Sea to Sky Trail offers a breathtaking workout

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      Want to get your heart rate up in a hurry? Bike or hike the Sea to Sky Trail between Whistler and Squamish, or at least a portion of the 60-kilometre route.

      To gain the most benefit from this workout, start slowly; warm up at a gentle pace for the first 10 minutes before putting the hammer down—an approach that’s easier said than done, particularly when the heady scent of the adventure that lies ahead triggers a predictable adrenal rush.

      Case in point: Tourism Vancouver spokesperson Amber Sessions and her bike buddy, freelance writer Anne Casselman. The Georgia Straight caught up with the duo atop a rocky outcrop above the Cheakamus River’s narrow canyon during a midpoint lunch break in the annual Sea to Sky Mountain Bike Trail Challenge last July.

      The setting couldn’t have been more picture-perfect. Both cyclists radiated excitement and well-being. “I drive the highway to Whis­tler all the time,” Sessions said. “Until now, I never knew the Sea to Sky Trail existed. There’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment in just making it this far.”

      Sessions admitted to not fully knowing what she and Casselman were in for when they signed on to do the ride that’s been organized each year since 1995 by Vancouver bike-tour operator Great Explorations.

      When reached by phone, company president Robbin McKinney told the Straight that the idea for the inaugural ride sprang, in part, from his participation in point-to-point mass bike rides, such as from Seattle to Portland. Just as crucial was an encounter with visionary trail builder Ross Kirkwood on the first stretch of the projected 180-kilometre off-road, multipurpose, self-propelled route just north of the Cheakamus Canyon.

      McKinney recollected donating $500 on the spot to help Kirkwood with expenses. “I definitely didn’t intend this to be a race but instead wanted to stage something geared for moderate mountain bikers to introduce them to a trail that they’d never heard of before. It’s definitely not about speed and shaved legs.”

      Almost two decades later, the 52-year-old said he was surprised that many riders are still unaware of its existence, and he praised the seldom-acknowledged people who volunteer their time to keep such projects going. “In every B.C. town, there is a quiet group who get a kick out of building trails. For me, they are the true heroes.”

      Since 2005, construction of the Sea to Sky Trail has been overseen by a Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) standing committee. Project manager Gordon McKeever told the Straight by phone that the project has been assisted by a $50,000 capital grant from Recreation Sites and Trails B.C. (a division of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations) and $250,000 in funding from the SLRD. Improvements to the trail this summer will include comprehensive signage from Stawamus Chief Provincial Park in Squamish to Nairn Falls Provincial Park in Pemberton, as well as upgrades in the Cheakamus Canyon.

      “Last year, we brought a rock crusher on-site around Starvation Lake to lay down an awesome base,” McKeever said. “This summer, we’re finishing it off with a crushed flush cap to provide a much finer grade surface that mountain bikers, especially, will appreciate.”

      From her Vancouver office, Sessions agreed that she found the Starvation Lake section of the ride more challenging than expected. “Going into the canyon at about the midpoint of what turned out to be a six-hour day, the trail got rougher. That’s when I realized this was a really serious ride. However, I’m not afraid of challenges. Though I’m hardly a big mountain biker—I’m more into sailing this summer than anything—I’ve done the GranFondo [Whis­tler] twice, plus several half marathons.”

      Sessions credited a friend in Whistler with encouraging her to sign up. “She said if I could do Tin Pants [an intermediate-ability mountain-bike trail in the resort’s Lost Lake Park], I could handle just about all the conditions I’d find on the Sea to Sky,” she said. “I’m glad Anne came along, as I don’t think I would do this on my own. Going with other people made it accessible. In the end, what I found most exciting was that money from the ride goes towards trail-building.”

      As someone whose job centres on stimulating visitor traffic to the Vancouver region, Sessions said she viewed the Sea to Sky Trail as “an amazing product to promote”.

      Whether attempted holus-bolus in a day or in smaller increments spread throughout the summer, the off-road portion of the Sea to Sky Trail between Whistler and Squamish offers a wide variety of conditions and campsites; such is its multifaceted nature. One of the best-built sections runs for 11 kilometres between Brandywine Falls Provincial Park and Whistler’s Cheakamus Crossing neighbourhood (former site of the 2010 Winter Olympics athletes’ village).

      It’s a stretch that has seen major improvements since Vancouver rider Brian Boswell first took part in Great Explorations’ annual outing a decade ago. “This is an easy summer experience now,” he noted, “especially since everything’s organized for you. Whether the trail’s improved depends on whether you like smoother routes or not. It’s much more accessible now, that’s for sure. There are always a few kids—the youngest this year is eight. The good thing is you can drive to Squamish, catch the shuttle bus to Whistler, do the ride, then head home.”

      Strap on a heart monitor and get going.

      Access: Details on the Sea to Sky Trail are posted on the Sea To Sky Trail website. This year, the Sea to Sky Mountain Bike Trail Challenge takes place July 7. For information, visit the Great Explorations website.