I am midair, floating delicately across a pine-filled valley by the tedious balance of a few cables tethered to the peaks of Whistler and Blackcomb. This is the peak-to-peak gondola, the world’s longest suspended transport between mountaintops –one of the staples of the Canadian resort– where travelers from all over the world can bask inside the panorama of these mountains.
Before I arrived in Whistler, British Columbia, I expected these summit views to be spectacular. I imagined posing next to the landmark inukshuk perched outside Whistler’s lodge, gazing beyond its extraordinary granite legs to the scenery of the valley pouring out below. And the views are magnificent, especially from the glass orbs that float gently in the quiet air between the mountains. The view is everything and you are inside it. Great masses of clouds overtake the valley in shifts but in clear moments the view stretches impossibly far, jagged where the mountains meet the smooth sky, and wrinkly down to the valley’s bottom with a thick haze of pine miniaturized by distance.
But beyond the glass walls of the gondola, what I found to be more breathtaking than the mountaintop panoramas during my three-day stay at Whistler, are the old growth forests that are tucked into the mountains outside the hub of the resort. Past the village of shops, restaurants, and rental stores, beyond the reach of the ski lifts and runs, the primordial world waits to be discovered.
The trail to Cheakamus Lake seems ordinary at first as it carries hikers away from the trailhead parking lot, over a gravel trail, and into short pine trees. The sun reaches our shoulders and warms the top of our heads; the occasional creek tumbles over rock beds towards the hushed sound of the river gushing in the bottom of the valley. And then, over some invisible line within the forest, the trees change from ordinary sized conifers to ancient giants whose height and stretching canopies block most of the sunshine, only letting a few shafts and swaying patterns of light filter down to the mossy trail. When we look up from our feet and notice the new world we have entered, we stop immediately to photograph each other and the trees that we have found.The power of the looming giants, slow, subtle and swaying –all of them so much older and more permanent than I feel my own life could ever be– is overwhelming. The massive trunks meet the forest floor with giant knuckles of roots gripping rocks, that then disappear into the dark earth carpeted by oversized vegetation to match the behemoth scale of the tree trunks in this old world. There is so much to look at, so much to discover. I veer off the trail to check out some plants that look like romaine lettuce, but from tip to stem these leaves are larger than the upper half of my body. Inside this old forest I feel like I have been taken back to the age of the dinosaurs, where in my mind the flora and fauna all had some sort of mysterious magic of their own. I feel like I can peer around the trail’s next curve to watch a long-necked Apatosaurus dip its head gently to eat the enormous salad greens. I can only imagine what it must be like to walk among the redwoods or sequoias in California and be even more at awe while standing at the feet of the giants, let alone what it must be like to climb into their canopies (add these places to my travel list!).
We meander among the trees for most of the afternoon before retracing our steps back out to the sunlight and 21st century. And although we returned to air conditioning and wifi, I can’t help my mind from wandering back to the forest, where my memories are steeped with both the bite of live pine and decaying fallen logs – another collision of past and present.
The drive to Whistler is, in itself, a journey between worlds. Heading north through Vancouver’s glimmering towers –a city built primarily of windows, it seems– the scenery flashing outside the glass of our windshield turned suddenly from urban to forest on the Stanley Park Causeway with trees that seemed to reach the height of the buildings we’d just escaped. This pocket of forest within the cityscape is somewhat of a glimpse into what the entirety of Vancouver Island and the hills rising around the harbor used to look like before development, dense and wild temperate rain forest, but the window to the past is small and soon we were rising again through city and past neighborhoods sprawling north. Up through the city and beyond, the highway rebuilt for the winter Olympics in 2010 is wide, smooth, and intimate as it hugs the curves of the edge of the land where it meets water.
This road, better known as the Sea to Sky Highway, carries travelers from the seaside and coastal rainforest past the glittering blue waters of the Howe Sound inland to the mountains, lakes, and sprawling forests that Canada is famous for. And it is here, among these immense mountains, that each explorer can find their own breathtaking moment. Some find it with the water’s murmur on a lakeshore or on a suspension bridge overlooking the swirling whitewater of a river. Others are jolted with the adrenaline shock of a trail drop on skis or a mountain bike. For some, the glory of this place is seen best from one of the windowed gondolas that float slowly in the wild air between the peaks. And others, like me, are captivated by the old worlds preserved and still breathing inside the depths of the forests that stretch forever beyond the resort.