Squamish estuary bliss is blowin' in the wind

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      Summer’s here: time to air out your mind. Set a course north along the Sea to Sky Highway to Squamish.

      Chicago may be known as the Windy City, but Squamish could qualify just as easily. On an outing there earlier this month, the Georgia Straight witnessed stalls at the Saturday summer farmers market caught up in gusts that threatened to carry vendors as high as the kiteboarders who soared above the nearby Squamish River estuary.

      Squamish is a happening place these days. As home designer Jim Harvey outlined to the Straight by phone, the town at the top of Howe Sound has transitioned from a working-class, mill-dependent community to a commuter hub with a focus on outdoor lifestyles. “According to the most recent census, we’ve got the youngest median-age group in the province living here,” said the 57-year-old, who was one of the chief proponents of branding Squamish as the outdoor-recreation capital of Canada.

      In his spare time, Harvey and his brother, John, work as volunteer trail builders on regional hiking and cycling routes. “There’s a simple relationship between our young demographic and trails, something that our current council, unlike previous administrations, is supporting. After living here for 17 years, that’s why I still build trails.”

      One historic pathway that invites inspection year-round is the Squamish River estuary’s Great Blue Heron Trail, a rough rock-and-roots affair, much of which traverses a century-old dike built by Chinese workers for pasturage. In 2000, the Nature Trust of B.C. acquired the ecologically significant Cattermole Creek property, a 5.3-hectare wetland that was once the site of hay fields. (Along with hops for brewing, hay was the principal cash crop grown by non-Native settlers, who first arrived in the late 19th century.) These days, wild roses and thimbleberry bushes wave in the breeze, while sturdy, solitary Sitka spruces anchor the trail.

      Reached at home by phone, Squamish Environment Society volunteer Meg Fellowes told the Straight she walks estuary trails on a regular basis, both to observe wildlife and to watch the seasons change. “I like just sitting and listening to the wind in the sedge marshes while I contemplate what this place will look like in another few centuries. Five hundred years ago, the estuary was in Brackendale [seven kilometres upstream on the Squamish River]. The river is an amazing conveyor belt of rocks and silt. The whole front of the estuary is marching downstream at the rate of about five metres a year.”

      Given that Squamish’s most renowned features—granite monoliths— haven’t budged in about 100 million years, such rapid and ongoing geological change nearby is astonishing. Stand out on the estuary to take measure of the two extremes. Aside from hydro transmission towers, no other human-made features intrude on a panorama that sweeps from the peaks in the neighbouring Diamond Head region of Garibaldi Provincial Park to the tumbling white water of Shannon Falls, with the largest monolith, Stawamus Chief Mountain, rising front and centre in all its stony glory.

      The Great Blue Heron Trail sputters along and finally peters out entirely with waving grassland on one side and the intertidal waters of the central channel on the other. Several places here suggest themselves as rough picnic spots or shelters from the relentless wind. To the west, vehicles line a training wall built in the 1970s to divert the Squamish River’s flow away from the waterfront. Commonly called the Spit, this launch zone is renowned globally among windsurfers and kiteboarders. Bring binoculars. Winged critters of both feathery and fabric species fly by. Of the two, kiteboarders are distinctly more colourful, both in shape and for their aerobatic antics.

      Train your sights on the Chief as well. Although at this distance it’s challenging to spot climbers on the mountain’s Grand Wall, stick figures are easily discerned directly below on a smooth rock face at the ocean’s edge. These are the Malamute Bluffs. Head there for a panoramic perspective on the estuary.

      Access is considerably easier since the construction of a pedestrian bridge that links the Stawamus Chief with the bluffs. When reached at his office by phone, author and seasoned climber Kevin McLane told the Straight he considered the Malamute Bluffs a hidden gem. “I first climbed there 40 years ago,” he recalled. “The rim looks down on about 60 routes. It’s breathtaking. The catalyst that’s begun to bring others beside climbers here was the Ministry of Highway’s decision to build that lovely blue bridge.” Although not well marked, the main trail to the top of the bluffs leads uphill from the bridge past drifts of blue lupine blooms into a shore pine forest.

      Once on top, nothing is hidden, everything is revealed, including the caress of the wind as it airs out your mind.

      Acess: Squamish lies 60 kilometres north of Vancouver on Highway 99. To explore the Squamish River estuary trails, including the Great Blue Heron Trail, turn left off Highway 99 at the town’s main entrance at Cleveland Avenue, then follow Cleveland through downtown to Vancouver Street. Turn right, drive three blocks, and then park beside the gated entrance to the Squamish estuary dike trail system. The entrance to the Nature Trust of B.C.’s Cattermole Creek property and the Great Blue Heron Trail appears on the left side just past an unfinished condo site. To reach the Malamute Bluffs, from Highway 99 follow the turnoff to the Stawamus Chief Provincial Park parking area, then cross the pedestrian bridge to reach the trailhead.