesy RBCM © AMNH/D. Finnin

During the winter, Amundsen’s men dug an extensive network of tunnels and rooms, including a bathroom and even a sauna. This life-sized re-creation shows an underground workroom in which his crew was able to work on their expedition gear away from the extreme wind and cold outside. Courtesy RBCM © AMNH/D. Finnin

If you go:

Victoria’s Parkside Hotel and Spa is a short walk from the Royal B.C. Museum. It offers a family package from $179 a night, including family admission to the museum, two-hour rental of the hotel’s private movie theatre, plus a snack basket with pop, popcorn and candy. Call 1-866-941-4175 or visit http://www.parksidevictoria.com/.

B.C. Ferries offers numerous summer package deals to Vancouver Island, including a Victoria Getaway from $109 per person, based on double occupancy. The package comprises one night at the Chateau Victoria Hotel, round-trip ferry from Vancouver for two adults and a car, plus complimentary parking. For more information on this and other deals, visit http://www.bcferriesvacations.com/ or call 1-888-BC FERRY.

For all other matters-Victoria, visit http://www.tourismvictoria.com/.

 

 

 

 

Heart of green

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Sechelt Rotarians, Tom Pinfold (right) and Mick van Zandt on the trails of Kinnikinnick.

Sechelt Rotarians, Tom Pinfold (right) and Mick van Zandt on the trails of Kinnikinnick.

Shirley Macey didn’t have time to waste. When she wasn’t coaching kids, she was raising a family, working as a Gibsons RCMP dispatcher, and lobbying local government for more recreational space.

Somehow she found time every week to climb Soames Hill with a garbage bag to pick up other people’s litter.

“She was pretty amazing,” remembers her son Darin. “I didn’t think much of it growing up; now I don’t know how she did it.”

At the southern end of the Coast, 14 hectares of Soames Hill Regional Park are named after Shirley Macey. No doubt she would be proud of the soccer fields, the wheelchair-accessible playground and Frisbee golf course. Shirley – or Sam (an acronym of her full name, Shirley Amelia Macey) to her friends – was a dedicated volunteer whose legacy is by no means unique.

Shirley Macey, Maryanne West, Ted Dixon, Cliff Gilker and Hackett are – to name a few – venues so familiar to most of us that it’s easy to forget that they were also people. Ted Dixon, for example, worked tirelessly for self-government for the Sechelt Indian Band before dying in a car crash in 1981. Maryanne West was the backbone of community TV and so many volunteer projects before dying at age 90 in 2008.

Scavenging the Porpoise Bay shoreline. Sunshine Coasters are spoiled for choice when it comes to parks and beaches.

Scavenging the shoreline at Porpoise Bay. For parks and beaches, Sunshine Coasters are spoiled for choice.

And not all parks bear a family name. Brothers Memorial Park in Gibsons was named for logging contractors, Al and George Jackson who donated the land.

Today, volunteers continue to be the lifeblood of the Sunshine Coast’s parks and trails. In fact, the parks system wouldn’t work without them.

“We totally rely on volunteerism,” says Sunshine Coast Regional District parks planning coordinator, Sam Adams. “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without it.”

For the SCRD that means mobilizing volunteer help in bigger parks like Dakota Ridge, where members of the Dakota Ridge Advisory Committee have been particularly helpful. Volunteers also help the SCRD maintain trails at Soames Hill, most recently working to improve the wooden stairs. Now the regional district is hoping to cultivate more volunteer assistance with an adopt-a-trail program.

“Part of our work plan for 2013 is to develop a more robust volunteer program,” says SCRD parks planning coordinator, Susan Mason. “We have kilometres and kilometres of trails to maintain, so people willing to document changes on a regular basis are helpful to us.”

The government-volunteer relationship is similar elsewhere on the Coast. District of Sechelt parks supervisor Perry Schmitt is grateful for the work of several trail building groups, as well as established service clubs.

