Whistler’s lit­tle sis­ter

Squamish has be­come a hub for moun­tain bik­ing and climb­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Canada - SU­SAN GREEN­WOOD THE OB­SERVER

THE road to Wi­gan Pier is in Squamish. It lies just off High­way 99, on a slow-back eddy tucked be­hind the High­lands Mall with its sprawl­ing park­ing lots and bland cheer­ful­ness. It’s on Tan­talus Way, and cars shoot past it with­out a side­ways glance, eyes fo­cused on the as­phalt ahead as they make for Whistler, Bri­tish Columbia’s con­fi­dent star pupil.

Wi­gan Pier, a fish and chip shop, is at the end of the road. To get there you first walk past the Cup or­ganic deli, with a pile of bikes out­side and a glut of cy­clists in­side load­ing up on fresh carbs.

Then you pass Pepe & Gringo’s, where lo­cal cock­tail drinkers en­joy the flat­ter­ing low can­dle­light and sip mar­gar­i­tas out of del­i­cate glasses. Op­po­site Wi­gan Pier, men in biker jack­ets stand out­side the sports bar smok- ing cig­a­rettes next to huge Dodge Ram trucks. If fish and chips and Tan­talus Way had ex­isted in 1792, when Bri­tish ex­plorer Ge­orge Van­cou­ver made the first non­na­tive foray into Dar­rell Bay just south of Squamish, he would have gone to Wi­gan Pier and feasted like a king.

The small restau­rant flies the flag for the Bri­tish legacy, with its Lon­don Tube maps and Tet­ley’s Bit­ter, scampi, cod and mushy peas. Owner Greg Ven­ables hails from a vil­lage near Wi­gan in Lan­cashire and saw sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two towns’ work­ing­class ethics, de­cid­ing to name his eatery in hon­our of his home­land when he opened it in 1995.

Van­cou­ver chris­tened the area Howe Sound, spark­ing a pe­riod of trade with the First Na­tions peo­ples be­fore coloni­sa­tion, farm­ing and forestry cre­ated the town and gave it its life force. From the top of the Stawa­mus Chief, the world’s sec­ond largest gran­ite mono­lith, which looms 700m above the town, you can trace its evo­lu­tion from port, which was its con­nec­tion to Van­cou­ver, 70km to the south, un­til the 1950s, through to the chalk prints of climbers dot­ted over the rock.

Jim Bald­win and Ed Cooper took six weeks to scale the Chief in 1961. Their achieve­ment her­alded a new era, and in­come, for the area: ad­ven­ture tourism. By the 80s the tales of Yosemite­like walls and spec­tac­u­lar gran­ite had spread among the climb­ing com­mu­nity, with the more hard­core mem­bers find­ing bold and chal­leng­ing new routes.

‘‘But they had an un­easy co­ex­is­tence with the towns­peo­ple,’’ ex­plains Dave Jones, who ed­its Squamish­climb­ing.com. ‘ ‘ The town was built on the log­ging in­dus­try, and climbers got lumped in with the green-lean­ing city folks from Van­cou­ver. You can imag­ine the ten­sion when a group of scruffy climbers walked into the Chief­tain Ho­tel full of log­gers.’’ As the sawmills shut down in the 90s, peo­ple came to Squamish and saw it with­out the associated pol­lu­tion. The town be­gan to in­vest in out­door re­cre­ation, cul­mi­nat­ing in the Ad­ven­ture Cen­tre, a glass-and-wood con­struc­tion on the out­skirts of town; it’s a one-stop shop for book­ing any­thing from a rock-climb­ing guide to a sea kayak trip.

‘‘Less than 10 years ago, fewer than 100 climbers lived in Squamish. Now there are more than 1000. When you drive into the Chief camp­ground, you see li­cence plates from all over the States and Canada,’’ Jones says

‘‘For most tourists, Squamish is a pit stop at McDon­ald’s en route to their des­ti­na­tion, which is Whistler. But for climbers, Squamish is the des­ti­na­tion.’’

Jones is right. Most tourists head for Whistler, which opened for ski­ing in 1966 and wel­comes 2.1 mil­lion vis­i­tors each year, dwarf­ing the 25,000 who stop over at the more au­then­tic, bluecol­lar Squamish.

‘‘It’s the so­cial vibe that re­ally hits you here,’’ Jones says.

‘‘When you slip off the high­way you en­counter a town that shares your ap­pre­ci­a­tion for out­door ad­ven­ture.’’

Squamish has one of the big­gest moun­tain-bike clubs in Canada, with 800 mem­bers out of the town’s pop­u­la­tion of 16,000. Ev­ery Wed­nes­day, the Squamish Off-Road Cy­cling As­so­ci­a­tion hosts a Toonie race, so called be­cause it costs $ C2 ($ 1.97) to en­ter. There’s a loyal turnout — peo­ple come af­ter work, yachties ban­ter with po­lice­men, teach­ers chat to mums, and the crowd of­ten grows to more than 100.

