Finding Shangri-La in British Columbia
Finding Shangri-La in British Columbia
BBB winner's Marko and Alex discover BC's wild side...
My brother and I are silent as our boat slowly drifts past the tall wooden towers tucked in the treeline. They rise above the forest floor, just above the reach of the local black bears, protecting the long pink strips of salmon inside swaying gently in the wind blowing off the mountains. We were a mere two hours east of Vancouver, but suddenly the city's glass skyscrapers seemed like a distant dream.
“The Stó:lo tribe,” says our fishing guide as he glides our boat past one of their fishing nets and a few wooden huts. “Their name means the ‘People of the River’, and they have been fishing salmon here for thousands of years, just like they still do today.”
British Columbia was our first destination on our six month journey to six continents, but it didn't feel like the urban North America I'd grown up with. Everywhere I looked – from the pristine forested mountains stretching across the horizon and the bald eagles that soared above us to the traditional lifestyles I saw ashore – I noticed elements of North America that were all but foreign to my eyes.
Now, I must put out a disclaimer – between me and my brother Alex, I'm the romantic one. When I travel I tend to idealize aspects of my host cultures, using my active imagination to paint a picture that doesn't exist in reality. Ever the restless wanderer, it seems the grass is always greener in some Shangri-La, that perfect place that exists just over the horizon.
So, as we floated down the river, I became skeptical of my own enthusiasm for British Columbia, wondering how much better it could really be from back home. But the more I got to know the region, the more I realized I was not romanticizing it. British Columbia is different.
Canada's province on the Pacific Rim is its most biologically diverse, holding half its wildlife. The area from Vancouver in the south all the way up to Alaska, B.C. is larger than France and Germany combined and one of the largest stretches of temperate rainforest in the world. As well as that, 90% of British Columbia is Crown Land, technically belonging to the Queen and thus largely left untouched.
Boats, Blackcomb and Behemoths
We spent the week diving into the wild on both land and sea. We started out by heading over to the fishing port of Steveston, formerly a major port and cannery and today a jumping off point for whale watching tours through the nearby islands. We watched families of Orca whales sharing meals of wild salmon in the open ocean, just a handful of the remaining Orca that were not put into captivity.
Next we headed two hours up the Fraser River to fish for white sturgeon, the largest freshwater fish in North America – as well as the oldest, being virtually unchanged in 175 million years. We each hooked fish that were almost as long as we are tall, both of them older than our parents.
As we waited for the behemoths to bite, we watched First Nations tribesmen casting their nets into the river, filleting salmon and drying their meat for the winter, much as their ancestors did long before the arrival of Europeans. Over one third of Canada's 630 First Nations tribes live in B.C., where their iconic totem pole carvings serve as symbolic monuments to the animal spirits they hold sacred.
Local's reverence of nature is palpable even within the modern cities. Practically every street in Vancouver has a view of either the mountains, the sea, or both.The westernmost part of the city shouts this mantra perhaps loudest, constituting as it does, Stanley Park, a massive urban forest crisscrossed with trails, peppered with totem poles and abutted with beaches. Vancouverites are athletic, with new bike lanes connecting the city and plenty of nearby parks for weekend warriors.
We were told we couldn't leave Vancouver without running the Grouse Grind, an aerobic rite of passage just across the water from downtown. It's a three kilometer path climbing 2,800 stairs straight up the side of a mountain. We met up with local mountain man Paul Soukoreff, who challenged us to a race to the top: Alex finished in 45 minutes, I finished in 53, but neither could touch his record of 37 minutes!
Just a little farther are even bigger mountains to climb. 'The Sea to Sky Highway' puts Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains within reach any time of year. We explored the backcountry of Blackcomb's old growth forest on ATVs, then soared across deep gorges on a zipline tour – my first time, which started with me screaming like a five year old child and ended with a new favorite hobby!
* * *
It was hard to pull us back into civilization, but towards the end of the week we headed back to Vancouver to process the experience into videos and blogs for BBBTV. We met up with friends of friends for a BBQ, beers at the Steamworks Brewery Restaurant in Gastown, and a live concert by local musicians.
As the week drew to a close, we packed our bags up and prepared to leave North America and venture farther afield. But this time, I was able to quell my wanderlust just a bit, knowing that no matter how far this journey takes us, there really was a Shangri-La not far from home.
Want to explore BC's Lower Mainland like Marko and Alex?
The brother's caught their sturgeon thanks to Great River Fishing Adventures
They zipped through the trees with Ziptrek Ecotours
They spotted whales with Steveston Seabreeze Aventures
They took their power naps at the Delta Vancouver Suites
They explored Blackcomb Mountain with Canadian Wilderness Adventures
See also Boats, Blackcomb and Behemoths in BC blog post (with video)
Follow My Destination's Biggest Baddest Bucket List winners on BBB.
Marko Ayling - BBB Winner
Practically every street in Vancouver has a view of either the mountains, the sea, or both...
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