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Escape from Vancouver: the call of the wild

Twenty-five per cent of global warming is caused, not by greenhouse gas emissions, but by the destruction of wilderness.

This sad statistic was brought home to me at a recent meeting with Faisal Moola of the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver.

So, it seems, no matter how we may try to remedy things by recycling and cycling and minimizing our footprint, as long as forests are being destroyed, as long as pristine areas are being ruined, we’re in trouble.

As a Western Canadian, the value of wilderness is something I’ve always taken for granted. As someone who grew up on Burnaby Mountain, on the Arthur Erickson designed-SFU campus, playing in forests and walking on beaches, the natural environment was part of my childhood, my culture, my very being.

Living in cities around the world and working in urban war zones has not seemed to change my elemental need for wilderness. And wherever I travel I try to seek out wild areas. From nature reserves in Italy to taking tea with Bedouin in the Iraqi desert, I often learn more about the culture of a place by exploring wilderness than by exploring cities.

Even in Vancouver, which prides itself on being a relatively ‘green’ city and one that is surrounded by natural beauty, the lure of the wild can be strong. Especially in rainy November, when the smell of snow on the mountains can be a powerful call to a higher elevation.

But a recent attempt to get up the mountain proved instructive. Being a car-less urbanite, I planned a Sunday cross-country skiing outing to Hollyburn Mountain, well in advance. Hollyburn is about a 30-minute drive from downtown Vancouver. Back in the 1920s, before there were so many cars, roads and bridges in our Pacific town, my grandmother and her brothers used to take a ferry to the North Shore, hike up the mountain and then ski down it. Now there is a paved road to the mountain and the downhill area will be an Olympic venue. But it is still a relatively pristine area with ancient and second growth forests and abundant wildlife.

Last summer, when I went up the mountain to pick wild blueberries, my friends and I met a black bear on the way down. We were in a car, and he was on the side of the road, contentedly eating berries, and not really paying any attention to the humans 30 feet away from him. One friend from Buenos Aires was absolutely enthralled. As a fifth generation Vancouverite, this was in fact my first close encounter with a black bear. I knew they were there, grew up with stories about bears in suburban gardens, but somehow never really thought this was anything special. We humans sat on the roadside and stared at the bear for five silent minutes, and then drove off. It was a powerful encounter that stayed with me for some time. I later learned that British Columbia is globally unique in that it still provides habitat for all the large animals (like grizzlies, wolves, cougars and wolverines) that were present at the time of European colonization (and yet we’re one of the only places in Canada that lacks a stand-alone endangered species protection law). 

So, with memories of the bear and the vaguely narcotic alpine air, I lined up a friend with a car, put on my best woolly socks and got ready for the mountain experience I’d been pining for. Sadly, the friend cancelled at the last minute with the flu. I was able to get another friend on board on short notice, and off we went in her Mini, heading downtown, and then towards the Lions Gate Bridge which would take us to the North Shore. (It’s here that the Coast Mountains – the tallest and among the most glaciated range in North America – begin there sweep upwards to Alaska.)
Foiled again! Just as we arrived at the turn off to the bridge, we saw that it was closed. As it turned out, someone was trying to jump off it. 

Now I should explain that November in Vancouver is possibly the most challenging time in terms of mental health. It rains almost constantly in the unseated Coast Salish territory and it starts to get dark around 4pm. The very fact of our settler culture status is rimmed in sharp relief as the city becomes a dark, wet, angry place full of gridlock and impatient drivers, all trying to get out of the city – to someplace quieter, calmer and with better air. In the summers the antidote to urban stress is the beach walk. In the winter it’s the mountains.

Trapped in some dark comedy, (this was the kind of thing – a bridge-jumper foiling an idyllic trip to the mountains – that would happen to Larry David, if Curb Your Enthusiasm were set in Canada) we tried in vain to take an alternate route. But in our quest for a higher realm we ended up (along with hundreds of frustrated drivers) in a kind of endless Buddhist vehicular wheel of suffering and so decided to call it a day.

