Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Seeking some cultural enlightenment in the hedonistic, sports-crazy Whistler, B.C., my dearest and I wandered over to the Squamish-Lilwat Cultural Centre, an imposing and dramatic building set against soaring snow-capped mountains, that has quickly become a landmark since it opened in 2008. A large lobby with sweeping windows echoes a Squamish long house. Attached is a circular Lilwat istken, or pit house, its domed roof covered in native plants.
Drumming and a welcome song greeted us. We wandered amongst displays and large dugout canoes made from single old-growth cedar trees. We watched a film that explained the life of the two neighbouring nations and how they have lived side by side for millennia. A tour guide explained the difference between the cultures of the two nations. The Lilwat, more a forest people, traditionally wore leather buckskin clothing, while the Squamish, more a coastal people, built sea-going canoes and wore clothes woven of wool and cedar.
In the museum, dozens of beautiful ceremonial masks are displayed, similar to those used for thousands of years. “These masks,” explained the guide, “are used today in important ceremonies such as weddings and name giving. Next to the masks, two modern snowboards hung on the wall, decorated with bright traditional designs.
At the café, my dearest enjoyed a traditional salmon chowder accompanied by bannock infused with salmonberries while I wolfed done a bowl of venison chilli.
During the 2010 Olympic Games, the world’s attention will focus on Whistler. “The Olympics are going to be crazy, incredibly busy,” Sarah Goodwin, the training and program development manager told us. “These Olympics will have the greatest participation by indigenous peoples in Games history, and our Centre will be right at the heart of things. We are bringing in performers and artists from across Canada and offering story-telling and musical and dancing presentations. The public will participate in weaving and carving.”
We wandered behind the main building to a Squamish long house with cedar beams over three-feet in diameter. Youth ambassadors helped my dearest create a traditional cedar bracelet. Then we strolled along a forest trail with display boards describing various facets of this alpine forest and showing the close connection between native people and nature.
We departed, happy that the Cultural Centre has added an enormous dimension to Whistler and is ready to welcome the world.
My dearest and I arrived in Whistler, British Columbia, in October before the much-awaited snows of ski season. We discovered that the village is over the top. It’s an area of grand alpine scenery with dramatic snow-capped peaks, raging rivers and thick forests. It offers mad, mad outdoor sports: down-hill skiing, mountain climbing, white-water rafting, hiking, horse-back riding and now the latest craze, plunging down steep slopes aboard a shock-absorbered two-wheeler while encased in more armour than a hockey player. And it is opulent! The village is full of million-dollar homes, the streets packed with Mercedes, BMWs and big SUVs and visitors aren’t shy about opening their wallets wide. Now the 2010 Olympic Winter Games are raising the Gucci standard to an even higher level.
Both close-to-the-earth, cheapskate types, we were pleasantly surprised to find that British Columbia’s top tourist draw, although expensive, is getting many things right. Whistler has had good urban planning from the get-go. The “downtown” is attractive, centred on a meandering pedestrian walkway with cafes and outdoor tables. The “suburbs” are built in pods with good bus connections. There are no ugly box stores or neon strips. Furthermore, their vision for the future includes a cap on future expansion. And Whistlerians are passionate about recycling.
One morning we clambered aboard the Village Gondola and rose and rose for over 25 minutes until we had gained 1200m/3900ft elevation and reached near the top of Whistler Mountain. We then had a stunning ride to Blackcomb Mountain aboard the new Peak 2 Peak gondola, which holds records for the longest span (4.4 km), height above ground (436m/1427ft) and speed. We hiked trails on the upper edge of the tree line past boulders splattered with green and black lichen. Glaciers beckoned, a marmot whistled at us and far, far below lay Whistler.
Every day we took a hike. Our favourite was to Cheakamus Lake passing through sombre old-growth forest. At Nairn Falls, the reds and oranges of fall were interspersed with the dark greens of hemlocks and firs. Fresh with rainwater, the Brandywine Falls cascaded dramatically over a cliff.
