At Porteau Cove, geology has cool tales to tell

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      Look around Vancouver’s landscape. Ancient stories are written everywhere on its surface. You can learn to see the signs with fresh eyes, as well as enjoy some rejuvenating fresh sea air, during a visit to Porteau Cove Provincial Park on Howe Sound north of Horseshoe Bay.

      Reading the Earth’s stories is the job of geoscientist Bob Turner of Natural Resources Canada. On the phone from his Robson Street office, Turner told the Georgia Straight that, geologically speaking, the most interesting 100 kilometres in Canada lie between here and Whistler. “There is more diversity and points of interest than anywhere in the province: landscapes, landforms, waterfalls, glaciers, debris-flow hazards, granite walls—quite an inventory.”

      In the mid-1990s, Turner coined the term geoscape, a contraction of geological landscapes. “Geology is focused on the past,” he said. “It’s a science caught up with invoking imaginary landscapes. Geologists are famous for looking at sandstone formations and seeing rivers. With the Geoscape initiative, we wanted to focus on the landscape today, bring geology home to urban Canada, and tell the stories about where people work and play.”

      With this in mind, one of Turner’s early efforts was a 2003 guidebook, Vancouver, City on the Edge: Living With a Dynamic Geological Landscape (Tricouni Press), coauthored with SFU professor John Clague.

      When it comes to an easily reached place to play, Porteau Cove fills the bill. It helps that the diminutive park perched on a shelf of glacial sill—a 13,000-year-old ridge of moraine material where the two-kilometre-thick ice sheet paused—is one of the only places where day-trippers and campers alike can find access to Howe Sound, North America’s southernmost fiord.

      Renowned as a hub for underwater diving, the park’s appeal extends just as readily to sailboaters, paddlers, beachcombers, swimmers, picnickers, and those like Turner who simply enjoy contemplating the panorama that plays out between sea level and mountain peaks.

      “I want people to take a closer look and dig into what they see when they get there: rub their hands on the polished rock to feel the smoothness of the glacier’s touch and stare up at the ridges and see the remnants of where the glaciers were, sensing the land in a deeper way, in a process I call mental stretching.”

      When it comes to stretching your legs along Porteau Cove’s rocky shoreline, sneakers are a better choice than sandals, especially at low tide, when a slippery, shallow outcropping lies exposed. On a sunny day, the predominantly black pebbles soak up the sun’s rays, which, in turn, warm the slowly rising waters, making for tolerable swimming temperatures. One of the best stretches of beach in this regard lies tucked in beside the walk-in campsites adjacent to the sheltered cove, where a small settlement once stood in the 1930s. The calm waters there are a welcome relief for paddlers, who can expect to be bounced around on Howe Sound at a moment’s notice when outflow winds kick up whitecaps.

      Porteau Cove anchors a more pivotal location than might appear at first glance. According to Turner, there are actually three stories on display in this geoscape. “Porteau Cove is a junction point,” he said. “Stand on the park’s jetty and look towards Squamish. What you see is a true fiord: steep-sided and flooded by the sea. From here west towards Horseshoe Bay, where the embayment breaks up, is a sound. Features such as the rounded shapes of the islands to the craggy, high peaks reflect a landscape sandpapered by ice. Beneath the water is the invisible story of the submarine sill, a shallow, glacier-calving snout of debris that sits stationary offshore, attracting marine life, which, in turn, draws divers.”

      To best appreciate Turner’s trilogy, visit on a clear day when landmarks such as Bowyer and Anvil islands are easily identifiable from the shoreline. Many of the park’s 60 campsites, including 16 walk-in sites, offer panoramic views that stretch from the ocean to the still-glaciated Tantalus Range peaks high above. Driftwood lines the foreshore, providing secure resting places for kayaks and canoes parked above the tide line, and tent pads find shelter beneath stands of shore pines, Sitka spruce, and western red cedars with bald eagles perched in their crowns.

      Although you could launch a boat from the beach, the easiest approach is from twin sloped concrete ramps at the end of B.C. Ferries’ emergency ferry pier, constructed in the 1980s after a devastating debris torrent at Lions Bay blocked traffic on the Sea to Sky Highway for weeks.

      Once on the water, stick close to shore, not just for personal safety but also to inspect the scouring effect of ice on the shear-sided walls of the fiord on either side of the pier. Alternately, on foot, carefully cross the highway and look for the very distinct and extensive glacial polishing and striations—scratches and wavelike grooves—on the granite wall immediately opposite the entrance to the park, one of the few places where the original wall of the fiord is still preserved.

      If you can indulge in a little mental stretching by imagining a frozen river of glacial ice slowly flowing past you into the Strait of Georgia basin, Turner will have done his job.

      Access: Porteau Cove Provincial Park lies 43 kilometres north of Vancouver on Highway 99. For more information, visit the Government BC's website or consult the new edition of Jack Christie’s 52 Best Day Trips from Vancouver (Greystone Books). Bob Turner’s Geoscape guides are posted at the Natural Resources Canada website.




      May 29, 2011 at 10:31am

      For those those interested in my roadside geology, the is a book titled "Roadside Geology of Southern British Columbia." It was written by Bill Mathews and Jim Monger in 2010.


      May 29, 2011 at 10:49am

      Porteau Cove is home to the most dangerous strech of highway due to foolish engineering. It is a question of time before a mass landslide will kill. As much as Bob Turner works is fantastic, this article is quite irresponsible for not mentionning the potential risk.

      Martin Dunphy

      May 29, 2011 at 1:36pm


      With all due respect, this is a column about daytrips from Vancouver, not the deficit in highway-engineering expertise in British Columbia.
      As such, I must reject your contention that the article is "quite irresponsible".

      Have a nice day.