B.C.’s Howe Sound, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is a natural wonder

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By Gregory Scruggs, The Seattle Times

At the end of a coastal ramble through thickets of madrone, the trail dumped out onto a rocky outcropping where a diminutive lighthouse stood sentry. Bob Turner was hiking the Sea Walk Trail on Bowen Island, a 20-minute ferry ride from West Vancouver.

Turner, once the island’s mayor, walked out onto Cape Roger Curtis, where he gestured at the panoramic view of rugged coastline, distant mountains and tree-lined islands set against the tableau of the mesmerizingly calm waters that characterize the Inside Passage. Whales are a frequent sight here, and just below the surface lurk hundreds of starfish and rare glass sponge reefs.

“When you look that way, you ask, ‘Where’s Vancouver?’” Turner said. “You could be 100 miles up the coast and you’d have the same view.”

This confluence of what Turner calls “so wild, so close” is one of the traits that makes Howe Sound, or Átl’ḵa7tsem in the Squamish language (pronounced At-Kat-sum), worthy of its status as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, minted last year. UNESCO, the international body best known for designating World Heritage Sites, also recognizes natural areas where ecological conservation efforts preserve biodiversity amidst human activity.

Turner was one of the key figures in the initiative to nominate Howe Sound, a 135-square-mile fjord at the northeastern end of the Salish Sea. (Puget Sound is over 1,000 square miles.) A retired Canadian federal geologist, he makes informative videos about the ecology of the Salish Sea, like a homespun Pacific Northwestern Sir David Attenborough. This academic year he is a Salish Sea Fellow at Western Washington University.

Through his videos, Turner tells the story of how heavily polluted Howe Sound, once home to pulp mills and a copper mine, climbed back from the brink and now supports a healthy whale population and salmon runs. The waters are fed, meanwhile, by glacier-capped mountain ranges home to grizzly bears, moose and mountain goats.

For travellers looking to see this environmental success story up close, Howe Sound is accessible just beyond metro Vancouver while offering the flavour of more remote, wild places normally only seen on Alaskan cruises. It’s crisscrossed by BC Ferries and hugged on its eastern shore by the Sea-to-Sky Highway.

Explore this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve offshore and alongshore with easy access to the comforts of civilization, while taking care to be a responsible visitor to this fragile, sometimes overtaxed ecosystem. Here’s what you’ll find around Howe Sound.

Whyte Island at Whytecliff Park in West Vancouver, with Bowen Island in the background.

Offshore: Bowen Island

There is poetry to maritime place names.

BC Ferries’ Bowen Island terminal is Snug Cove, and as I watched from the top deck of the MV Queen of Capilano — CA$54.15 for two adults and one vehicle, 16 sailings daily; see bcferries.com — while the ferry slipped into the narrow gap on Bowen Island’s east end, the name fit like a warm glove.

Home to 4,250 souls, Bowen feels like a cross of familiar western Washington islands. The cluster of businesses around the ferry catering to day-trippers and commuters resembles Bainbridge, the bucolic rural landscape calls to mind Vashon, and the hilly terrain crowned by a strenuous peak could pass for Orcas.

Snug Cove will be your base of operations before making any jaunts into the woods or onto the water.

I arrived peckish and beelined for Doc Morgan’s Pub & Restaurant, which spills onto a lawn fronting the Union Steamship Marina. Boaters dock here, but landlubbers can also spend the night in cottages and floating homes. With ample rain cover and heat lamps, Doc Morgan’s is prepped for fall outdoor dining to savour cioppino (CA$34) or a salmon burger (CA$20) washed down with a pint of Yellow Dog Pale Ale (CA$7.25). Locals swear by the Bowen Island Pub just up the road. Note that on this sleepy island, many places close as early as 8 p.m., if they are open at all outside weekends.

If you’re staying in Snug Cove, fuel up in the morning at The Snug Café, where the kitchen will prioritize your breakfast burrito (CA$10.50) or egg-and-cheese bagel (CA$7.95) if you have a ferry to catch. Artisan Suites, a new boutique hotel one uphill mile out of town, boasts tasteful midcentury modern design and breathtaking views of Howe Sound and the Coast Range. The ability to be first in line for a Bowen breakfast (CA$15) or pain au chocolat (CA$4.50) at Artisan Eats Cafe, immediately downstairs, was the cherry on top.

Now, for a day exploring the island’s trails, beaches and waterways: Crippen Regional Park is a verdant corridor from Snug Cove to the Killarney Lake Loop Trail on the heart of the island offering a five-mile round-trip hike. Watch for fall salmon navigating Bridal Veil Falls via the fish ladder. Crippen Regional Park also abuts one of the routes up Mount Gardner, where hikers will gain 1,870 feet over six miles round-trip en route to 360-degree views of Howe Sound.

The 1.6-mile out-and-back Sea Walk Trail leaves from the Collingwood Lane trailhead on the west side of Bowen Island. Spectacular sunsets await on clear days, and in peak season (April-October), Bowen Island Sea Kayaking runs sunset tours. Kayaks are also available for hourly rental to tool around Snug Cove. Whether at the water’s edge or bobbing in a boat, keep your eyes peeled for Howe Sound’s recovering cetaceans — dolphins, porpoises and especially humpback whales.

READ MORE: VIDEO: Rare shoreline close encounter with northern resident orcas near Bowen Island

Turner credits aggressive watchdogging that either closed and cleaned up or improved environmental standards at Howe Sound’s industrial sites. Pulp mills stopped dumping “black liquor,” a paper byproduct, into the water and Environment Canada began testing for waterborne carcinogens, like dioxins and furans, that had decimated fisheries. A federal-provincial cleanup tackled Brittania Mine, which once leeched acid into creeks.

