The Backyard Backcountry

Creek corssings and expansive views always add to the adventure, whether that's on the other side of the world or just out the back door. Claire Buchar and Jamie Hill avoid the beaten path and get their shoes wet in their backyard above Squamish.

The Backyard Backcountry Finding Foreign in the Familiar

In the modern age of globalization, of social media feeds saturated with far-flung expeditions, the definition of “adventure” has changed.

A true adventure, we’re told, requires plane rides or elaborate travel plans to places hundreds of miles and thousands of dollars away. To experience something new we need to leave and go someplace, some “elsewhere” where the exotic is lurking to blow our minds.

But what if we don’t have to go anywhere to find fresh views? Claire Buchar, Jaime Hill and I set out on a trip this summer to answer one question: How far off the map can you go in your own backyard?

For jet-setting athletes like Claire and Jaime, the simplicity of an out-the-front-door trip is actually a novelty; for folks who spend their summers balancing hectic schedules of going “elsewhere” for racing and coaching, staying home is a welcome reprieve. And so, with three free days to play with, we sat down and sketched out a rough plan: pedal more than 45 miles and gain 8,600 feet of elevation, pushing into some new-to-us zones. And not once would we be more than an hour’s drive from home.

The journey would launch from my and Jamie’s hometown of Squamish, with a 15-mile round-trip to Elfin Lakes. The next day we would connect a decommissioned logging road to the tip of Indian Arm, a fjord making up the northernmost branch of Burrard Inlet and the Port of Vancouver. Our friends Phil and Liette Mowatt live in a boat-access-only house near the end of Indian Arm, and planned to meet us where the road dead-ended at the ocean. After overnighting with them, we would continue our travels with a boat ride into Vancouver and a Harbour Air floatplane ride to Green Lake, wrapping up the trip with some classic valley trails and ending at Claire’s home in Whistler.

Whenever there’s a debate about whether it’s necessary to go to the emergency room, it’s usually necessary. Jamie Hill does a skeptical assessment of the damage before Claire makes an executive decision.

One of the requirements of any adventure is flexibility, and we embraced the vast amounts of gravel-road pedalling the trip would require, simply because it would take us farther, faster. It would also be a departure from our usual daily routes, a shuffle that would create a little of its own unknown.

Within the first few hours we found ourselves facing everything from meat-eating swarms of black flies to carpets of butterflies, under a backdrop of dwarfing alpine views. Each turn seemed to bring a different panorama of vast mountain ranges, and along the way we paused to swim in glacial lakes and drink from rushing streams. It’s incredible the new things you notice, even on familiar trails. It just takes slowing down enough to pay attention.

On that first day, as we descended back into Squamish, we dipped into some of the local trails, a tight, rooty and rocky finish. Under months of sun, the area’s usual tackiness had been replaced with sun-parched loose earth, and halfway down Jamie washed out on a drop and landed on her elbow—hard. She bravely protested our insistence that she go the hospital, until Claire put an end to the conversation with a simple statement: “Jamie, I can see inside your elbow.”

That night we ate burritos in the emergency room of the Squamish hospital. Amid the beeping machines, awkward hospital gowns and bloody discarded gloves, the attending doctor informed Jamie that there wasn’t enough skin left for stitches. With an elbow still full of dirt, she bargained for a solution that would allow her to continue our ride. The doctor and nurse looked at each other dubiously, but Jamie’s pleading eventually won them over. They bandaged her up grudgingly and sent us on our way.

You know you have good friends when they’re still there to pick you up when you’re two hours late. Thankful for the ride, Claire and Jamie enjoy a laugh and some decompression on Phil Mowatt’s boat.

By noon of our second day we had already made two wrong turns and were out of range for cell service. Our first consultation of the GPS showed our representative blue dot happily pulsing along a wayward branch of the gravel road, headed confidently in the wrong direction. Doubling back, we corrected our errant turn and forged ahead—until we made the next wrong turn, and the next. Our anticipated 15-mile day soon ballooned to more than 30.

Two hours late, we eventually made it to the dock to meet Phil in his boat. We were tired and annoyed, but also giddy with our sense of accomplishment. The frustration of each misstep had been accompanied by a strange burst of discovery, a rejuvenation of embracing the unknown. A wrong turn is a wrong turn, whether you’re in a foreign country or on the backroads behind your house. And sometimes such strangeness, when in the face of the familiar, makes being lost that much more interesting.

Later that evening, after an incredible dinner, hot showers and an oceanfront soak in the hot tub, we sat in Phil and Liette’s front yard watching an open-air movie in their remote little oasis. Claire leaned over and, wondering in amazement at the scene—the shower-curtain-turned-movie-screen, the microwave popcorn served in paper bags, and the shooting stars across the clear night sky—asked me, “How did we get here?” Before I could respond, a neighbor sitting next to me piped up and replied, “That’s easy. You rode your bikes!”