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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.

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