Sunshine Coast Lions Club president Len Schollen at the site of the Lions' next project, an accessible viewing deck in the corner of Mission Point Park.

Sunshine Coast Lions Club president Len Schollen at the site of the Lions’ next project, an accessible viewing deck in the corner of Mission Point Park where the beach and Chapman Creek meet.

“The Lions Club has been instrumental in making improvements to Mission Point park and the Sechelt Rotary Club has been assisting in rebuilding decks throughout Kinnikinnick forest trails,” says Schmitt. He also cites the work of the Sechelt Groves Society at the Heritage Forest trails, and the Sunshine Coast Natural History Society, which tends to Sechelt Marsh.

On a cold blustery day, Sunshine Coast Lions Club president Len Schollen shows me work completed on the Mission House deck and the next project – an accessible viewing deck in the corner of Mission Point Park where the beach and Chapman Creek meet.

“We’re basically waiting for some decent spring weather to build the viewing platform and a hard-surface ramp leading up to it,” says Schollen, surveying the footings already in place. “There’ll be a railing around it and hopefully some signs with information about the salmon run and pointing out places like Mount Arrowsmith.”

Why are Schollen and other Lions members involved in the project? “We serve, is the Lions’ motto,” says Schollen simply. “We try to make this a better place to live.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Sechelt Rotarians, Tom Pinfold and Mick van Zandt, when I meet them on the trails of Kinnikinnick park.

“We wanted to work on small projects where a few people could work for a few hours on something with lasting benefit,” says Pinfold. “We’d much prefer to let the District allocate their resources to new things instead of maintenance.”

With other Rotarians, the pair has replaced and built cedar bridges and decks throughout Kinnikinnick’s trails during the last three years. Topped with roofing tiles, the decks are essential given the drainage issues on multi-use trails in a popular park. The new bridges should be good for at least 10 years, reckons Pinfold. (Elsewhere in Kinnikinnick park and at Sprockids park in Langdale, Capilano University students hone their trail-building skills as part of the Mountain Bike Operations Certificate curriculum.)

There are 13 kilometres of groomed trails for cross-country skiers on Dakota Ridge, yet another Sunshine Coast playground.

There are 13 kms of groomed trails for cross-country skiers on Dakota Ridge, yet another Coast playground.

Pinfold and van Zandt have also worked on a wheelchair accessible deck at Halfmoon Bay’s Trout Lake and a viewing platform and trail in Roberts Creek’s Cliff Gilker park.

Elsewhere, volunteers continue to make the Sunshine Coast a great place to play. If you’re searching for the heart of the Sunshine Coast you’ll find it in any park or trail. From Pender Harbour’s Lions Park (the best soccer field on the Coast) to the mountain bike trails of Sprockids Park in Langdale, outdoor recreation thrives because people care enough to make it happen.

People like Shirley Macey.

Shirley didn’t live to see the park she’d fought for named in her honour. Just months after retiring from the RCMP and paying off her mortgage, she died of cancer in 1998.

“I didn’t realize until I was older that quite a few people called her mom,” recalls Darin, who has four kids of his own now. “I met all these people I knew at her service who thought of her as a surrogate mother.

“My kids are certainly proud of the park’s name. It’s too bad she died so young.”

Trail Mix

There are numerous opportunities to get involved in outdoor volunteering. Here are a few websites where you’ll find more information.

http://www.secheltrotary.org/

http://secheltlionsbc.lionwap.org/

http://www.scrd.ca/Parks

http://secheltgroves.com/

email tony@whiskeyjacknaturetours.com for the Sunshine Coast Natural History Society

Thanks to the Sechelt Community Archives and the Sunshine Coast Museum and Archives for their help in researching this feature.

Whistler spring break for parents: Kids optional

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No child was harmed during the creation of this obviously staged photo. (Really.)

What to do with your kids? It’s the theme of every spring break travel story. We all love our kids, but let’s face it, they cramp our style sometimes.

So how about spring break for parents? Have we not earned a little indulgence?

