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The one that didn’t get away

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Ryan Judd consoles himself with the thought that it’s a dry cold, as he patiently waits for a bite.

Brad Knowles doesn’t care much for bananas. Not when he’s fishing, at least.

“Did you bring bananas?” he asks from the driver’s seat.

I check with my son Ryan, sitting across from me in the back of Brad’s truck. No, we didn’t bring bananas. We check our packed lunch. No bananas, although the hot chocolate seems to have spilled.

Bananas will jinx fishing every time,” says Brad, who double checks that his assistant guide, Matt, has not brought bananas. Matt, a bass fisherman from Mississauga – where he’s known to some as “The Bassassassin” – knows better than to bring bananas.

We’re on our way to Blackwater Lake, about an hour out of Whistler, east of Pemberton. From mid-November to late-March, give or take, the 6.5-kilometre lake near D’Arcy is ice fishing country.

6.5-kilometre Blackwater Lake, about an hour out of Whistler, east of Pemberton.

At this time of year, Brad’s company, Pemberton Fish Finder, runs ice fishing tours. “It’s for people who want to escape the Whistler bubble and experience the lakes, wildlife, catch some fish and listen to some stories,” says Brad.

Brad has lots of stories. He grew up in Pemberton and is something of a local celebrity, starring in his own fishing show on Whistler Cable for a while. Together with running a fishing store, Pemberton Fish Finder keeps him busy year round.

My only adult fishing story involves a crab trap and a capsized canoe. I had always assumed ice fishing would involve a flight to Prince George or Edmonton.

Brad Knowles, owner-operator of Pemberton Fish Finder.

Blackwater Lake is idyllic. Serrated peaks loom all around us and under blue sky, the ice is blinding. The air temperature is just below freezing, there’s no wind, and the sun is flirting with the clouds. But for a creek in the distance, the only thing I can hear is my heart beating.

“Australians lose their marbles when they see this,” says Brad. “They ask me, ‘You’re sure we can stand on this?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m 300 pounds, you can stand on this.’”

Brad sets about cutting holes in the ice with a gas-powered auger. He and Matt set us up with rods and we bait the hooks with freshwater shrimp, which are native to the lake. Everyone gets an upturned bright orange bucket and a thermal pad to sit on.

And that’s it, we’re ice fishing.

We immediately get bites. Brad and Matt coach us on setting the hook, otherwise known as the hook-set – a quick upward thrust of the rod before reeling in. One by one though, we lose the bites and rue our bad luck.

“Well there’s a reason it’s called fishing and not catching,” says Brad.

After about an hour, Brad carves out new holes and we spread out. Under his guidance, I switch bait from shrimp to trout roe. Ryan and Matt are several hundred yards away but the air is so still, it’s easy to talk without raising our voices.

A lone whisky jack keeps us company, occasionally stealing a shrimp from the bait bucket, and otherwise mocking us.

A lone whisky jack steals bait and taunts us.

Brad’s been fishing in this region for about 35 years, chasing all five salmon species, plus pike minnows, steelhead, cutthroat, bull, brook, lake and rainbow trout. Together with his dad, Ivan, and his brother, Sheridan, Brad has carved out a living here and now employs his wife in the guiding business while raising three kids.

“There’s not a day I don’t wake up and look at the mountains, excited to go to work,” he says. I can see why. Fish or no fish, Blackwater Lake is quite an office. There’s a small forestry campground nearby with a dozen sites and in summer, lily pads and extensive weed beds flourish here. And somewhere beneath our boots and buckets today are rainbow trout ranging from 10 to 25 inches and weighing as much as six pounds.

Just as I’m beginning to think the shrimp bait looks tasty we decide that it’s lunchtime.

Brad carves pairs of holes a few inches apart and sets up a shelter in seconds. We’re not cold but from inside the shelter the water appears even clearer through holes that take on a luminous quality. “Sometimes you can see the fish before you catch them,” says Brad. For now, we watch our bait descend beyond sight and remain ever hopeful.

No bites but the sandwiches help.

As 2 o’clock nears, Brad suggests we concentrate on a shaded corner of the lake. We exit the shelter and set up one last time, trying to ignore the creeping cold. I start to wonder whether one of us is actually carrying a concealed banana. Then I think back to growing up in the UK. As a schoolboy, I used to accompany friends on night-fishing trips in the Kent countryside. In two years of those fishing trips, I never caught anything but a cider hangover. It occurs to me that not only have I never caught a fish, I’ve never actually seen anyone else catch a fish.

Perhaps I’m cursed?

One rainbow trout, about 10 inches long and just in time for dinner!

I decide not to share this thought with Ryan, and instead concentrate on the hole, which I realize is freezing before my very eyes. Then I’m shaken from my thoughts.

“YEAH!” shouts Brad. I turn just in time to see the rod bend for a moment and a plump rainbow trout flop into Brad’s palm. “No way we were going before we got one,” says Brad as we celebrate the catch. It’s closer to the 10-inch end of the scale and a beautiful looking fish.

