Sea-to-Sky heaven or hell, depending on experience

by James Menzies

SQUAMISH, B.C. – There has been lots of talk lately about revamping the well-known Sea-to-Sky Hwy. running from Horseshoe Bay to Whistler as a part of Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympic bid.

While many truckers will welcome safety improvements to the winding mountain route, others will undoubtedly hope the scenic and historical truck route is left relatively unchanged. Not only will widening the Sea-to-Sky Hwy. result in huge delays for truckers, but it will alter a part of the region’s landscape – a region that has provided some of the best scenery along the West Coast for trucking’s most talented and daring drivers.

The drive from Horseshoe Bay to Squamish, and beyond to Whistler, is not for the faint of heart. Blind corners give way to steep drop-offs that reach down towards the blue straits below. Many of these are lined with low guardrails that would do little to prevent an errant truck from plunging over the edge.

In recent years, sightseeing four-wheelers in convertibles have provided even more obstacles for log haulers and other truckers who ply the mountain road each day. Whistler has become a vacation hotspot – especially for young people – part of the reason for the proposed upgrades.

But in the meantime – in off-peak hours especially – the route still offers some of the most incredible scenery in the West – the types of views that many young aspiring truckers dreamt about when first learning how to drive truck.

Heading north on the Sea-to-Sky (Hwy. 99) out of Vancouver offers drivers a nice view of some of the priciest real estate in the country, as beach houses scattered along the West Vancouver rock face overlook the city and its bustling harbor.

Not far beyond is Horseshoe Bay, an area many truckers try to avoid, due to its long lineups of traffic backed up on the Upper Levels Hwy. The reason for the traffic backups is generally B.C. Ferries’ Horseshoe Bay terminal, where trucks are forced to wait before boarding the boat to Nanaimo. Recent renovations to the tune of $30 million, however, are designed to alleviate some of that congestion from the shoulders of the highway.

The Sea-to-Sky, as its name implies, reaches skywards for several memorable kilometres before the small village of Lion’s Bay. It’s not the easiest place to park a rig, but the caf offers a nice place to stop for a bite to eat and a stunning view of Howe Sound.

Continuing northbound on the highway, it’s difficult not to gaze out the driver’s side window at the water below. Cruise ships and commercial barges can be seen floating peacefully among the towering mountains. But one doesn’t want to spend too much time looking to the left, as dozens of road signs serve as reminders of the constant threat of falling rocks.

Along the route, traffic barriers are at the ready so the road can be quickly closed down in the event of bad weather. Surely many truckers have been caught on the mountain in the midst of a sudden snowfall and wondered how they would get their load to safety. It’s a frightening thought, and another reason this route doesn’t serve as a good training ground for new drivers. Piloting a loaded truck along the Sea-to-Sky is the ultimate test of a driver’s skill and fortitude.

One of the most intriguing sideshows along this historic route is the Britannia Copper Mine, home to the B.C. Museum of Mining. A 235-tonne Wabco mining truck greets visitors to the mine, offering a glimpse into the rich history of mountain trucking in its earliest forms.

Another great place to pull the truck over for a cup of coffee or a hot meal is Squamish – the home to the locally famous Logger’s Days and a Railway Museum. Just before entering the town, drivers can test their eyes by trying to identify ‘The Big Chief.’ Local legend has it that the mountain earned its name because if you look closely enough, you can see the outline of an Indian face on the side of the cliff.

Whether or not you can identify the face, you may see mountain climbers clinging to its side for a closer look.

While many of the trucks travelling the Sea-to-Sky shoot off the highway onto various logging roads along the way, delivery trucks often make the trek all the way to Whistler. The unique mountain town doesn’t allow vehicles of any kind along its downtown city streets, saving them for pedestrian-use only. However, the trucking industry and its drivers serve as the isolated community’s lifeline, providing essential deliveries of food and supplies. Many deliveries are done at night to avoid the traffic tie-ups caused by the ferries and tourists.

The prospect of making the trek up or down the Sea-to-Sky Hwy. may cause some drivers’ hearts to skip a beat or two, but there’s no arguing it’s one of Canada’s most beautiful routes. It remains to be seen what attempts will be made to tame this wild and rugged highway, but for the pure mountain trucker this route will always remain a true mountain playground and the ultimate test of their abilities.

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