From sea to sky

6 May 2017

Our brief stop at Porteau Cove had showed me beauty beyond my wildest dreams. Now we all agreed it was time for lunch. Jen and Kevin knew just the place, The Howe Sound Brewing Company in Squamish, a one time hop Farm turned micro brewery. The rustic atmosphere ticked all the right boxes and the food was perfect. According to Commando, so was the beer, although it took him a while to choose. Replete and happy we found our way back onto Highway 99 and headed from the sea to the sky. Pretty soon we were looking up at the Sea to Sky Gondola and, behind the low wooden building, the tumbling water of Shannon Falls, the third highest waterfall in British Columbia. I had the feeling my dreams were going to get a lot wilder before the day was out.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the falls flowing so fast,” Jen said as we crossed the car park.
They cascade three hundred and thirty five metres down a series of cliffs, originating in Mount  Habrich and Mount Sky Pilot. They were named after William Shannon who owned the falls and the land around them at the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1930’s he sold the land to the Brittania Copper Mines who sold it on in 1976 to Carling O’Keefe Brewery.  They used the pure water to brew their beer, then made the area into a logging show park and, in 1982, donated it to BC Parks. today Shannon Falls Provincial Park is a popular area for climbers and hikers.

We would not be climbing or hiking to the top though, we’d be taking the easy option on the Sea to Sky Gondola. Just looking at the building it was easy to see this was a new venture. In fact it was opened in May 2014, but the idea began much earlier. It was the brainchild of Trevor Dunn and David Greenfield. It all began in 2009 with the idea of creating better access to Shannon Falls and The Chief, a nearby mountain, especially for people unable to climb or hike to the top.  A gondola or cable car was the obvious answer but making it a reality was less than simple. First they had to find a suitable location and acquire the land, which spanned three different jurisdictions. Then they had to reassure the Squamish residents, find stakeholders and get planning permission. It was 2012 before all this had been achieved and work could begin.

The work took almost two years and was not without its problems. Building a cable car that rises 1,920-metres up a granite cliff is a massive feat of engineering. It was never going to run completely smoothly. In February 2013 an empty gondola fell during testing. The $50,000 car was damaged beyond repair. An investigation followed. Erratic winds were found to be the cause, along with uncalibrated sensors. Additional wind meter towers were added and a system to automatically slow the cars and sound alarms in the event of dangerous winds. A camera was installed to monitor cabin movement and send live data to the operator. Safety is obviously a prime consideration. Even so I’m glad I wasn’t aware of all this as we stepped into a carriage.

Of course this was by no means my first trip up a cable car. The views here were very different to the cable car in Madeira or Gibraltar though. There were no little houses below for one, just granite and pines. The cable car journey in funchal is longer, the cable is 3,718 metres and it takes fifteen minutes but it only rises 560 metres, in Gibraltar it takes just six minutes and rises 412 metres.

It goes without saying that the views were spectacular. Howe Sound was spread out below us along with the tops of the tall pines. We passed close to the Stawamus Chief Mountain, known locally as just The Chief, a granite dome towering seven hundred metres above the green waters. It is claimed to be the largest granite monolith in the world and the Squamish people consider it to be a spiritual place. Their name for it is Siám, meaning Chief and they believe it is a longhouse transformed to stone.

As we rose higher we looked down upon snow and I was glad I’d worn a thick jumper and had brought my coat and my wrap with me. There was going to be a big temperature difference between the sunny sea level and the snow capped mountain top. We also saw a long suspension bridge stretching across the tree tops. It reminded me of a rope bridge I once had to cross in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco and my stomach clenched a little at the thought of it.

Then it was time to leave the gondola and step onto the wooden boards of Summit Lodge, pulling our warm clothes around us as we did. There were still patches of unmelted snow all around and the air was chilly but not frozen. We walked around the railed decking of Summit Lodge looking out at the astounding views. The pines below us seemed like props for a model railway and the craggy snow covered mountains like something from a film set. Some way off there were people on a viewing platform staring out over the mountains just like us. Clouds danced about the high peaks, hiding some altogether and casting shadows on the bright snow of others.

Above the water of Howe Sound  a low cloud was hiding the mountain tops altogether. Its fuzzy edge told me it was probably dropping snow to add to the whiteness. It seemed to be slowly drifting closer to us and we stood watching it and the progress of the gondolas going up and down for a while. It was hard to believe we’d been in one of the tiny looking cars just a few minutes before.

