Flightseeing: Flying high over B.C.’s glaciers
It’s sightseeing by plane, one of the Canadian Tourism Industry’s best kept secrets.
WHISTLER, B.C.—From up here at 2,900 metres, the South Chilcotin mountains look like the roof of the world.
In a float plane, the rugged peaks about an hour’s flight north of Whistler drift by majestically below.
The de Havilland Beaver plane, piloted by Dale Douglas with five passengers on-board, heads slightly farther north.
There’s the metallic buzzing of the engine, and it’s a real roar if you remove your headphones. There’s blinding sunlight streaming in, and a cool breeze from the tiny vent in the plane’s right window.
And then there’s the view.
Beyond spectacular, it shifts between pebbled and snow-capped peaks to rugged jutting points. Greyish glaciers grip the tops of the peaks, and at this time of year, tentacles of melting water stream down toward rivers at the bottom of the valleys.
And just when it can’t seem to take your breath away even more — it does.
This is “flightseeing,” and it’s a familiar way to experience a location like Whistler’s back country for those lucky enough.
For me, a 50-year-old Ontario teacher and sometimes writer, who has never been farther west than Banff, Alta., this experience of being seat-belted in a tiny plane and heading further into the mountains is jaw-dropping.
Douglas manoeuvres the trusty 1961 float plane between two peaks that seem to part for our arrival and the gleam of another glacier strikes the plane’s windshield.
He cuts back on the throttle. He banks slightly to the left. This is the Bridge Glacier, and as he comes around and it slips behind us, shelves of bluish ice fill the landscape below.
It’s like some sort of cubist Picasso masterpiece of icebergs that have shedded from the glacier to create a new, spectacular landscape.
About the size of trucks and garden sheds, these icebergs drift slowly away from the mother ship above, melting slowly until they are just pools in the green glacial lake ahead. Lucky for us, it’s Bridge Glacier Lake our trusty pilot is taking us to.
We drop lower, the shore fills the horizon, and as soft as a feather, he makes contact with the water formed from a glacier, and we drift toward a rocky shore.
“Well that was a 10,” says one of the passengers when the float plane’s blade slows and quiets so we can speak to each other.
We can’t seem to get enough superlatives out to describe literally landing on a glacial lake, at the foot of a glacier and then heading for shore to get a better view of the icebergs.
Those icebergs are the middle ground between the solid above of the glacier and the liquid below of the icy lake we just set down on.
As we unbuckle our seatbelts, climb down the steel rungs of the float plane, and hop over the makeshift stone walkway to shore, it feels a bit like an Apollo landing.
It resembles a lunar landscape because it’s mostly piles of rock and shelves of ice, but there’s other life here, too. Some hearty shrubs and even a few flowers sprout between the boulders and gravel.
And it’s quiet, except for our own awed voices.
As a group, we trek over the pebbled piles of rock. Douglas does a bit of a walking tour. He points out black spots on greyish rocks that are really lichen that have found a way to survive. He shows us a log that is some 5,000 years old, carried to its current spot by the glacier during its ebbs and flows.
Tyax Adventures has offered these glacial lake float plane excursions out of Tyax Wilderness Resort & Spa for many years, but it’s still a bit of a secret for North American travellers.
We all follow our pilot around like dazed puppy dogs, still shaking our heads to be sure the environment is real. Once we realize it is, we take more pictures, and drink more of it in until it feels burned into the memory bank.
All too soon, we start to file back toward the plane, snapping a few more shots. We climb in and close the small metal doors, saying goodbye to this pristine, perfect place.
The headphones go back on. The Beaver roars to life and we lift off from the lake, away from the icebergs and the towering glacier above.
I look around at my fellow passengers. We are all still amazed at what we’ve just experienced. We landed at the foot of a glacier, by float plane, and explored an iceberg-filled lake in a mountain cathedral.
Deep down inside, we have a special memory that was awe-inspiring and perfect.
Scott Whalen was a guest of Destination British Columbia and its partners. Follow him on Twitter @sjwhalen
If you go
Don’t forget the camera! You’ll be drinking it all in and want to look back later.
Just the facts
Four Seasons: In the north village and peacefully a bit apart from the heart of the Whistler scene, the Four Seasons offers a rustic modern retreat and terrific attention to detail. Food service in restaurants Fifty Two 80 Eatery + Bar and Sidecut is excellent.
Tyax Wilderness Resort & Spa: This is a true retreat, at the foot of Tyaughton Lake and nestled in the wilderness north of Whistler. Offering comfortable rooms with balconies and inspired breakfasts and dinners, this getaway is a real jewel in B.C.’s crown.
Araxi Restaurant: A Whistler mainstay, this comfortable fine dining establishment in the heart of the village is casual cool, with upscale offerings. The menu, presented by noted executive chef James Walt with pairings by award-winning wine director Samantha Rahn, is both fine and memorable.
Fairmont Vancouver Airport: The Fairmont feels like downtown sophistication, while still being connected to an airport terminal. The menu, atmosphere and service in Globe@YVR, the main floor bar and dining room, are all impeccable.