Whistler, host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, is Canada’s uncontested capital of alpine chic. The ski village, year-round population 10,000, has six five-star hotels, a thriving SUV limo service and bars full of ski bums sipping $16 martinis. But venture a bit outside of town and the wilderness closes back in. On the drive north from Whistler, million-dollar chalets quickly give way to much humbler accommodations scattered on Indian reserves. Then – suddenly – there’s nothing at all, just a thin shoelace of asphalt rising steadily into the mountains.
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.
Vancouver enjoys a reputation as one of the world’s most attractive cities for a reason. The downtown is sandwiched between the Pacific and the snow-capped peaks of the Cascade Mountains, with postcard vistas from most city blocks. But the amazing thing is how close the city is to some truly wild and relatively unexplored mountain landscapes. Mt. Seymour Provincial Park is about a thirty-minute car ride from downtown Vancouver. And while weather in the city is mild in May, Mt. Seymour – rising more than 4,000 feet above sea level – is still covered with towering drifts of snow at this time of year, some more than 30 feet deep. In other words, conditions are perfect for indulging your Arctic expedition fantasies . . . no special gear or expertise required. [Read more…]