Before long we were sure the cloud was heading for us with its cargo of snow so we decided it was time to make a move. Whether we’d be able to out run its ponderous progress or not remained to be seen. There are many walking and hiking trails to suit all abilities. Some are easy enough for wheelchair users while others are for experts. It’s even possible to go right back to sea level again although I think this involves more rock climbing than my old bones could take.

We headed towards the the suspension bridge. It was far longer than the one in Morocco had been but, thankfully, it was also far more sturdy. In the High Atlas Mountains we’d crossed a narrow river on what was, basically, a couple of ropes with a few rotting boards across and two pieces of rope with which to steady ourselves. Back then I’d been terrified. This still had my stomach clenching but it didn’t sway about too much and felt safe. Even so, I didn’t stop to take photos and was glad to be back on firm ground on the other side.

We set off along the Spirit Trail, a firm gravel trail and one of the easiest routes. It was strung with fairy lights that must be beautiful when they’re lit and meandered its way through the tall pines. There were patches of melting snow between their trunks, littered with pine needles, and glimmers of blue sky through the high branches. The cool air was so clear it was like breathing pine scented goodness.

As the trail twisted and turned we caught sight of the high mountain peaks towering above us and the snow covered valleys below. Those strings of lights, interspersed with stars and hearts, the arches of dried twigs and the sparkling snow all gave the place a fairy tale feel. It felt as if Canada was doing everything in its power to blow our minds with its natural beauty.

At the end of the trail we found a slack line stretched between two posts with a notice saying, ‘adults must be accompanied by a child.’ Kevin had a go and, of course, Jen couldn’t resist. With her boundless energy and enthusiasm I guess she almost qualified as a child. Commando and I looked on. His Achilles problems and my propensity for falling off things made it seem like the best plan.

We’d almost come full circle and were close to the Summit Lodge but we weren’t quite ready to finish with the trails so, after consulting a handy map, we set off again on the Panorama Trail. This led us downwards, at least at first. We passed a little wooden cabin and walked between piles of snow sculpted into fantastical shapes as it slowly melted.

The trail wound around the mountain, revealing steep drops where pines emerged from deep white drifts. It was hard to believe this wintry wonderland was just a few miles away from  the warm beaches and sun dappled forest we’d walked in so very recently. It felt like a different world entirely.

We passed a rucksack, abandoned against some wooden beams beside the trail. In another world it might have seemed sinister, a cause for concern. Here it just made me wonder how long it would be before the owner noticed the lightness of their shoulders and came back looking for the spot where they’d paused for a rest and taken it off.

Further on pools of meltwater reflected the miniature snow mountains and the tall pines. A sign told me these were called ephemeral wetlands. In summer they would dry up completely. Ephemeral seemed the perfect word to describe this place of swirling cloud and melting snow. This is a landscape where nothing remains the same for long.

The trail led us to a viewing platform overlooking The Chief, the green waters of Howe Sound and the town of Squamish. From here it was hard to appreciate the size of this massive mountain of granite covering over three square kilometres. It was formed during the early Cretaceous period, around one hundred million years ago and may be the root of a volcano that became extinct at the end of the last ice age. The granite body of The Chief was revealed and shaped by glacial erosion, the granite polished smooth by the thick glacial ice.

The Chief and the park surrounding it holds great spiritual value to the Squamish people. Their legends say a giant two headed sea serpent Say-noth-ka lived in Howe Sound. This beast moved across both land and water and, as it slithered up and down the mountainside, it gradually wore a pathway for the waters of Shannon Falls. Looking down at the water below it was easy to believe the legend and imagine the serpent lurking beneath their murky depths.

A little closer to hand a fantastically contorted tree with a weathered grey trunk and branches captured our attention. It seemed to be a monument to tenacity, having somehow found a foothold in the shallow soil between the granite rocks and grown to the size of a tall man. Now it was dead but still it stood and, below it, its little seedlings were trying to cling to life.

When a few fat flakes of snow began to fall Commando and I remembered the blizzards of Iceland back in December. Suddenly standing on the edge of a mountain didn’t seem like such a good idea so we turned and began to head back along the trail towards the Summit Lodge.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

8 thoughts on “From sea to sky”

    1. I’m not mad about heights but the gondola isn’t really scary at all. Those stunning views are about all you can think about. There is an alternative route to the Spirit trail too for people who can’t cope with the bridge.

        1. You can also climb the mountain from the bottom if you have time. There are trails all the way up The Chief and Shannon Falls.

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