This is the story of a big black bear that lived on a big, big mountain, in a land far, far away. It lived with more than 50 of its bear friends and lots of sporty humans on bikes and skis and snowboards. Yes, this is the story of a fairy-tale trip to Canada’s Whistler Mountain: bear country. Grrrrr.
I’m not starting with the bears though. No. I’ll start urban, exhausted and hot beyond belief. I can smell my flip-flops melting in the sun and my hair singeing and I’m trying to decide whether or not to have wasabi mayonnaise on my hot dog.
I am in a sizzling Vancouver, near the Art Gallery, on a street food cart tour with The Tour Guys. We are slurping lychee basil lemonade and I’m scoffing a Japadog complete with seaweed, teriyaki sauce and, after some thought, the aforementioned mayonnaise. My mouth ignites. I have never felt so hot, inside and out, and never tasted anything quite so delicious.
My two year old is also happily munching street food and singing ‘Aquabus, Aquabus’, his new preferred mode of transport. I feel like we’ve been picked up by angels and transported to the land of delicious-hot.
It wasn’t angels that got us to t’other side of the Altantic, but a hop on Blue Islands and a skip and a jump on —the splendidly economic Canadian Affair. Its heavenly staff smiled and cooed at the monkey/toddler when he barged into them for the twentieth time on the eight-hour flight, while I wondered if I would survive the trip sane.
This was a late Summer/Autumn impulse trip, with very limited preparation time. As the toddler is obsessed by vehicles, I researched transport options thoroughly. But wasn’t quite so thorough with the small detail of where we would stay.
Not to worry, on arrival and a few recommendations from locals later, we were happily installed, with a room to ourselves, at the International Youth Hostel. It’s friendly, peaceful and budget-wise gave carte blanche to be extravagant for the rest of the trip. The main attraction though was the fact that we were practically sleeping on the sands of Jericho beach.
Here we had our first few invigorating breaths of Pacific Ocean air and first glimpse of Vancouver’s maritime beauty and style. In the morning the view shimmers blue and wide against a backdrop of mountains, and features paddle-boarders, kayakers and the odd passing sail and tanker. In the evening the view still shimmers but you can’t see so much through the throngs of tanned beauties playing beach volleyball, and the overriding scent is of the many, many beach barbeques being gobbled after work.
Sunset beach downtown was buzzing the whole time we were there. With music festivals and then with the Pride celebrations, a parade of colour, leather, sequins, studs and chocolate wrestling as far as the eye could see.
Stanley Park is a different sort of space, green and peaceful, and home to the Spirit Catcher miniature steam train. This is Terry’s train Vancouver style; you chuff through the forest pursued by people dressed up as frogs, eagles, bears, princesses and the sasquatch, keeper of the forest in the First Nation legends and basically a Yeti with an environmental conscience. Be warned, it is illegal to kill a sasqwatch in British Colombia Awesome, as they say.
We just had time to catch a glimpse of Stanley Park’s towering totem poles and face off a beluga whale at the aquarium, before going to catch a little rainbow painted Aquabus across the Burrard inlet, to Granville Island’s huge and funky food market for dinner. Mouth watering cakes, arancini, saturn peaches, strawberry nougat, wild salmon any way you want it, peppery baked sweetcorn and maple waffles… Mmmm.
The train to the valley of dreams
Vancouver is incredible, hard to stop because it’s so much fun. But leaving it was pretty cool too. On the trail of the bears we climbed aboard a Rocky Mountaineer train early in the morning and sped north out of the City on the Sea to Sky Climb. A little black bear cub scampered cheekily just next to the track. The train is a stunningly beautiful way to reach the mountains. The surroundings flood in on top of you in the glass-domed carriage. Blue sky above, blue sea below, it feels at times as though you are plunging through the ocean.
We chugged around the shores of Howe sound, hugging the rock face, past sunken ships and waters known to house giant octopuses, beside waterfalls gushing down from the glaciers, and climbed steadily to the Cheakamus canyon and its swirling river. The snow-capped peaks of the Tantalus mountain range came into view, Mount Tantalus being the highest and named because it’s such a tantalizing sight for travellers.
The two year old was ecstatic, and remained in human rather than monkey form for the entire journey. Transfixed at the window, he turned only to joyfully shout ‘TRAIN’ or ‘BABY BEAR’ or to accept drinks and his breakfast pancakes off the ever-attentive staff. People, and to his delight a dog, came out and waved as the train went by.
If you had arrived in Whistler a hundred years ago, you wouldn’t have used the train and you wouldn’t have been served blueberry pancakes or yoghurt parfait. The first people to plant their feet, and dreams of starting a resort, in this area came in 1911 and walked with a packhorse for two days. Myrtle and Alex Philip built a fishing lodge, which became a popular destination.