Hopeful of more to come we continue fishing for another half an hour, but to no avail. “That’s fishing,” says Brad philosophically as he drops us back in Whistler. Ryan and I both warm up while a friend cooks our catch. It’s more than worth the wait: fresh, flavorful and not even a hint of banana.

nevjudd.com

If you go

For more information about guided ice fishing trips with Pemberton Fish Finder, visit pembertonfishfinder.com.

Do not bring bananas.

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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 mild and wild

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The Polaris 570 cc RZR has never met an obstacle it didn't like.

The Polaris 570 cc RZR has never met an obstacle it didn’t like.

Close to the highest point of Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Course, the Blackcomb River dissects the manicured greenery and drops the air temperature about 15 degrees. The water’s arrived directly from the Horstman Glacier atop Blackcomb peak, which explains the cold and why this is a popular spot during record-breaking heat.

“It’s like instant air conditioning,” says a friend. It also makes the mosquitoes disappear, I think to myself. At the clubhouse, we’d just finished an indulgent meal, which somehow featured bacon in every course, including the caesar aperitif and the Nanaimo bar dessert. The temperature is still in the 20s and haze from the Pemberton forest fire lingers.

If you like your adventure on the mild side, the Golf Clubhouse Dinner and Nature Tour is right up your fairway. Enjoy dinner as the sun sets behind Rainbow Mountain, then board a golf cart for a nature tour of the course. The carts are equipped with GPS, which seems like overkill to me, (how hard can it be to navigate 18 numbered holes?) but given the 400-foot climb in places, I’m happy not to be walking.

The Fairmont's Golf Clubhouse Dinner and Nature Tour covers several food groups, but mostly bacon.

The Fairmont’s Golf Clubhouse Dinner and Nature Tour covers several food groups, especially bacon.

Even for non-golfers like me, there’s much to enjoy about the tour, which traverses creeks and milky-green glacier-fed ponds, ancient Douglas Fir, and granite bluffs. Sadly, the bears aren’t out tonight, but a protective mother grouse is strutting around the 13th hole with her three chicks in tow. The course has erected bat houses close to the 18th green, with more in mind than just encouraging wildlife. A single brown bat eats up to 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour!

If you like your adventure in something more agile than a golf cart, a RZR (that’s “Razor” when you say it out loud) Tour will safely push you a little further beyond your comfort zone. RZRs are four-wheeled, off-road vehicles capable of negotiating the gnarliest of boulder-strewn logging roads and creek beds. The morning after our night at the golf course, we rise early at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler for a RZR Alpine Sunrise Tour by The Adventure Group (TAG). Alongside its ever popular Superfly Ziplines at Cougar Mountain, about 10 minutes’ drive from Whistler, TAG’s RZR tours are an exhilarating way to quickly find yourself in the rarefied air, high up in Whistler’s backcountry.

With a guide driver at the front and ‘spotter’ at the back, we each board a Polaris 570 cc RZR and make final adjustments to dust masks, goggles and helmets. With no rain for weeks, and exposed to the elements but for a roll cage, we’re about to get extremely dusty. And as I turn the ignition key sparking the engine to life, I can’t help thinking a GPS would be better suited to a RZR than a golf cart.

Superfly ziplines 4

For the ultimate in thrill rides, Superfly Ziplines are hard to beat.

It’s a bumpy ride – extremely bumpy in places – but with one foot firmly applied to the gas, the RZR is capable of clearing anything in its path. The bucket seats absorb most of the jolts and on the steep bits, the brakes respond better to a few taps than to sustained pressure.

Our tour takes us through Ancient Cedars and Showh Lakes, hiking areas known for giant trees and good fishing. Lupins and fireweed are everywhere at about 3,500 feet, where we park to admire hazy views of Mount Currie and the Soo River below. It’s a world away from the bustle of Whistler village, and I begin to think of how much fun it would be to ride a snowmobile up here. Back on this tour, there’s more fun to be had at an obstacle course created in a clearing that features a teeter totter, berms, and steep embankment trails for those who hold their nerve.

During the 15-kilometer, two-and-a-half tour, we rarely exceed 25 km/h, such is the heavy going on Cougar Mountain’s rocky roads. But bouncing around on trails all but impassable to any other vehicle is half the fun. For anyone with $11,000 to spend and a quiet air strip, RZRs can accelerate from 0 to 35 mph in four seconds, and clock over 80 mph!

For similar speeds at less money, you might want to check out the Superfly Ziplines.

If you go

Fairmont Chateau Whistler offers numerous summer packages, including golf vacations and the B.C. resident accommodation offer, which saves 15% off best rates. Visit fairmont.com/whistler

The Adventure Group’s Alpine Sunrise Tour at Cougar Mountain costs $219 (2-seater) or $319 (4-seater). TAG also offers a two-hour Wilderness Ride and a three-hour B.C. Tour. For details, call 1 855 824-9955 or visit tagwhistler.com/

Fairmont’s Golf Clubhouse Dinner and Nature Tour includes a three-course dinner and costs $69 per adult ($35 per child) and is available Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Call 604 938-8000.