Last year I went backpacking in British Columbia. I’ve checked my calendar a few times to remind myself that it really was the summer of 2019 when I did this trek because of course it now seems so much longer ago. The trip started with scenes in my mind of rocks, icy waters, forests, hills, mountains, wind-swept grassy realms. My first thoughts went to Iceland. When that proved a little too impractical, I moved on to Olympic National Park in Washington State and finally, Canada.
Through REI Adventures, I found a trip on Whistler Mountain, just north of Vancouver, and then started getting myself ready with hikes in and around NYC—Van Cortlandt Park, Inwood Park, Central Park, and Riverside Park all helped me build up my mileage. When rocky terrain wasn’t available, I counted on stairs—my building has 46 flights of them. I ran, I biked, I resistance-trained, and when I got my backpack and gear together, I started doing my hikes and regular walks with it, adding books to make up the weight of the gear I’d be carrying in the mountains.
I was seeking a different landscape and it announced itself as my flight approached Vancouver with the sight of a glacial peak rising out of mist and water.
I stayed the first night in a small European-style hotel in what turned out to be a garden district. Gardens flowed out of balconies, tiny front yards, street islands, window boxes, all leading the way to Stanley Park, an urban forest, bounded by beaches. This was an unexpected pleasure, so I headed out at dusk to prowl around the edges of the park, finding, among other things, a daycare center set up like a tree house and community garden plots running up against tennis courts.
The next day I headed off to Whistler, a ski resort where the nordic, luge, and bobsledding events of the 2010 Winter Olympics took place. It looked like a shopping mall dressed up as a Swiss village. Overpriced and impossible to navigate—every shop and cafe looked exactly the same—it felt like vacation purgatory. Fortunately, I spent only one brief night nearby at an airbnb and was soon on my way up Whistler Mountain with a small group of fellow hikers.
We took a gondola partway, leaving tourist attractions behind. It was indeed another world up there.
At first we hiked a blustery rocky zone, almost desertlike in color, which gave way to terrain that was both rugged and lush.
Winding up the narrowing trails, we backpackers started to get to know each other. The going was tough the last quarter of the way, inspiring the term “stairmaster of stone” and references to The Game of Thrones. It was an interesting group—teachers, writers, tech people for a nonprofit, and professional outdoors folks (our guides). I was the only one from the East Coast. Toronto and Montreal were the extent of my Canadian travels. We reminded each other to drink more water. We started to distinguish between the whistling of marmots, source of the mountain’s name, and that of humans. I discovered that carrying my water bottles on my hips was a painful arrangement when walking nearly vertically. Downward pressure on bones—ouch!
It’s easy to lose a sense of scale among clouds and mist, massive mountains, glaciers, rocks of all sizes, and water, running smooth here jagged there. Everything is at once a part of something huge and very small. Even at its most still, the scene thrills with animation. Tiny alpine plants tucked in among piles of stone point to a landscape in a state of constant re-creation. One day, with enough of these scattered breakthroughs, they may form another alpine meadow, upstaging the glamorous but shrinking glacier.
Our first night an unexpected storm blew through, dropping rain and snow. We had all taken extra precautions in securing our tents since there was this very slight chance of bad weather. I had enjoyed these preparations, coming up with just the right rocks with which to moor my little sleep ship. I was not enjoying anything a couple of hours later when I was wearing everything I had and was still freezing with no hope of sleep. I was, however, dry and rooted to the ground. The storm ended early in the morning and I slipped out for a trip to the outhouse. The sky was clear and the stars were out. It was magnificent.
The next night was clear and milder. By the end of the next day, I’d gathered a list of warming strategies offered by the rest of the hikers. I stayed warm and did sleep until the apparently magic hour of 4 am when I woke up and stepped outside to find this mountain silhouette below a bright crescent storybook moon.
The journey back through the woods felt in some ways like stepping through a mirror. Forest plants I knew from the East Coast were reflected in these Pacific Northwest natives but there were some striking differences in size and color. Despite noticeable ravages by logging, this was also an incredibly green world, blanketed with mosses. Could it be more green than where I come from? Hard to say, but there was something about the light. It made it look like spring in July.
Next: Down from the mountain, the Hell’s Kitchen Gardener visits a community garden in B.C.