Friday, August 7, 2009

Fukeneh, Tom and Tracy go to Canada

What do Australia and Canada have in common? Both countries have a large land mass with a relatively low population. Could this be the main reason why the inhabitants of Australia and Canada are so incredibly friendly and outgoing, especially with strangers? It seems that these countries are also amongst the very few in the world where people seem to like, or at least tolerate, Americans.

Back in June 2003, I started a cycling trip in Whistler, BC that ultimately took me across BC to Jasper and Banff, and then back to Washington via Kootenay Provincial Park and northwest Idaho. I’ve been to Whistler several times, but had never spent enough time there to really scope it out. Tracy and I spent seven nights at the Whistler Westin in July, hiking, cycling, and hanging out.

Whistler is an incredibly cosmopolitan place. We have never been around so many friendly Australians, except in Australia itself. Combine Australians and Canadians with a strong representation from Europe and what you get is a recipe for a great party. The town reminded us of Chamonix, France except for the fact that about 50% of the Whistler population was speaking some form of English.

Summertime Whistler has a very young median age. It was great to be in a community where the norm was closer to a thin athletic body than a morbidly obese one. Oddly enough, once we were in BC, we didn’t see one Washington license plate. It was still easy to spot the occasional American in the crowd, but they were not likely from Seattle. Tracy and I are pretty fit and thin, and we felt like we meshed better with the young Whistler crowd vs. the typical American crowd, at least size-wise.

Economists talk about supply side and demand side. The demand side for calorie consumption is pretty high in a town with all of the sports and recreation opportunities that Whistler provides. In Canada, as with most of the rest of the world, the supply side is addressed as well. Restaurant potion size is under control, and there doesn’t seem to be quantity size based competition for the consumer food dollar. Smaller portions=smaller people. Here we were, pretty close to our home in Seattle, and for us it was very easy to imagine that we were in Europe or perhaps New Zealand, given the similar terrain.

Whoa, let me get on topic before I digress even further; after all this is supposed to be a blog about bicycling.

Mountain bikes (especially “downhill” bikes) are literally everywhere in Whistler, and this might be a turnoff for some people. Supposedly there is a $2000 fine for riding a bike through the main village, but if so, there must be a lot of wealthy riders in Whistler, as they ignored the law. Other than resort skiing, I have never understood the fascination of going downhill, certainly not without the fun of earning the descent with a great climb. The up has always been more important than the down for me.

Just 19 miles north of Whistler is the small and laid back town of Pemberton. Pemberton would be an excellent base camp for road cycling and fantastic hiking, if the glitz (and higher cost) of Whistler is not that interesting to you. The most notable ride is up Cayoosh Pass, a solid HC climb, and harder than anything in Washington State. You could make the argument that Hurricane Ridge is harder since it is longer, but Cayoosh is much steeper. It feels like a big climb in Europe.

As a matter of fact, Cayoosh Pass from the south is quite comparable to Alpe d’Huez. Consider the stats:

Alpe d’Huez: 8.6 miles in length at 7.9% average grade for a vertical rise of 3700’—first two miles at 9.7%

Cayoosh Pass: 8.4 miles in length at 7.9% average grade for a vertical rise of 3500’—first two miles at 10.25%

I have climbed both, and the biggest difference is that an average of 1000 cyclists ascend Alpe d’Huez on a summer day. On Cayoosh, hardly a car went by, and I was the only bicycle.
With Pemberton lying at 650’ elevation, and the surrounding peaks reaching up to 9500’, there is a sense of a spectacular vertical relief difference. The mountains surrounding Pemberton (and Whistler) are huge, heavily glaciated, and stunningly beautiful. There are some flat valley rides, as well as an easy climb over Pemberton Pass to the tiny town of D’Arcy. Tracy drove up and met me at the top of Cayoosh, and we hiked up to the Upper Joffre Lake, which lies in a spectacular cirque ringed by massive glaciers.

Road cycling in Whistler itself is mostly about the excellent system of bike and pedestrian paths. We walked and rode these paths to get to the various lakes scattered around the Whistler valley. As long as you aren’t in a hurry, it’s not a problem to deal with the bikes, kids, and unleashed dogs, but serious cycling it is not.

Just as in Seattle, Whistler was experiencing a record heat wave. On the bike it wasn’t a problem, as I started early, and I like the heat anyway. Around town, the heat was made more tolerable with a few ice cream cones, and I must admit that we chose a restaurant one night simply based on the fact that it was air conditioned. There were a few nights when the heat was cut by intermittent showers...the precursor to the area's terrible slew of wildfires. What it all comes down to is that Whistler (or Pemberton) is a great place for a summer outdoors based holiday. Other than the horrendous traffic through Vancouver and the return border crossing, it’s pretty close to perfect.

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