‘‘I re­ally don’t want to race tonight,’’ says Shaums March, a Red Bull-spon­sored moun­tain biker who runs a train­ing school in Squamish.

‘‘But I al­ways find my­self at the Toonie. It’s where the whole place gets to­gether.’’

Like many in the area, March first ar­rived with the in­ten­tion of set­tling in Whistler, 40 min­utes up the road and the big­ger name in out­door sports. ‘‘The more I raced, the more I headed to places like Kam­loops and Whistler. We’d pass Squamish and it had a cool vibe. The trails here are great, and in­creas­ingly we found our­selves rid­ing here. So we stayed.’’

The town sits amid dra­matic nat­u­ral ter­rain pos­sess­ing enough fea­tures to sat­isfy any out­door en­thu­si­ast. While moun­tain bik­ers make use of rooty, earthy trails on the thickly rain­forested sides of moun­tains in ar­eas such as Alice Lake and Cougar Ridge, kite board­ers, sailors and kayak­ers ex­ploit the waters of Howe Sound and Squamish River.

But it’s the Chief, a spir­i­tual site for the Sko-mish peo­ple, that has made Squamish a worl­drenowned rock-climb­ing des­ti­na­tion; even the hike up the back in­volves a se­ries of lad­ders and chains to reach the sum­mit. Walk­ers pass the thun­der­ing mists of Shan­non Falls be­fore they reach the sign at the base of the 2.5km hike that dares them to con­tinue. ‘‘This hike is not a walk in the park,’’ it says with an un­der­state­ment vis­i­tors soon learn is also part of the Squamish vibe.

It’s not all about big walls, though. Smoke Bluffs climb­ing area is a two-minute drive from the cen­tre of town, its car park dec­o­rated with camper­vans and boul­der mats. Here, climb­ing lessons take place on cre­atively named walls: Ele­phant’s Arse, Penny Lane, Fu­tu­rama.

Down at Mur­rin Lake, boul­der­ers (who climb smaller walls with­out ropes) can en­joy a late-evening session right by the wa­ter.

Inspiration for many comes from the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, a con­se­quence of need­ing to sus­tain it and care for it as tourism grows, but also as a way of tap­ping into the lo­cal her­itage.

The Squamish Nation, which oc­cu­pied the ter­rain long be­fore Van­cou­ver en­coun­tered it, con­tin­ues to own parcels of land amount­ing to 6732sq km. Their mes­sage is one of sym­bi­otic liv­ing with na­ture, and rings true for those who spend hours on rock, earth and wa­ter.

Within rock-climb­ing cir­cles, Squamish is one of the few places that still em­brace the tra­di­tional dirt­bag life­style of climbers — peo­ple who sac­ri­fice crea­ture com­forts for max­i­mum time on rock. The camp­site at the Chief re­mains cheap, with un­re­stricted stays, mean­ing that peo­ple some­times pitch a tent for the sum­mer.

The Squamish vibe gets a good air­ing on Cleve­land Av­enue. It’s a hotch­potch of craft bou­tiques, or­ganic delis, climb­ing shops, ski shops, gal­leries and one-off stores sell­ing eclec­tic items.

In­deed, the artis­tic com­mu­nity is vi­brant, with the Squamish Val­ley Artists’ So­ci­ety list­ing 35 pro­fes­sional artists as mak­ing a liv­ing in the town. It’s part hap­py­hip­pie, part adrenalin junkie, and Squamish seems to revel in its ‘‘We’re not Whistler’’ rep­u­ta­tion de­spite the whiff of gran­ite chip on shoul­der.

There’s lit­tle gloss, no glam­our and min­i­mal time spent on cre­at­ing an im­age. The log­gers have gone now, and paint peels off the walls of the Chief­tain Ho­tel as you head out of town to­wards the warm in­te­rior of the Howe Sound Brew­ing Com­pany.

Here, lo­cal pa­trons stack up their self-dec­o­rated beer mugs be­hind the bar.

How long the small-town feel will last is de­bat­able. The wheels are in mo­tion for the de­vel­op­ment of the Squamish Ocean­front, a pro­ject to transform the area around an old wa­ter treat­ment plant into a new com­mu­nity, com­plete with 917 con­dos and 203 homes, plus schools and ac­tiv­ity cen­tres.

It’s a bold 20-year plan, with con­struc­tion due to start this year. Yet at its core re­mains a vi­sion of sus­tain­abil­ity, a de­sire to em­pha­sise cul­tural and en­vi­ron­men­tal her­itage and re­duce car use.

Not far from Wi­gan Pier is Bean Around the World, a cof­fee shop and cafe where the rus­tic in­te­rior be­lies a mod­ern take on break­fasts. Warm ham and cheese scones are fol­lowed by huge bur­ri­tos and hazel­nut lat­tes. The ra­dio plays ter­ri­ble rock mu­sic. Squamish isn’t per­fect. But it’s get­ting most things right.

There’s rock-climb­ing for all

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