Bear bells are standard equipment for hikers in this part of Canada. The bells – which look a lot like Christmas ornaments – are hung from backpacks and belts. They give off a tinny jingle meant to scare off any bears in the area . . . unless they like Christmas music.
I always thought people with bear bells were a little paranoid. Then I came to Whistler. The site of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Whistler – which is just two hours by car from Vancouver – isn’t exactly a rugged wilderness. In the swanky ski village, you’ve got your choice of five-star hotels, multiple sushi bars and plenty of alpine-chic clubs with techno music and antler chandeliers.
But just outside the village, the mountains close back in. A network of provincial parks links snow-covered peaks with glacial lakes and huge tracts of unsettled wilderness. All of which is great for hikers and also, apparently, for bears. Driving to a trailhead on the outskirts of town, I see my first black bear of the trip. It’s six feet from nose to tail, with a head the size of a toaster oven. As I drive by, it ambles up a highway embankment with the unhurried walk of an animal at the top of the food chain.
As soon as I reach the trailhead, I rig up my own version of a bear bell: a set of house keys dangling from my backpack. My first stop is Cheakamus Lake, a glacial lake set in a provincial park that abuts the new Athlete’s Village built for the 2010 Games. Despite the trail’s easy accessibility, the scenery turns wild pretty quickly. Through a thick canopy of pine trees, I catch sight of the Cheakamus River – gray with silt and swollen from winter snow melt – boiling in the distance. Though it’s late May, parts of the trail are still covered in snow. But overall the hiking is easy.
After about an hour of walking, through clearings and beneath stands of towering pines, I’ve passed plenty of other hikers and not a single bear. Cheakamus Lake comes into view suddenly, and my first reaction is that I haven’t worked hard enough to deserve this kind of view. The water is tinged an electric blue from the glacial runoff. On the far side of the lake, a range of rugged, snow-capped mountains rises. Their reflection shimmers in the water. The scene looks like a free, downloadable screensaver.
On the way back, the sun has dipped lower in the sky and the trail is a bit quieter. Every few hundred yards, I give my house keys a good strong jangle to be safe. I’m just about back to the parking lot when I see it. Bear poop. Right in the middle of the trail. I pick up the pace and, before I can decide whether it’s best to play dead or run for it, I’m safely back in my car and headed for town.
- Getting there:
- Whistler is a two-hour drive from Vancouver along the scenic Sea to Sky Highway. Expanded to accommodate Olympic traffic, the highway has lost a few of its hairpin turns and overlooks, but it still makes for one of the best coastal drives on North America’s western coast.
- Getting around:
- Cheakamus Lake is located within Garibaldi Provincial Park, a 750-square-mile wilderness that stretches from outside of Vancouver all the way to Whistler. The most convenient trailhead for reaching the lake is located just south of Whistler. Turn left at the Function Junction intersection and then bear to the left. An old logging road winds five miles to the parking lot. The hike to the lake takes about two hours, round-trip, and has only a minimal elevation change.
- When to go:
- The trail is generally free from snow from late May through October. During the summer months, the lake water takes on a spectacular electric-blue tint. Camping is allowed, although there are no facilities apart from a few outhouses and a special pulley system in the trees for hiding food from the bears.
- Within the same park, at the base of the logging road, you’ll find the Cheakamus River trail. The trail follows the river – which is tinged the same electric blue as the lake – and passes over a wooden suspension bridge hung 50 feet above the water.