Our highlight was the ZipTrek Ecotour. The first step off the very high platform deep in the forest was scary indeed. Then the excitement built and built as we took a series of frenetic, heart-pulsing zip runs along thin wires that hung high, high above Fitzsimmons Creek. The longest line stretched 1100 feet. Between flights we walked high in the canopy between observation platforms and learned about forest life and the ways in which we should be helping preserve nature. Returning to base, we stopped at the new Olympic sliding track and watched only a few metres away as a skeleton sled hurtled past at over a 100 km/hr.
All too soon, the week was over and we set off along the beautiful Sea to Sky Highway.
If You Go
Monday, October 5, 2009
We arrived in Tofino and settled into a rental house on Chesterman Beach with two other couples. After unpacking we strolled the long sandy beach, watching the rollers crash in from far out in the Pacific Ocean. The afternoon light glinted in the water reflecting the clouds and highlighting the many surfers clad in their black rubber suits, toting their boards. At a rocky promontory, anemones and orange and purple sea stars clung to the rocks at water’s edge.
Next day we strolled to the Wickanninish Inn, which is perched on a rocky point so you feel almost amongst the wild waves. It’s the perfect place for winter storm watching. I chatted with Charles McDiarmid, the managing director, and learned this is a family business. The Inn is decorated with west coast Native art including a magnificent long house entrance, masks and totems. But my favourite was a simple carving shed, almost hidden in the trees about a hundred meters down the beach. Here I watched artists create Native carvings.
The highlight was a visit with John Dowd, the legendary long-distance kayaker, and his charming wife, Bea, who live on a nearby island. John picked us up in a marvellous contraption, an amphibious boat that lowered its wheels when we approached his island and drove right up to his home. And what a home it is! John and Bea have chosen to live a simple, close-to-the-earth life. Their island has no electricity or running water, yet their wooden home has charm, elegance and beauty. Working from a wood-fuelled stove, Bea served one of the best meals I’ve ever devoured: starters of smoked salmon garnished with home-made tartar sauce, home-cured salmon caviar and crackers with egg salad, with the egg provided by Bea’s own chickens. The main course was a coho salmon (caught by John the evening before), fried and served with home-grown vegetables. It was a memorable afternoon.
Next day my dearest and I explored the other face of Tofino, the rain forest. We wandered along boardwalks that meandered through giant cedars and Douglas firs. Moss hung from branches. Ferns and nursery logs covered the ground. Green, moist primordial growth surrounded us.
Before departing we took a last walk along Long Beach. A tangle of bleached logs marked the high-tide line; a father and son manoeuvred a kite; big waves crashed on the sandy shore, and the beach stretched for miles. Bliss!
Vancouver Island, perched on the western edge of Canada, is a wondrous place. Its eastern shore is protected, with soft gentle islets lying betwixt it and the fjord-carved mainland. The western shore has a completely different personality with a harsh but compelling beauty: big waves, fog-enshrouded beaches, treacherous islands and the Graveyard of the Pacific. Getting there is an adventure in itself. Recently, my dearest and I travelled the road.
A few miles west of Parksville, we entered MacMillan Provincial Park and Cathedral Grove, like a sombre deep canyon, with grand tall trees filtering the sun. This stand of old growth forest is just like a mighty cathedral. We wandered in awe amongst Douglas fir and western red cedar that soared skyward like turrets and flying buttresses. Some trees exceeded 800 years in age with a girth of over nine metres. Shafts of golden light angled down to the dusky forest floor like sunbeams through high stained-glass windows. Traffic sounds were replaced by silence. The occasional chirping of birds sounded like monks quietly chanting. The air was still and full of spirits. Amongst these ancient creatures, moss covered logs and ferns, I felt a reverence, a spirituality, a deep intimate closeness with nature.
We followed the road to Port Alberni, the Salmon Capital of the World, and then entered Sproat Lake Provincial Park. A short walk took us to one of the finest panels of prehistoric petroglyphs (figures carved on rock) in BC, named K’ak’awin. These are likely the work of the ancestors of the Hucasapath First Nation, who have traditionally occupied this region. We looked at nine figures carved into the side of a small cliff on the edge of the lake. Most of them featured some sort of whale. A few had what appeared to be dorsal fins; another had a wolf-like head. Do they represent a mythical marine creature, perhaps an ancient Loch Ness monster? Scratching our heads, we drove westward, heading for the surf and sand of Tofino.
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