Despite enjoying the very urban pleasures of a jazz bar that evening, I was profoundly aware that I had missed something vital, life-affirming and hugely important to my sense of well-being. I tried to quell the urge for wilderness the next day, by delving into deadlines and paperwork, but when I awoke the following morning to gleaming sun-kissed, snow-capped peaks, calling to me from across the water, I could no longer resist.

I jumped into my dorky cross-country outfit (layers, woolly socks and hiking boots) and headed for the nearest public bus. Compared to the slick fashionista world of downhill skiing and places like Whistler (a resort that often feels like it’s had an upscale shopping mall and wild west bar scene plastered on to a mountain top), cross-country on Hollyburn – the domain of elderly Norwegians and fresh-faced school kids on rossignols – has an undeniable air of innocence. With its original log cabins and 1920s’ wooden ‘lodge’ (complete with wood-burning stove and a small gallery of paw prints of local animal residents – deer, beaver, coyote, lynx and bear) still in place, Hollyburn is all about communing with nature. Saved from logging and extensive development by its designation as a provincial park back in the 1970s, the area is still passionately defended by locals

As I caught two separate buses and raced towards the once-a-day ski-bus in West Vancouver that take you up the mountain for 10 bucks, I felt a mild sense of panic. It was a kinder, gentler, West Coast version of Escape from New York

I knew I just had to get up on that mountain or I would somehow spiritually expire.

Thankfully, I made it, with seconds to spare, and joined a ragtag group of sleepy young skiers. Most were off to the snowboarding area, and I was the only one dropped off at the cross-country trails. I was blissfully alone. I rented some equipment, and skied into the lodge area. I stopped in for some hot chocolate and sat for a while by the log fire, chatting with the young woman who ran the modest canteen and meeting the resident chipmunk – ‘Chippy’ – who regularly stole packages of peanuts and chocolate bars. With the city of half a million people far below, and no mobile phone reception, I had entered another realm. Far from any traffic snarls, or news from Afghanistan, I was floating in a suspended Canadian ideal.

I skied hard on the trails, encountering only a few other humans, but thousands of tall, snow-covered fir trees, and dozens of frozen alpine lakes. I returned happily exhausted to the lodge for some vegetarian chili and the warmth of the log fire. I chatted with a retired environmental studies professor and a teamster who was escaping his job at the Port of Vancouver, its heavy industry and crates of heroin from China way down at sea level. Here we were all high on the tonic like air, on the breath of fir trees and the peace of the mountain. All my urban worries were now reduced to a few simple human needs – fresh air, warmth, food, and companionship. I felt like I was imbibing the wilderness at a cellular level and a huge shift was taking place in my sense of perspective and priorities.

I returned to the city with a renewed sense of inner grace, as big and powerful as the mountain that had given me space to breathe. This is the gift of Canada, I thought, as the bus drifted into rush hour city gridlock, and I sat next to a young Mexican immigrant from Vera Cruz, still mildly in awe of the great Canadian outdoors. As a Canadian I can carry this sense of inner space, of distilled mountain, inside me wherever I go. Of course, this is also the gift of other places with vast swathes of forest, lake, desert, rainforest, of wilderness.

But when people ask me what it means to be Canadian, I like to cling to this feeling of breathing space that allows for peaceful co-existence. (It’s a feeling that’s expressed in the music of Bruce Cockburn and the architecture of Arthur Erickson). Especially at a time when our national image is shifting from peacekeeper to warrior and a distinct sense of claustrophobia is descending on our national psyche. In our Conservative Government’s new citizenship ‘guide’, ‘Canadian values’ like the military are espoused. There is nothing about wilderness, or the sense of freedom and openness it contains.

Meanwhile 10,000 square kilometres of wilderness forests are clear-cut every year in Canada, and 500 square kilometres of forests are lost forever. We forfeit these gifts at our peril.

People need wild places. Whether or not they think they do, they do. They need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and ice ages. To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of whom love their lives as much as you do, and none of whom could possibly care less about your economic status or your running-day calendar. Wilderness puts us in our place. It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd. It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence future generations, we ought to choose carefully.

(Preface to Off the Beaten Path: Stories of Place, North Point Press, 1998)

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