James Ihaka

James Ihaka is a Herald reporter based in Hamilton.

Canada: Pure winter wonders

Whistler Mountain and the surrounding areas are a must-do experience after they were transformed for the 2010 Winter Olympics, writes an impressed James Ihaka.

The bobsleigh run at the Whistler Sliding Centre in Canada. Photo / David McColm
The bobsleigh run at the Whistler Sliding Centre in Canada. Photo / David McColm

We're at Whistler's Sliding Centre - renowned as the fastest bob sleigh track in the world - when two rumours ripple among our group.

The first is that just prior to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics the engineer who designed the track hadn't tested it so he grabbed three randoms who jumped in a sleigh with him.

On their first run the group apparently broke the then world record and it's been said that staff at the centre regularly repeat the feat when they've got a bit of down time.

The second is that the guy who's going to drive us screaming 1.45km down the track that is shortened for visitors is "Pat B" - who our very knowledgeable guide Tom assures us is the former coach of the Jamaican bobsleigh team who crashed out of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics and straight into their own movie.

There's a bit of disbelief among our group so what the hell, I ask him: "Hey Pat, did John Candy do a good job of you in Cool Runnings? He seemed a bit, er, rounder, to be fair."

"No comment," he replies with a look that suggests he's been asked this more than once.

"So that wasn't you?"

"No comment," comes the reply again, this time he's grinning though.

These days the low-key and amicable Pat takes game travellers and locals down the track giving people a trouser-filling, first-hand insight into a remarkable sport.

After a 10-minute safety briefing from which I can only recall "stay upright and don't let go of the wires to your side" it's suddenly our turn and I'm feeling the same sense of anticipation and dread you get when nearing the apex during the initial slow ascent on a rollercoaster.

Within seconds we are hurtling down the track - absolutely fanging it across the glazed ice - and while the advice is still ringing in my ears I have little control over my body and can't help head-butting the guy sitting in front of me as our speeds top 125km/h.

My vision blurs, yet this is still well short of the average 150km/h-plus speeds the Olympians can reach on the track.

I try to register a bit of fear when it feels like we are riding on the roof of the track, but things are happening so fast that it's hard not to start yahooing instead.

We reach the 16th and final bend - known as the Thunderbird - where the pressure on our bodies approaches five Gs - that's five times the force of gravity - and it feels like my stomach has been pushed into my throat.

If you're suffering from constipation a visit to the centre should alleviate any problems - particularly if you choose to take the skeleton (you're on a sled the size of a dinner tray and go head first down the track, solo).

Brave souls can try the skeleton run. Photo / Coast Mountain Photography
Brave souls can try the skeleton run. Photo / Coast Mountain Photography

The speeds on the skeleton are faster, your face is three inches from the ice - and you have no brakes.

"No-one wanted to do it today," said one of the staff, helpfully.

For a more familiar winter sport, there's the option of Whistler's ski with an Olympian programme in which some of the world's top skiers show you some of their favourite runs while improving your technique.

My guide was the patient Britt Janyk, a whistler local from a very young age who placed sixth at the downhill in the 2010 games. Watching her ski was like sitting in the front row of a ballet performance of Swan Lake on snow.

Nearby is Whistler Olympic Park close to Brandywine, landing place of the Thunderbird and of great spiritual importance to the Squamish people.

The park is the first Olympic Nordic venue to include all three traditional Nordic sports stadiums in one site: cross country, ski jumping (constipation rule applies here too) and biathlon.

We give the cross country skiing a go and we all fail miserably as it feels like you're trying to walk with a surfboard on each foot - just as a bunch of schoolkids - average age six - nonchalantly toodles past us on their skis.

Cross-country skiing is a lot harder than it looks. Photo / Noel Hendrickson
Cross-country skiing is a lot harder than it looks. Photo / Noel Hendrickson

So we go to the shooting range where armed with a .22-calibre biathlon rifle most of us manage to knock over all five targets with ease.