From the poolside hammocks at the Scandinave Spa in Whistler, yes. From the tranquil cross-country ski trails of Callaghan Valley, certainly. From the excitement found atop a throbbing 4-stroke Bombardier snowmobile, hell yeah!

The best part of a trip can be in the planning, but sometimes it’s easier to leave it to experts. Enjoy Whistler offers personalized service to ensure travellers strapped for time can still enjoy a memorable visit, with or without children. In 72 hours, I drove fast, fired rifles, relaxed in a spa and skied till I dropped. I think I may have even had a better time than my kids.

Some of it was hard work though. Take the Biathlon Experience, for example, a two-hour immersion into the oldest winter sport of them all. At the Whistler Olympic Park in Callaghan Valley, adults can try the sport, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship. Aside from one regrettable hunting trip in Ireland 20 years ago (the rabbit got away), I’ve never done either. That was soon apparent to my instructor Antoine, who gently coached me through the finer points of skate skiing. In contrast to classic cross-country skis, skate skis are thinner, trickier, and faster.

“Tougher to learn, but easier to master,” said Antoine, who should know. He started 30 years ago, when he was 22 months old.

After some advice on balancing and edging, I began shifting my weight from side to side, achieving a clumsy version of V-skating – no poles, just pushing off with one ski and repeating with the other. We moved on to the classic diagonal stride, coordinating a forward poling arm with the opposite driving leg. Antoine made it look like ballet, all grace and elegance. I looked like Bambi with haemorrhoids.

Ignore the snow, gusty winds, racing heartbeat and the burrito you ate for lunch, and just focus on the grapefruit-size target 50 metres away.

I was exhausted by the time we reached the Biathlon Range, where I at least got to lie down. It was the part I’d been waiting for: Firing a 22-calibre rifle.

Antoine demonstrated, telling me to focus on my breathing, and pointing out that with snow and gusty winds, a racing heartbeat won’t improve my chances of hitting a grapefruit-size target, 50 metres away. I hit five out of five. Would the Whistler Olympic Park really go to such lengths to make me feel good?

“The size of grapefruits, you say?” my wife whispered to me later that evening through the mist of a eucalyptus steam bath at Whistler’s Scandinave Spa. It wasn’t a whisper of hushed reverence; in fact I detected a hint of sarcasm. Talking among guests is strongly discouraged at Scandinave, which offers hydrotherapy and massage packages. The hydrotherapy comprises outdoor baths – some hot, some cold – with a sauna, steam room and solarium.

We followed the hot-cold relaxation sequence three or four times, and aside from the occasional gasp in the Nordic plunge pools, we observed the spa’s code of silence. There was plenty of time to talk, back at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. Our kids were making the most of the hotel’s pools and hot tubs, where silence is discouraged.  The hotel is more progressive than most when it comes to children. Not only do its chefs offer a children’s menu that is actually healthy (and delicious), its gym offers guided fitness training for seven to 17-year-olds.

"Yeah, it's Ryan ... wait a second, my dad's taking a picture."

On Blackcomb the next day, my son Ryan explained to me Whistler Blackcomb Live, the new Telus Mobile app. Track your runs using GPS, clock distances travelled, vertical shredded and maximum speeds. As if further proof were needed that Ryan’s cool and I’m not, the app is available on his iPhone, but not on my Blackberry. I was stressed to learn that the app logged Ryan’s fastest speed at almost 80 km/h. But then I’m a 44-year-old dad who skis: As long as Ryan’s mum doesn’t find out, he’ll be fine.

Not that any of us were slowing down the following day. The biggest adrenaline rush of the weekend came courtesy of Canadian Snowmobile Adventures’ Callaghan Cruiser tour. After getting geared up in helmets, gloves and heavy waterproof jackets, our guide Morgan gave us a detailed safety talk about the Bombardier snowmobiles and the conditions ahead. The engine sparked to life, and I was actually a little nervous until Ryan leaned into my ear and told me to step on it.

