Body-dragging is about as glamorous as it sounds.
However, body-dragging is an integral part of kiteboarding skills progression—a sport that easily rivals surfing as the steepest learning curve in all athletics. And right now, offshore of Squamish, BC, in a scenic glacial-carved fiord, I am definitely being body-dragged.
Mel Weisse, from Squamish Kiteboarding School, calls out instruction via walkie-talkie from a small Zodiac a few metres outside of my field of view. I’m sure she’s in hysterics during the radio silence. Her bonus for dealing with hapless noobs is watching us get yanked through frigid Howe Sound, gulping down brackish river-fed seawater as we try to control imposing kites fully inflated with the omnipresent winds for which Squamish is world-famous. By the end of the afternoon lesson, I’m body-dragged-out—but one small step closer to proficiency in a sport that brings so many to this outdoorsy burg.
On our return to shore, I glance up at the world’s second-largest granite monolith—the Stawamus Chief—to spot bug-like climbers speckling its 500-metre face. To the right of the Chief, the new Sea to Sky Gondola shuttles hikers to its 886-metre summit; departure point for a plenitude of back- and front-country trails. The dense coastal rainforest hides a vast network of mountain bike trails. The resort town of Whistler is 45 minutes north. And, as I’m finding out, the Spit is a windsports mecca. Welcome to Squamish, BC—the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada.
I live in Vancouver. The Sea to Sky Corridor is my stomping ground. So when reps at Chevrolet Canada offered to loan me a brand-new Chevrolet Colorado Z71 to explore the best of Squamish, I sourced activities that would take me outside of my comfort zone—hence the body-dragging. (I can hike the Chief anytime.) Where does a pickup truck factor into this adventure equation? Well, as much as I expound on self-propelled exploits, it’s a tall order to carry a kiteboard setup on the back of a bicycle; let alone a stand-up paddleboard. The truck’s patent-pending GearOn cargo system makes short work of such essentials. Plus, it has onboard 4G LTE Wi-Fi—which is just really cool.
So where did I take this spiffy pickup in Canada’s outdoor recreation capital?
Via Ferrata at the Sea to Sky Gondola
Health & Swellness
It means “Iron Way.” Via Ferrata is, essentially, mountaineering with training wheels. Halfway up a 60-metre-tall cliff, however, with the realization that only stout attention to the “UCC” (unclip, clip, check) protocol stands between you and peril, these training wheels show their merit.
Via Ferratas are popping up around the country—Whistler has one, there are a couple in BC’s Kootenays, a new-and-controversial route in Banff and Quebec boasts about a dozen and counting. Throughout Europe, these adult jungle gyms are even more popular, and they’re nowadays drawing tourists to Asia as well (Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu boasts the world’s highest).
Via Ferrata is a system of iron rungs, platforms, bridges and cables mounted to a rock face; participants scramble up the side of a mountain while remaining safely clipped-in throughout. The setup at the Sea to Sky Gondola officially opens on June 19; access is via guided tour. It’s relatively short and approachable—according to Arron Vickery, from Sea to Sky Guides, on the European rating system for difficulty it would rank, “at about a one.” (That’s out of 10, by the way.)
We wander downslope from the gondola’s Summit Lodge to the Flight Deck, well-hidden about 15 minutes through the misty evergreens. Above, the 60-metre Headwall is the crux of the climb, offering both acrophobic endeavour and impressive views. In theory, anyway—today, we’re encased in mist, which trades panoramic vistas for ethereal sensations. After settling into the rhythm of unclip-clip-check, which, via dual carabineers and a climbing harness, allows us to pass cable-anchors in safety, we begin the Headwall ascent.
About 30 metres up, with only mist below and another 30 metres of sheer rock above, I ponder aloud what a 10/10 would entail. “Tightropes!” Vickery calls back. He quickly reminds us not to get so engrossed in the "UCC" that we forget to enjoy the experience. Sound advice. I lean back, snap a selfie and enjoy the faux-danger before resuming my climb.
We ascend the Headwall, make a traverse along foot-wide metal platforms, tip-toe over a swaying suspension bridge, scramble a ridgeline or two and arrive at the lodge to an awaiting, impressed crowd. In truth, since I’m no more phobic than any human, it’s neither a physical nor mental challenge—kids as young as 12 are welcome—but it is an invigorating two-hour tour and hints at the possibility for further development. (I’d love to see a 5/10 next.) After all, the Sea to Sky Gondola has revolutionized the tourism industry in Squamish—and with the new Via Ferrata, they aim to stay at the forefront of this newfound visitor influx.
Cost: $109 (gondola ticket extra)
Season: Summer (opens June 19)
Need to Know: Athletic footwear is required; a smartphone is better for mid-climb photos than a chunky, easily dropped DSLR.
