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Whistler's Little Sister
Created by Siobhan Chretien
Only 159 Km (100 miles) north of Vancouver lies a winter (and summer) wonderland right in the backyard of the world famous Whistler Blackcomb Resort. This wonderland is called Pemberton (loosely translated from Old English to mean “settlement”). Before 1960, the small town was only accessible by train and was only known to locals. Since then highway connectivity brought the permanent resident population from a mere 200 to 2,500. But don’t let this population fool you, streets and trails get much busier in winter and summer with the town’s many festivals and outdoor adventure activities bringing in visitors.
From the tranquil terrain in the valley to the Coast Mountains and the jaw-dropping Mount Currie guarding the town, Pemberton is a stunning destination and a winter paradise. Without the crowds of it’s sister town Whistler, it is a powdery exotic destination.
Like many Canadian communities, the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) established Pemberton. Located in the Coast Mountains, it was a mid-way point and station for the fur trade. In 1827 the first explorers landed in the valley taking knee-trembling journeys through Mount Currie to establish a route. Pemberton was in fact named for one such surveyor for the HBC, even though he never set foot in the area! Oddly, the village was never used by the HBC company, but the discovery of the valley and mountain range was very important for the gold rush during the 1850s. In 1858, over 30,000 miners moved into the area.
The Native American Lil’wat Nation, on whose traditional lands Pemberton lies, has a large influence on the activities within the region. The Nation helps to manage activities enjoyed by outdoorsmen, anglers, hunters and farmers. It will also manage the local museum (opening in May 2017), which will feature amazing Native American relics, historical artifacts from the fur trade, and the gold rush, as well as native arts, crafts and food of the area.
On our journey, we started with our skidoos (or snowmobiles) and took the back road hydro trails to the top of Mount Miller - from the valley floor this is a 5,000 ft. climb. Hairpin turns and a few avalanche areas later, we were on the top of the mountain sitting adrift on a frozen meadow with nothing but diamond glistening snow around us. Trees looked like iced cupcakes for as far as the eye could see. Snowshoes enabled us to traverse to the middle of the lake and take in the silence. It’s difficult to describe the feeling we had, standing on a frozen lake knowing that hundreds of black bears were hibernating in dens hidden in the mountains around us. We were sure to step extra lightly.
The right gear, safety equipment and training allowed us to explore the breathtaking areas most will never see. We found an abandoned hunters’ cabin. Its story was that it was built by a trapper, now passed, who built several across the mountains to make his job less uncomfortable. The cabins are now used by hikers and hunters. Remnants of coffee, cups, a stove and a sleeping cot were submerged in about 10 feet of snow, waiting for the warmth of spring to thaw and be re-discovered.
There were many local lakes and provincial parks in Pemberton we wanted to explore. Ice skating, hiking, mountain biking and snowshoeing trails were easy to find and were open for all skill levels. Of particular beauty was Nairn Falls. The short “ice hike” up to the pristine falls - 1.5 km (1 mile) - took us to one of the most spectacular glacier run-offs. Shimmering like crystals, giant icicles clung to the edge of the sides of the falls as brilliant green glacier waters poured down into the volcanic potholes below.
What struck me as most interesting about Pemberton was that for all of the majesty of the surrounding mountains, the area is best known for its farm land. The vitamin rich soil is perfect for growing potatoes and that is exactly what people do. Many producers are now adapting this abundant produce into new products such as a local vodka called “Schramm.” This popular potato based spirit makes for a wonderful Canadian cocktail classic called the “Caesar” - a mix of spices, clamato juice and vodka.
In the summer, the entire valley hosts an extremely popular “Slow Food Cycle." Participants ride street bikes from farm to farm eating everything from vegetables to beef and chicken and full course dinners with lots of refreshments. It can actually reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) every August, so fluids are key!
Another summer treat is the outdoor music festival, The Pemberton Music Festival, in July. With over 40,000 attendees last year, it’s not unlike a mini Woodstock. Big name acts such as Pearl Jam, the Killers and Snoop Dogg have performed in the past and it is truly a unique musical experience.
With the advantage of some small hotels and great inns and its close proximity to Whistler Blackcomb Mountain Resort (20 minutes), Pemberton is an ideal place for adventure so close to Vancouver.