As each link on the food chain recovered, so did the whales at the top, with record sightings in the 2010s after a century of near-extinction.

“When the whales came back, it galvanized the Howe Sound communities,” Turner said.

Toast this recovery with a seasonal staple. Hard cider once thrived in British Columbia, but the art of cidermaking dwindled with the year-round advent of beer. Craft cideries are now flourishing in the province, however, and Bowen Island boasts two. Riley’s Cidery has been cultivating heirloom apples for 30 years, while Bowen Cider House just opened its tasting room this past summer.

Britannia Beach, with the Britannia Mine Museum on the hillside.

Alongshore: Sea-to-Sky Corridor

Highway 99 north of Vancouver is the stuff of legend.

Once nicknamed the “Highway of Death” for its narrow configuration wedged between mountains and water, improvements ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics transformed the Sea-to-Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler into one of the region’s best scenic drives.

READ MORE: 24 hours in Whistler – sans skiing or cycling

If you’re heading to the ski resort, it’s easy to power through and, at best, enjoy the view from behind the windshield. But the section from Horseshoe Bay to Squamish presents prime opportunities along Howe Sound to learn more about its recovery.

Heading north, stop at Whytecliff Park just outside Horseshoe Bay, which in 1993 became the first no-take marine sanctuary in Canada after divers overfished rockfish and lingcod. Farther north, Lions Bay Beach Park (CA$4/hour for parking) has a bona fide sandy beach looking out onto barely inhabited Gambier and uninhabited Anvil islands. The well-equipped beach is a great spot for families, with bathrooms, an outdoor shower and playground. Go from sea to sky on the Erin Moore Trail, which leaves from the upper end of the village of Lions Bay and features whimsical decorations with an enchanted forest motif in honour of the trail’s namesake, a 7-year-old girl who died in a 2014 rockslide.

The Sea-to-Sky Highway is dotted with scenic lookouts and coastal access points. For a more expansive view, pull over at Porteau Cove, home to a campground and rocky beach. For the ultimate Howe Sound getaway, especially in the wet season, snag a reservation at one of the two Porteau Cove Cabins built as a public legacy from the 2010 Olympics. Bookings can be made up to one year in advance.

In Brittania Beach, come face to face with the largest copper mine in the British Empire, now a museum with a popular interactive tour. Check out special exhibit “Ore and Orcas: The Remediation of Howe Sound — Átl’ḵa7tsem,” running through Nov. 30, to learn more about the gargantuan cleanup effort.

READ MORE: Digging for history: Mines and mine sites to visit in BC

End your journey alongshore in Squamish, the northern tip of Howe Sound where the Squamish River fans out into an estuary that sits at the geographic centre of the Biosphere Reserve. At the docks here, volunteer ecologists in the 2000s discovered that creosote on piers was killing herring eggs before they hatched, so they wrapped the piers to prevent chemical leeching, which sparked a herring revival crucial to Howe Sound’s recovery.

Fall and early winter is prime time for eagle viewing at Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park, where birders and volunteer watchers gather on a dike overlooking the Squamish River. The dike is accessible via a ramp at the southern end and there is a shelter open year-round.

The Watershed Grill conveniently abuts the dike, but expect to wait for your river burger (CA$18.95) as TV fans make their pilgrimage to the cafe, which stands in for Jack’s Bar on the hit Netflix series Virgin River. Tuck in for the night at the Howe Sound Inn, which houses 20 rooms above a lively brewery, or opt for a budget option at the Squamish Adventure Inn, with a mixture of hostel beds and private rooms.

Recreate responsibly

Proponents of the Átl’ḵa7tsem/Howe Sound Biosphere Reserve acknowledge a double-edged sword. The UNESCO designation has no regulatory teeth, but it does raise the sound’s environmental profile as new industrial projects ramp up, like a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal across from Squamish. Ecotourism helps bolster the region’s environmental progress, but surging visitation — predominantly from metro Vancouver — can strain existing infrastructure.

READ MORE: Visitors urged to love Sea-to-Sky region, but @dontloveittodeath

“This is a region in transition from forestry and other industrial activities toward tourism,” said Lions Bay resident Ruth Simmons, who leads the Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative.

She encourages visitors to consider avoiding perpetually overcrowded trailheads like Tunnel Bluffs and consider alternatives like the Sea to Sky Gondola, which has ample parking and whisks visitors high into the Biosphere to a network of trails. To see which summer and winter trailheads require day-use trailhead permits in Garibaldi Provincial Park, one of the main hiking, snowshoeing and backcountry skiing destinations along the Sea-to-Sky Corridor, see reserve.bcparks.ca/dayuse.

Bowen Island and the Sea-to-Sky Corridor are the two easiest places to reach in the Biosphere. Beyond that, Simmons said, “It’s not easily accessible for everyone that comes here.” She recommends the 40-minute Horseshoe Bay-Langdale ferry ride (from CA$60.45 for round-trip two adults and one vehicle, eight sailings daily), which covers the entire width of lower Howe Sound and offers opportunities under clear skies to see the Coast Range, the Tantalus Range and all the islands in between.

While making stops along the Sea-to-Sky Highway without a car isn’t easy — there is no reliable public transport spanning the entire corridor — Bowen Island is eminently doable, and cheaper, without a vehicle.

“The best visitor to Bowen doesn’t bring their car,” said Turner, who as mayor worked to make it easy for walk-on ferry passengers to go hiking right out of Snug Cove. Community shuttle buses, payable with a Compass card, help visitors get around the island (CA$2.50).

Finally, be mindful that you are traversing the ancestral lands of the Squamish Nation, who have endorsed the UNESCO Biosphere Initiative as part of Canada’s ongoing project of reconciliation with its Indigenous people.

“The Squamish Nation are the spiritual leaders of the whole enterprise,” Turner said.

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