It’s ours….the awesome, majestic fjord called Howe Sound….surrounded by distinctive and eclectic small communities, interspersed with islands large and small and set against the backdrop of stunning, snowcapped mountains….truly a masterpiece now and potentially, with selective development and programming initiatives over the long term, a world class tourism and adventure recreation destination in itself and important economic generator, right in our front yards.  That’s my vision for Howe Sound.

That doesn’t look to be the vision of the BC Government who are promoting a return of major heavy resource based industry…LNG, gravel pit, waste burning and more logging.  Perhaps not wise given a long recovery from past experiences.  We have a stunning natural resource in Howe Sound so why not showcase it to the world, have more people come here to experience it, and create additional economic and social value.  And, let’s add in the economic and health benefits from more of our local population actively engaging in more outdoor recreational pursuits, and the more the merrier.

Nor is it the vision for some in the area who want Howe Sound to remain as it now is.  That might be possible but all the communities that call Howe Sound home are in need of new revenue streams to help stem rising property taxes and service fees, and the Province wants tourism growth.  The potential of Howe Sound under the overarching theme of tourism/adventure recreation, properly planned, and cleverly delivered, is a huge opportunity for new product development, new businesses to create them, and new communities and residents drawn for the lifestyle and setting.  It’s a sustainable economic powerhouse already building in several areas, notably around Squamish, but throughout the Sound.  

Somewhat in the middle is the Future of Howe Sound Society, whose objective is “to encourage the development of an overall comprehensive management plan for Howe Sound that recognizes and protects the social, economic and cultural value of this natural and beautiful environment”. With representation from all the municipalities, key stakeholders and committed individuals the Society is well positioned to lead the way in shaping the future of the Sound.  I encourage expanding that planning objective to not only “recognize and protect” but to explore development ideas to grow and enhance the “social, economic and cultural value”. Let’s create a long term shared vision for the future and a masterplan that embraces both management and future development.  It’s a thirty year game plan and almost anything is possible in that time frame. It’s the right idea now and a sound (sic) strategy for the future.  

It’s not a difficult or lengthy process or overly expensive and doesn’t require RFP’s and experts from afar to lead the way.  A task force from within the FHSS can take up the challenge with experienced coaching to guide the way.  There is a proven planning template for the process, one that I have used successfully in several community branding and planning projects.  Let’s encourage the Government and all the local municipalities to support this proposal, source funding for it, and get on with it.

For me the future of Howe Sound sits nicely under the umbrella of very selective tourism/adventure recreational development that can draw visitors from around the world and enhance our own experiences while preserving what we have for future generations…a win, win, win.  It doesn’t exclude new or expanding industries, and does include new product development and additional activity programming.  Others may disagree, but that’s okay.  Let’s wait until a vision and masterplan are completed and see what we can debate then.

A key to the planning exercise is to demonstrate that a Howe Sound future aligned with tourism/recreation can deliver solid long term economic returns (jobs, new business, visitors, and residents) as good as or better than a return to heavy industry and with a minimal ecological footprint.  It’s clever, clean, and sustainable and in the best long term interests of BC.  

We now have a good example of a local attraction’s economic impact: the newly opened Sea to Sky Gondola, nestled between Shannon Falls and the Chief.  This attraction, 5 years in the making, locally and privately funded, delivered over 200 construction jobs and now, in operation, has over 100 employees, almost all local…. a major new player in the area and by all accounts a huge hit with tourists and locals less than a month after opening.  This will be very popular year round.  Nice job.

I have been up twice already, once with family and again with visitors and have purchased season passes.  The word most often heard during both visits was “Awesome”, and some of those wearing season passes described the purchase (at $99) as “the bargain of the year”, and if you are into “Adventure by Nature”, it really is.

Right from the arrival you see this attraction as classy: a very well-constructed and modern West Coast design with the Basecamp cafe, a gift shop, loading station, and unique playhouse for the kids. The 8 minute ride up is fast and surprisingly quiet in state of the art gondolas that accommodate 8 passengers. Looking down to the Sound, or up to the rock face of Mount Habrich rapidly approaching, it’s an awe inspiring and  exhilarating experience, very much worth the price alone.  For the more adventurous there is the Sea to Summit hiking trail under the Gondola that rivals the Grouse Grind and was well in use on my visits….but not by me.

The gondola delivers you to the big, beautiful and bold Summit Lodge, housing a restaurant/cafeteria, tea house and gift shop, with an enormous deck framing views across and down the Sound that take your breath away.  There is a series of looped trails leading to stunning viewpoints in all directions, including Diamond Head to the North and the Chief and Squamish Valley below.  The trails are very well built and maintained for all ages and fitness levels.  Other more challenging trails open up the vast alpine terrain above with climbing areas and wilderness to explore….but not by me.  

If all of that doesn’t get you excited the Sky Pilot suspension bridge certainly will.  At about 100 metres across the valley way below it dramatically links the Lodge deck to
the Spirit interpretive viewing platform and loop trail with amazing 360 degree views up to the high alpine and down to the fjord below.  And to top it all off, the gondola ride back down might just surpass the ride up as you leave the Summit Lodge and seem to plunge over the mountain face to descend the base way below. Wow!  What a ride! What a day!  You will want to come back, soon and often.

The Sea to Sky Gondola is already a first class attraction and operation with well trained and very friendly staff.  It will only get better as an ideal location for group gatherings of all kinds: weddings, corporate meetings, adventure races, sunset dining, movie shoots, art exhibits and much more.  Its open year round and planned winter programming will feature snowshoeing, ski touring, ice skating, and, of course, the awesome winter scenery all around.  It’s a great addition to the corridor, a must stop for tourists, a new playground for locals, and a significant economic driver for the Squamish region.  I congratulate all those who had the vision, did the planning, committed the funding, developed the partnerships, handled the red tape, managed a challenging build, trained the staff and delivered this great new attraction to our back yard.

So that’s my view of the future of Howe Sound debate, and my review of the Sea to Sky Gondola.  Obviously, I like them both a lot.  Now let’s all rise up 3000 ft. and look down over all of Howe Sound from Gibsons, Bowen, and Horseshoe Bay in the south to Squamish and all that along both sides and up the middle.  Or you can google a map and look at it with a glass of wine in hand.  What would be your 30 year vision for Howe Sound?  What would you do if you owned it?

Mike Hurst
Lions Bay