"Try doing that after you've skied 12km, your heart rate is at least double what it normally is and you don't have anything to rest your rifle on," our instructor tells us.

Ok, maybe it wasn't that easy.

Practising shooting skills with the biathlon rifle. Photo / Noel Hendrickson
Practising shooting skills with the biathlon rifle. Photo / Noel Hendrickson

Whistler Blackcomb, which in part gets its name from the marmot (a rodent) that gives out a shrill whistle to alert other marmots to danger, is a place where the traditional territories of the Squamish and Lil'wat peoples overlap.

It's also consistently ranked the No 1 mountain resort in North America.

The place is actually two resorts connected by a village that's home to dozens of bars, restaurants and lounges - and the world's longest unsupported lift span in the world at 3.024km that's also the highest lift in the world at 435 metres.

Together, they make up North America's largest ski resort, with three glaciers, 37 lifts, 12 alpine bowls, 200 marked trails and more than 3000 hectares of skiable terrain.

But despite a united nations of visitors who flock from around the globe to its slopes for the snow and the village's formidable apres' ski options, it's often overlooked that even more people arrive in the summer months for excellent hiking and rock-climbing, some of the best mountainbiking in the world, three championship golf courses and a stunning array of fauna.

While it is well-developed and well-trodden in parts, the valley remains ruggedly untamed in most other places and the natural habitat of eagles, deer, marmots, cougars, coyotes and bears - some of whom wander into the village itself hoping to outsmart the specially-designed rubbish bins to keep them out.

Getting to Whistler from Vancouver on the Sea to Sky highway is as good a drive as you will take and among the most memorable stretches of road anywhere.

Highway 99, which underwent a $600 million facelift before the 2010 Winter Olympics, hugs Howe Sound whose waters are enclosed by mist-covered and snow-dusted mountains.

It is ridiculously pretty, with quaint little villages on its shores and is rich in First Nations' peoples' history.

I keep thinking I've seen this place before when our guide Tom asks "does anyone remember the 1970s programme Beachcombers?" as he points at one of the bays.

The drive to Whistler takes you to Squamish - which between the months of November and January becomes the site of one of the largest congregations of bald eagles in North America whose gathering coincides with the spawning salmon.

It's a special life moment to snare a glimpse of this iconic and beautiful creature the likes of which I've only ever seen in documentaries or in National Geographic magazines.

I'm half-hoping one of these birds will swoop over the river and pluck its morning tea on the fly as I've seen so many times on youtube but I'm immediately advised "that rarely happens, they usually just eat the dead salmon".

There are dozens, possibly even a hundred eagles, surveying the river for the annual return of the thousands of salmon that come back to the cold rivers that run into the Pacific Ocean.

For those wanting a view of all the aforementioned the nearby Sea to Sky gondola, will provide an eight passenger sightseeing lift to 2800 feet above Howe Sound. It is scheduled to open mid-2014.

Nearly four years after the flame was blown out in Vancouver the place is riding on the coat-tails of its Olympic legacy in what was arguably the greatest Winter games ever as another hook - among many - for visitors.

While the sliding centre and Olympic Park offer the snow thrills, the much closer to Vancouver Richmond Olympic Oval - home of the long track speed skating events during the games - has been transformed into a multi-purpose fitness and health centre.

But pride of place on the podium must surely go to its embarrassment of natural riches that on their own are significant drawcards.

The locals remind me that: "New Zealanders are more like Canadians than probably anyone else."

It's also a place where the crisp, cold air feels detoxifying and the water is quite possibly the nicest I've tasted anywhere on earth.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies directly from Auckland to Vancouver.

What to do: Get an adrenaline rush at The Whistler Sliding Centre.

Further information: See britishcolumbia.travel and canada.travel.

James Ihaka travelled as a guest of Destination British Columbia and The Canadian Tourism Commission.

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