Kiteboarding School at the Squamish Spit
That a couple-dozen kiteboarders constitutes an unbearable crowd at one of the world’s premier windsports locales hints at the accessible nature of the Squamish Spit. But on this blustery weekday, it’s just me and Squamish Kiteboarding School instructor, Mel Weisse. Good. I don’t need witnesses.
Kiteboarding is a sport I’ve been theoretically interested in for about a decade. The learning curve, and the prospect of taking on yet another hobby, has thus far kept me away. And, of course, the prospect that I would excessively suck. However, Weisse, a German traveller who spends her summers teaching windsports and her winters at her whim, is immediately encouraging. With a truncated timeline, she orders me into my wetsuit/drysuit combo and provides characteristically efficient instruction on kite setup and handling before we board our Zodiac and scoot into Howe Sound. (It’s important for beginners to start offshore, away from hazards or other kiters.)
“Where is everyone today?” I ask. She explains that since the wind is so consistent at the Spit, locals surely took one look at today’s impending downpour and happily postponed their kiteboarding adventures.
“The wind blows every day here,” she says. It’s what brought her to Squamish—a destination renowned in her home-turf Baltic Sea kiteboarding scene for its reliability and relative lack of crowds. (Though if you talk to longtime locals, they'll act like it’s Piccadilly Circus these days.)
I hop into the water, sans board. First, we learn kitework and body-dragging. The actual “board” in kiteboarding is the final addition.
Ironically in this adrenaline sport, timidness is your friend—a reason macho dudes may struggle. Weisse explains that if the kite becomes too much to handle, simply push the control bar away—or even just let it go. I’ll still be attached at two points and the kite will likely hover harmlessly above as I muster my second attempt. Tough guys think they can out-muscle a kite, and they tend to hold tight to wrangle the system under control—effectively engaging the kite into full-power. One quickly loses this fight—this 10-square-metre sail will first yank you aggressively out of the water, then crash down with a demoralizing slap. Kiteboarding is all about smooth motion, feel and micro-adjustments.
After I settle into a rhythmic figure-eight kite-pilot, I’m soon body-dragging across Howe Sound, trying as much to control the kite as the idiot-grin that has me choking on seawater. It’s as addictive a sport as any I’ve encountered. But it’s also dependent on the wind, which, as the dinner-hour approaches, eases off. We’re done for the day—though I’m sure I’ll be back for lesson two. After all, the wind always blows here in Squamish, and I'd like to blow with it.
Contact: Squamish Kiteboarding School
Cost: $300 for a three-hour private lesson
Season: May to October
Need to Know: The Squamish Windsports Society charges a $20 fee to use the Spit; cash or credit card accepted on site.
Stand-Up Paddleboarding on Brohm Lake
I feel guilty writing about Brohm Lake. This hidden-in-plain-sight emerald waterbody is a little slice of Eden. It’s also where Squamish locals go to escape the summertime tourists who crowd nearby Alice Lake. And I’m about to tell the world.
Brohm, like all Sea to Sky Corridor lakes, is glacier-fed. But Brohm enjoys the longest run between it and the ice—meaning freshwater has more of a chance to warm as it flows atop the limestone and refreshes the lake. In the final days of May, we pulled our Chevy into the parking lot, some 15 km north of Squamish on Highway 99, to find the the crowds absent and the water already temperate.
Ian Middleton, our host from the Sea to Sky Adventure Company, unloads a trio of stand-up paddleboards from the rear rack. They’re Beaver Boards—products from a local SUP company owned by guide-operator Jeff Levine (not coincidentally also the owner of the Sea to Sky Adventure Company). We pack the boards down a short trail to Brohm’s smoothrock shores. To the south, the snowy peaks of Sky Pilot and Mount Garibaldi protrude into sight. Shimmering water curves to the north, rimmed with sun-warmed stone and gnarled evergreens.
We paddle out, following the dogleg that leads us away from the barely perceptible road noise and into greater Brohm. At 13 hectares, it’s a small and pleasant lake. The occasional waterside cliff hints at jumping possibilities, or, since this is Canada’s climbing hotspot, a chance to ramble harness- or pad-free. We beeline it for a rope swing, which dangles from a Douglas fir near the north end. And like kids in summer camp, our trio, whose combined ages top the century mark, spends the remains of the day flipping into cool waters and soaking in the sunbeams.
“It doesn’t seem like I’m working today,” remarks Middleton, when we finally load the SUPs back atop our tomato-red Chevy. Yeah—I know the feeling.
Contact: Sea to Sky Adventure Company
Cost: $36 for a two-hour SUP rental
Season: May to October
Need to Know: Hiking trails loop Brohm Lake, offering access to various points without the need for a SUP.