From Paradise to Starvation sounds like a potboiler of a journey. It certainly was when construction of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway began almost a century ago north of Squamish. Even today there’s a wild flourish of adventure to be had while retracing the route that leads through the Cheakamus Canyon from Paradise Valley to Starvation Lake. This five-kilometre section serves as one of the most scenic links in the Sea to Sky Trail, an unfinished recreational route that links Squamish with Whistler, Pemberton, and points north. For those with a yen to experience the narrowest confines of the Cheakamus Canyon from the comfort of a front-row seat, a tourist train that runs daily between North Vancouver and Whistler during the summer is the ultimate way to go.
No matter how you choose to explore the canyon, the experience will leave you breathless, particularly between now and early July while the spring runoff in the Cheakamus River is in full bore. The river is fed by snowmelt that collects in Cheakamus Lake in Garibaldi Provincial Park and is further added to by numerous creeks and rivers as it races to meet the ocean at Squamish. Where the sheer walls of the canyon channel the clear green-hued water into a white froth, the river roars.
One person well acquainted with the canyon is Sea to Sky Trail project manager Gordon McKeever. When reached by phone in Whistler, McKeever told the Georgia Straight that the current pathway through the canyon is a remnant of the road built in 1913 to facilitate construction of the railway. He also pointed out that—as on other sections of the work-in-progress trail—there are several hurdles to be cleared before the Cheakamus Canyon portion is completed. “Holistically, there are two issues,” he said. “The Squamish First Nation has a land lease at the north end of the trail where it comes out of the canyon and joins Highway 99. It’s not closed, but we are working on collaborating with them to resolve the land-use issue to our mutual benefit.”
McKeever also spotlighted a section of the trail that temporarily washed out several years ago and lies within current owner Canadian National Railway’s right of way. “It’s not clear who put a lot of work into creating the safe crossing which currently exists. It wasn’t a ”˜midnight trail-building’ project by any means.” With cautious optimism, McKeever noted that members of the Canadian Forces’ Joint Task Force Games intend to leave a legacy in the Sea to Sky Corridor following their involvement with security at 2010 Winter Games venues around Whistler. “They’ve offered to build a safer permanent crossing there. But at the middle-management level, I sense CN doesn’t want anyone to use the trail. For the moment, it’s strictly a case of using it at your own risk, which all kinds of people do on a daily basis.”
Should you wish to experience the Cheakamus Canyon on foot or by mountain bike, keep several factors in mind. With the exception of toddlers toted on their parents' backs, this is not a child-friendly portion of the Sea to Sky Trail, particularly from the north end of Paradise Valley, where a short, steep stretch leads uphill atop granite boulders shaped like giant molars. From there, allow 30 minutes to reach gemlike Starvation Lake on a secluded plateau between Highway 99 and the canyon. If this is as far as you wish to go, follow a rough road just south of the lake downhill to the train tracks. From that viewpoint, water in the Cheakamus can be witnessed repeatedly transforming between tranquillity and turbulence where the river falls through a series of short drops and swirls among boulders.
As the Sea to Sky Trail climbs steadily uphill beyond the lake, the most dramatic scenery occurs within a 30-minute hike, including one stunning clearing where the massive Tantalus Range peaks display their best faces. Further on lies the cliff crossing, definitely not for the squeamish but sturdy enough to support a steady stream of hundreds of cyclists in the annual Cheakamus Challenge mountain-bike race held each September.
Beyond doubt, Rocky Mountaineer’s Sea to Sky Climb rail journey is the most comfortable and intimate way to experience the canyon, especially from the open-air heritage observation car, a 1914 relic that was state-of-the-art when the PGE line debuted and still holds its own against the train’s Plexiglas-enclosed passenger cars. Lean out as the engineer eases back on the throttle and brings the pace to a crawl. In places, the canyon narrows so dramatically it’s almost possible to touch both sides at once. Where the train crosses a trestle bridge, views of the iconic Black Tusk appear that are far superior to anything seen from the highway or trail, reason enough to treat yourself to a day trip where someone else does the heavy lifting.
ACCESS: Paradise Valley Road begins four kilometres west of Highway 99 via Squamish Valley Road, 12 kilometres north of downtown Squamish. Paved for much of its 11.3-kilometre length, Paradise Valley Road links with the Sea to Sky Trail, which leads five kilometres through the Cheakamus Canyon to Highway 99. To learn more about the Sea to Sky Trail, visit www.seatoskytrail.ca/. For information on Rocky Mountaineer’s Sea to Sky Climb, visit www.rockymountaineer.com/. Details on this year’s Cheakamus Challenge are posted at www.cheakamuschallenge.ca/.