Squamish: The Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada (Mark Vulliamy)
The town of Squamish is situated at the head of Howe Sound, a roughly 50 kilometer long fjord extending northwards from Vancouver, British Columbia. It lies at the approximate halfway point on the Sea to Sky highway between Vancouver and Whistler. The town was historically all about resource industry – logging, railroad, port – but now is evolving into a different kind of centre.
A large sign on the highway at the outskirts of Squamish greets visitors: “Welcome to Squamish: the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada.” One might think at first this slogan is just local Chamber of Commerce bumph, but it is not long before one appreciates the substance behind the branding.
First, there is the spectacular setting of the town: Further to the north, the magnificent pyramid of Garibaldi Mountain dominates the surrounding snowcapped peaks of the Coast Range. To the east, the 2000 foot sheer wall of the Squamish Chief. Howe Sound to the south is a Tony Onley vista of water, hills and mountains in a palette of blue, green, grey and white.
Looking closer, one sees the activity. Tiny figures hang by threads on the cliff faces and boulders around the town. Windsurfers take advantage of the constant off-shore wind at the mouth of the Squamish River. Kayakers prowl through the marshy channels of the Mamquam estuary. Mountain bikers struggle up and careen down precipitous forest trails. Road cyclists pump their way up interminable highway inclines.
A large part of the activity one sees is by visitors drawn to Squamish by its grand inventory of outdoor recreation terrains. But local residents participate as well, and to an exceptional degree. A survey conducted by Mustel Group found that well over 80% of Squamish residents engage in active recreation on a regular basis, and two thirds are members or regular users of a community centre or other facilities which offer physical or recreational activities. The most popular pursuits are cycling, hiking and swimming, with off-road cycling alone engaged in by 42% of residents.
These figures stand in stark contrast to measurements of physical activity levels elsewhere in Canada, where typically almost half of the population is not active enough to achieve or maintain health benefits. And usually the most popular type of physical activity – by a wide margin – is walking.
Despite the sign on the highway, conventional outdoor recreation pursuits are only a part of the active living scenario in Squamish. Brennan Park, located at the centre of the District, includes a recreation complex (pool, rink and community centre); numerous sport fields and diamonds, an equestrian centre, tennis courts, bmx course and beginner skateboard park. The annual Squamish Loggers Festival as well as numerous other sport and cultural special events also fight for elbow room here.
The programs and the special events at Brennan Park, and in and around the District generally, are in large part organized and sustained by enormous grassroots volunteer effort. The outcome of all this commitment is impressive, but coordination of programming and events, when so many stakeholders are involved, can be hugely challenging.
The District faces other challenges as well: Rapid population growth, projected to continue well into the future. Limited and aging recreation and sport facilities. And financial constraints of the kind that municipalities everywhere are struggling with.
But the fundamentals are there and are strong in Squamish. While local awareness of Canadian Sport for Life currently appears limited, the town is “active for life” in a big way. One has to think that this is fertile ground for CS4L to build connectivity amongst the various sport and recreational interests.
More to follow in an upcoming post.
Mark Vulliamy has worked in the Recreation Sector for many years, both as a community centre coordinator and a manager for research and planning for parks and recreation in Vancouver. He is currently an associate with Erik Lees and Associates, as part of a team helping to develop a parks and recreation master plan for the District of Squamish.