Before the Europeans arrived, the Coast Salish First Nations people had lived around Whistler for thousands of years, hunting and gathering and living a nomadic lifestyle on the land. The brilliant Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler explains the area’s still thriving culture, the spiritual connection to the land, the lakes and the forest. It also sells some very lovely First Nations art and the most incredible mukluks, which I will be sporting this winter.
From its pioneering beginnings, Whistler Blackcomb grew into North America’s number one ski-resort. It is a place built on dreams. 2010 saw the Winter Olympics here, and the vision of hosting the games was seeded half a century earlier. In the village, the Olympic plaza now hosts outdoor concerts and tourists can have a go at bobsled or skeleton at the Whistler Sliding Centre. Yikes. If you do, you have to visit the loo beforehand because of gravitational pressure on the bladder.
There are about ten thousand permanent residents here and at least that number of transient young people working in the resort (most that I met dream of catching a Canadian to marry so they can stay).
I did though manage to find the one person in Whistler who harbours dreams of moving to Jersey. Karen, a mortgage broker and her fireman husband regularly scour the States of Jersey website for jobs and visit every year to see family. On quizzing, she knew all the names of the parishes. Karen loves bears though. She plays baseball every Thursday at some playing fields just outside the village and usually the audience includes several large black bears. So for Karen, Whistler is Jersey but with bears.
Human-bear co-existence is crucial given that there are about two million visitors to Whistler annually. In late August, we saw a whole load of Darth Vader style armoured mountain bike riders descend on the mountain for downhill and slope style acrobatics at the Crankworx festival. Road biking has also taken off around Whistler, culminating in the GranFondo, an annual ride from Vancouver up the Sea to Sky highway. And just after the Darth Vaders left, an army of yoga enthusiasts arrived for the Wanderlust festival.
But despite all the energetic bending and biking, not being up for anything too strenuous is ok too. Monkey-boy in back carrier, I signed up for a walk into the enchanted, green world of the ancient rainforest, on a tree top tour along wobbly walkways suspended in the forest canopy, with Ziptrek Ecotours.
Before heading up into the trees, we all had to sign a waiver saying we wouldn’t sue if we happened upon a tetchy bear or (eek) a cougar. Our guide Chelsea reassured us it’s never happened. I did overhear that a bear devoured someone’s lunch on the golf course while we were there though.
Happily, the most we saw of any wildlife during our wander among the cedars, hemlocks and firs, was the work of a woodpecker and occasionally a human on a zipwire shooting through the forest canopy or over the greeny waters of the glacier fed creek thrashing around, about 50 metres below.
The next day we got an eagle eye view of the same forest from the jewel in Whistler Blackcomb’s crown, the PEAK 2 PEAK gondola between the two mountain tops.
Those massive trees shrank to shrubs, broccoli and then to velcro more than 400 metres below our feet. I could hardly look. We soared between the peaks in a glass bottomed cable-car and then went up even further on the 7th Heaven Express ski lift to the very top of Blackcomb, 2284 metres above sea level. It’s the site of the Horstman glacier which was busy with skiers and snowboarders. We also spotted a deer and a hoary marmot, an extremely cute giant squirrel, the animal that gave Whistler its name because it whistles.
The bears are a constant presence. Even if you’re not bumping into them or having your golf clubs used as toothpicks by them, every bin is a clanging bear-proof affair. There’s a special bear-human conflict hotline, 604-905-BEAR. Whistler has won several high profile environmental awards and takes this seriously. The Get Bear Smart Society has posters and info-boards throughout the resort reminding you that this is bear country and with advice on what to do if you meet one.
Another side to Whistler can be found out of the village, walking and biking in the forests, made easily accessible by the network of valley trails around the deep blue lakes. Lost lake, Alta Lake, Nita Lake and, my favourite, Alpha Lake. Swimming in crystal clear water, surrounded by mountains and trees, oh and sunbathers, canoeists, kayakers, paddle-boarders, wind surfers, boats…
Among the cool, light paddled trees is where the bears can be spotted munching on berries. As long as there are enough berries to be had, otherwise hungry bears often go in search of people-food. Bears can break into cars and homes, if they’re attracted by carelessly placed garbage. If that happens, it can lead to a bear being relocated or even destroyed. Although Fat Tony’s Pizza made the most of a bear break in last year with the slogan ‘even the local bears love our pizza’.
The bears in Whistler all have names: There’s Marisa, who’s the oldest at about 20; Michelle; Olivia; Brownie; and Slumber, the Alpha male. Slumber apparently has a war wound above his left eye from fighting other males. I haven’t seen Slumber myself yet. Er did I mention we’re still here? I’m coming back sometime soon, honest. Gotta go now, we’ve got a train to wave at and some bear spotting to do.