Caroline Helbig – This is winter on Vancouver’s North Shore
There’s an old saying that if you can see the North Shore from Vancouver, it’s about to rain, and if you can’t, it’s raining. Grey skies and incessant precipitation are typical of winter on the North Shore, part of Greater Vancouver separated by the Burrard Inlet. I grumble about the winter weather, but I’ve also learned to embrace it. With its unique geography and micro-climates, Vancouver’s North Shore offers a huge variety of outdoor activities. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can ski, hike, cycle, golf, and play in the ocean in winter—possibly all on the same day. And, when the sun does peek out, it’s glorious!
The North Shore encompasses the municipalities of North and West Vancouver; it is bounded on three sides by ocean and on the fourth by mountains. (There’s a map at the end.)
So, what do I mean when I say the North Shore gets lots of precipitation? Downtown Vancouver, on average, gets 1457 mm (57 in) of precipitation annually, most of it falling October through March. That’s a lot, but parts of the North Shore, where the clouds get trapped against the Coast Mountains, have annual precipitation of 2350 mm (92 in) or more. Near sea level, most falls as rain, but just a few hundred meters up, there is significant snowfall.
The photos below of North Shore “winter activities” were mostly taken over one week (January 2-9) and all within a 24 km (15 mi) driving distance from my home in Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver. Don’t let all the sunny images fool you. I attempt to time my outings for the small windows of sun, or at least less rain. It doesn’t always work out, but that’s OK. And, I’ve learned that you can’t always wait for the rain to stop, otherwise you may never get outside.
My go-to winter activity is hiking, or, as I like to call it, rainforest therapy. Despite the gloomy skies, the mosses and evergreen ferns provide vivid colour. Moisture is everywhere—on the mud-soaked trails, in the water droplets that cling delicately to the vegetation, and in the thundering waterfalls that are at their best this time of year. I’m not always motivated to leave my warm house, but once I’m out there, rainforest hikes (even the very wet ones) almost always invigorate me and elevate my mood.
A delicious by-product of my rainforest hikes is the mushrooms. Foraging is usually best in November, but the absence of hard frosts has kept the winter chanterelle (yellowfoot) mushrooms in relatively good condition. I crouch on the damp forest floor and pick until my hands lose dexterity due to the cold. It’s worth it. Nothing like chanterelles fried up in butter, cream and garlic!
For a total change of scenery, I leave my sea level home and drive to Cypress Mountain ski area at 900 m (2952 ft). In a mere 20 minutes, I’ve gone from dewy green moss to a deep blanket of snow. Cypress, along with Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour, are the three North Shore mountains that offer downhill skiing, cross country skiing (Cypress only), and snowshoeing. These mountains get massive snow dumps. The average annual snowfall for Cypress is 655 cm (258 in).
My favourite activity is snowshoeing (though I often use microspikes, which are small steel spikes held together by chains that are slipped over boots). The foggy conditions in the photo below are common.
But sometimes, when I’m lucky, the skies open for a brilliant glimpse of blue. The photo below was taken at the same spot just three minutes later. Fog or blue skies, it doesn’t matter; the pristine whiteness makes me happy.
Every time I go to Cypress, I take countless photos of snow-laden trees. I love their whimsical shapes.
I never tire of the views south across the Burrard Inlet to downtown Vancouver and the views north and west over Howe Sound.
Golfing, cycling, swimming anyone?
On my way home from snowshoeing, I pass by Gleneagles Golf Course, a nine-hole neighbourhood course with great views to the snow capped peaks and the ocean. It was shut down for several months in spring due to COVID-19, but it is now open daily with adapted regulations. Golf is not my thing, but I find it cool that one can partake in this activity in the depth of Canadian winter, albeit not your typical one. Of course it’s only the most dedicated who play on drizzly 5°C (41°F) days (the average daytime temperature in January).
Just beyond the golf course, I spot cyclists at the Horseshoe Bay roundabout. They’re enjoying the West Vancouver section of Marine Drive, a hilly, curvy and very scenic stretch of road that hugs the coastline. It’s not just the roadies who are out in January, there’s also the teflon-tough mountain bikers who careen down muddy, lower-elevation trails.
Later that same day, I walk down to our local beach. Looks balmy doesn’t it? There’s a guy running into the water with the carefree gait of someone on a Hawaiian vacation. Reality check: The air temperature is 4°C (39°F) and the water temperature is 7°C (45°F). While there’s long been a small group of hardcore, cold weather swimmers (dressed in full wetsuits), this winter I’m seeing a surge in the number of people engaging in cold therapy—regular, brief immersion in frigid water. “It’s really good for you,” my neighbours tell me. “It’s so invigorating and helps boost your immune system.” Hmm…if you don’t have a jammer first, I think to myself. Winter swimming (on the North Shore) is not for me. I politely decline their invitations to join them.
Just this afternoon, I meet more neighbours with coats and fleece tops over their bathing suits on their way to the beach. They’ve been doing regular cold plunges since October. I’m impressed, but still not motivated.
My idea of immunity-boosting is relaxing in our cedar barrel sauna heated up to 80°C (176°F). It’s the perfect finale to a North Shore rainforest or snowy mountain excursion. I don’t follow it up with a plunge in the ocean, but I will do a brief sit in the rain or a cold(ish) shower.
For those unfamiliar with the convoluted Greater Vancouver geography, here’s a map to help you out.
Is this how you pictured January in Canada? Are you a fan of “typical” winter activities? Do you, or would you take part in cold therapy?