The Callaghan Cruiser tour may be billed as ‘family friendly’, but I still felt just slightly rebellious whizzing around wide and winding trails in a blizzard. We followed our guide Morgan to a frozen lake near Northair, a former gold mine, where we could really let loose on the wide-open flat.

The snow fell as thick as the traffic we encountered on the drive back to Horseshoe Bay. The backcountry snowmobile route might have been quicker.  Not to mention more fun!

  • Enjoy Whistler specializes in planning and booking the perfect Whistler vacation. Find a lower price within 72 hours of booking your reservation and Enjoy Whistler will match it and refund the difference, or cancel your reservation without penalty. Call 1 888 882-8858 or visit www.enjoywhistler.com
  • For more details about spring-ski packages at Fairmont Chateau Whistler, visit www.fairmont.com/whistler

White and wild on Dakota Ridge

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If cross-country skiing is a little slow for you, tobogganing should get your adrenaline racing on Dakota Ridge.

Forty minutes ferry-ride from West Vancouver, the Sunshine Coast is better known for The Beachcombers, scout camps and verdant shorelines. People don’t typically associate this 140-kilometre peninsula with snow. But there it is, several feet of the stuff, just waiting to be played in.

You just have to look up.

There's cross-country skiing for all ages on Dakota Ridge.

Poking through the clouds about 1,200 metres above the beaches and pretty parks is Dakota Ridge, one of the best cross-country ski destinations in the last place you’d expect to find it. Between November and March, if it’s raining at sea level, there’s a good chance it’s snowing up there.

And it’s only a 20-minute drive from sea level.

“You can come up for a couple of hours and be in a completely different world,” says Craig Moore, a cross-country skier and long-time member of the Dakota Ridge Winter Recreation Society, a non-profit group working to promote the area. “For cross-country skiing it beats anywhere on the west coast.”

It’s pretty good for tobogganing and snowshoeing, too.

A 620-hectare (1,532 acres) plateau atop a working watershed, Dakota Ridge offers a rolling landscape of stunted old growth hemlock and yellow cedar. On a clear day you can see the North Shore mountains, the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island beyond – even Mount Baker down in Washington State.

There are 13 kilometres of groomed trails for cross-country skiers on Dakota Ridge.

Cross-country skiers will find 13 kilometres of groomed Nordic trails, all of them signposted and colour-coded according to degree of difficulty. Professional engineer Reidar Zapf-Gilje, who prepared Callaghan Valley’s 2010 Nordic Olympic course, designed Dakota Ridge’s trail network.

“In many cross-country skiing areas you’re skiing through woods and you don’t see too much,” says Zapf-Gilje.

“Dakota Ridge is way up there in terms of esthetics. Its real strength is its potential for recreation and citizen [cross-country] races.”

Jamie Mani hopes that potential will be realized. Mani owns Alpha Adventures, a Wilson Creek outdoor-adventure store specializing in guided snowshoe and cross-country ski touring on the Ridge.

When it's not snowing, the views from Dakota Ridge can be spectacular.

“One of the great things about this place is its proximity to so many other activities,” says Mani. “Someone can literally be out snowshoeing in the morning up in the mountains and then golfing or kayaking in the afternoon.

“And for Nordic skiing we have excellent potential because of great snowfall and a blend of flat and rolling trails. We have been skiing on the Ridge as late as May in previous years.”

Snowshoers will find their own trails and there’s plenty of room for hiking and tobogganing. You’ll find a parking lot, warming hunt and toilet at the trailhead.

The turnoff for Dakota Ridge is at the top of Field Road in Wilson Creek, about half way between Gibsons and Sechelt, and 20 kilometres drive from BC Ferries’ Langdale terminal. For many years, the unplowed access road to Dakota’s trailhead made it a ridge too far for some. In recent years the 11-kilometre road has been upgraded to allow for regular plowing, but four-wheel drive vehicles equipped with chains are still the way to go.

Or take advantage of Alpha Adventure’s shuttle service.