Commitment. When planning an extended backcountry adventure, that word springs to mind. Once on the trail, the full challenge of a self-supported trek hits home. This is not the time for second thoughts. Even with the best communication tools, help is far off, so tread carefully.
Such is the nature of venturing off the beaten path, where the intangible rewards for being in the wilderness — serenity, scenery, companionship — are balanced by the mantra of self-reliance: be present in the moment.
An abundance of pristine parkland lies within a day's drive of Whistler. One such paradise is South Chilcotin Mountains Provincial Park, about 150 kilometres north of town. The government designated the protected area in 2001 after a six-decades-long lobbying campaign by groups such as the Vancouver Natural History Society, but non-First Nations people first began backpacking in its pastel-hued ranges in the 1880s.
Evidence of historical use is displayed in trails rutted by generations of horses' hooves. Since Pique first reported on the area in the 1990s, a major shift in user groups has occurred. These days, such pathways are more likely to bear the imprints of mountain-bike tires than of boot prints. At the conclusion of an eight-day, 75-kilometre backpack trek undertaken by Pique last August, a tally of those encountered along the way revealed that 31 journeyed by mountain bike — 13 overnighters, principally from Squamish, and 18 day trippers — while 17 chose to hike, including two day-trippers. Despite daily signs of fresh horse droppings, only on the final leg did four riders appear. This profile represented an almost complete about-face since a tally carried out a decade ago by Pique. Off with the backpacks and on with the body armour.
What accounts for this transformation? For an assessment of the current hiking market, Pique spoke by phone with Doug Acorn, events coordinator at Mountain Equipment Co-op's Vancouver store. "The appeal of front-country exploration is the driving force among consumers these days," he reported. "It's my supposition the trend stems from the array of technological distractions now diverting attention from the wilderness. Judging from sales of our various packs, the core backcountry group isn't growing at the same rate as casual users who buy lighter packs for outings such as the Grouse Grind."
One person with a front-row seat for the recreational transformation in the South Chilcotin is mountain-bike guide Geoff Playfair. Based in Whistler, the towering 53-year-old spends his winters as a ski patroller at Whistler Blackcomb and works summers with Tyax Adventures.
When encountered at Tyax's rustic Bear Paw cabin — a chinked-log shelter built in the 1950s by a trio of Swedish workers employed at a mine in nearby Gold Bridge — Playfair sported a 25-kilogram pack of supplies he'd brought in by bike from the company basecamp on Gun Lake in advance of a group of cyclists who would overnight in freshly erected canvas platform tents.
"This is my eighth season," the former fireman said. "Most clients come from the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, with a smattering from Eastern Canada, Europe, and the U.S. They are all in pretty good shape for these multiday, high-endurance outings."