Floating through the air above town is an incredible way to soak in the views around Squamish.
A cloudy mid-September day held the opportunity for me to take to the skies in a single-engine Cessna. The vantage from up there changes your perspective on a place.
Sea-to-Sky Air, a local flight operator, aims to show guests something they’ve never seen.
After a brief safety tour, we took off and flew north over Levette Lake, up the Squamish Valley to where the Ashlu and the Squamish rivers merge. Then we turned west toward the Tantalus Range, mingling with clouds and glaciated peaks: Zenith, Mount Tantalus, Serratus and Alpha.
After a quick lap over Lake Lovely Water, we skipped across town towards the Sea to Sky Gondola and over the Stawamus Chief before returning north to the Squamish Airport.
Back in 2010, pilot David Eastwood was living in Whistler when he realized that he wanted to do something different with his life.
“I just figured I would come and try some flying. So I came for a couple of flights here and was like, yeah I need to get out to do this,” he says.
“I went off for a couple years of training, came back and was amazed to get a job where I wanted, doing what I wanted to do.”
Eastwood was growing weary of the Whistler ski scene and so took to the skies.
“A new pair of skis is a very exciting thing, but there’s sometimes more to it than that,” he says.
He explains how he finds reward in taking people out into the mountains and showing them something they might not have otherwise had the chance to see.
“The more people we get up into the mountains, the more people will respect them – just gaining that better understanding.”
The upbeat Sea to Sky Air pilots add to the experience of a flight, but really, the raw beauty of the scenery in and around the corridor is ample motivation on its own.
Sea to Sky Air has been in operation for six years. Owner Carlo Galvani started the company with one plane and a little shared office. It has since expanded and now has its own building at the airport and three planes. They are all single-engine Cessnas, each with four spots for passengers.
The most recent addition was an amphibious plane in 2014 – equipped with wheels and floats allowing it to take off and land on both a runway and the water. This new aircraft has increased the types of trips the company can offer. They can now take off from the Squamish airport and land in surrounding alpine lakes, allowing guests a more engaged experience with the mountains.
"With the float plane you get out on the lake and all you hear is avalanches and waterfalls,” says Eastwood.
“There’s a lot of stuff that is accessible nearby,” adds Eric Lightfoot, another of the company’s pilots. Phantom Lake, Widgeon Lake and Pitt Lake are a few popular lakes in which to land.
The small aircraft are nimble, which means they can get in and out of the mountains with ease.
“Small four-seat aircraft – whether it’s a float plane or a wheel plane – can do everything a regular airplane can do. As far as being able to do an epic mountain flight, small planes are actually better,” explains Lightfoot. “I think usually we surprise people in terms of comfort.”
Sea to Sky Air is focused primarily on sight-seeing but, for passengers who just need to get where they are going, it also provides a charter service. From the Squamish Airport, Nanaimo is about 35 minutes away and Tofino is about an hour away.
“If you work a 9 to 5 and just have a weekend, we get you there on the Friday night and take you home on your Sunday evening or Monday morning. You can actually spend a whole weekend, rather than a whole weekend going and coming back.”
Pender Harbour and Desolation Sound are also a quick ride across the pond.
Sea to Sky Air ranks first with Trip Advisor for sight-seeing flights in Canada, and it’s not in small part because of the positive disposition of the pilots.
“Because we’ve been a very tight crew – just three pilots – we’ve all got to have a hand steering the business to where we want it to go,” explains Lightfoot.
“It’s really nice to have the happiest customers. We’re really proud of what we’ve done and what we can share with people.”
Even for long-time residents of Squamish, the perspective from the sky can be quite a change from life at lower altitude.
“My favourite passengers are the ones who haven’t gone flying yet,” says Lightfoot. “Basically if they’re spellbound by it, then you can imagine what the experience is like for people visiting from other places.”
Squamish is a beautiful place and the landscape is even more appealing from the air. From the glaciated peaks down to the shining river valleys and out to Howe Sound, the varied terrain around town and through the corridor holds a particular appeal when you fly over it.
Returning to the Squamish Airport toward the end of our flight, we saw that Mount Garibaldi was buried under an intensifying heap of clouds. Flying on those clear, bluebird days is nice, but sometimes the sights are intensified with changing weather.
A smooth landing, a wave goodbye to the smiling pilots and the flight was over. I left in a reflective state of mind, mulling over the way things are from the sky.