Welcome home to Brackendale
Story by Adrian Brijbassi
BRACKENDALE, BRITISH COLUMBIA — I wasn’t sure what to expect when I decided to spend three nights at Sunwolf, a lodge an hour north of Vancouver that promises adventure and forested seclusion. I can, however, articulate what I experienced, which was one of the most pleasantly surprising stays I’ve had anywhere in Canada.
Sunwolf isn’t affiliated with any other lodging or hotel property and isn’t part of a recognizable brand or consortium. Independently owned by a husband and wife team, it is operated like a bed and breakfast, and those experiences can range from spectacular to disappointing. In Sunwolf’s case, the superlatives fit.
Jess Freese and her husband, Jake, purchased the property with two business partners more than five years ago and immediately undertook a property makeover that would wow Mike Holmes. The Freeses turned a dilapidated group of 1960s-era cabins into pleasant guest cottages with kitchens, baths and private driveways. More than that overhaul, they changed the demographic of their clients from working fishermen and rowdy partiers to curious travellers eager to experience the ridiculously rich outdoor activities in and around Squamish, the booming British Columbia city halfway between Vancouver and Whistler.
“I remember when we bought the place and we didn’t see a single customer in June,” Jess Freese says, reminiscing with a hint of awe at the challenge she and Jake, who are British expats, undertook when they decided to move to Canada.
Now, Sunwolf is sold out for most summer dates and operates a year-round business with four distinct revenue streams: the staple whitewater rafting tours; a winter eagle-viewing boat tour; the popular on-site eatery, Fergie’s; and a growing wedding venue operation.
Sunwolf isn’t a five-star accommodation, but it does deliver first-class service and that is the hallmark of any standout business in the travel and hospitality industry. What also makes it attractive is its distinctiveness. Sunwolf is a tour outfitter with boutique business sensibilities, offering limited tours, personalized service and guides who emphasize safety and comfort, even in the niche of adventure sports.
Whitewater Rafting Makes a Splash in Squamish
“Jess and Jake really do things the right way. They always stress safety first. We’re going to give everyone a good time no matter what, but our number one concern is making sure you are safe and that you feel safe,” says Caleb Nelson, a paramedic from Alberta who has spent his past four summers as a whitewater rafting guide for Sunwolf. “There’s a group of us who come back to work here every year because of how well run it is and how terrific the owners are.”
According to Nelson, only six of the approximately 1,300 passengers who travelled last year on Sunwolf’s most extreme whitewater rafting expedition accidentally fell out. None of those six suffered injuries, in part because the safety protocol on the whitewater trips are thoroughly explained prior to departure. When I toured with Nelson, he repeatedly tested the passengers on accident prevention before the raft hit the extreme Class III and IV rapids on the Elaho and Squamish rivers.
Whitewater rafting is an exhilarating thrill, but, as Nelson attested, you don’t have to fear the worst. There have been deadly incidents on these waters, including the gruesome death of a boatload of rafters decades ago that led to a stretch of the Squamish River being dubbed the Devil’s Elbow. But these days the rafts are far sturdier and the trek leaders terrifically capable and detail-oriented.
The rafting guides traverse the rivers daily and that reduces the unpredictability of the journey. Still, rapids are rapids. The waves will kick you off your seat, flap you back and forth and up and down like a fan, and spray you in the face with the mischievousness of a watergun-toting 10-year-old. Some skill and confidence with a canoe paddle is required, but not much. Between the rapids — which occur on a series of stretches during the tour — are blissful views of the Coastal Mountain range and fjords, including a grouping of cascading waterfalls dubbed the Weeping Wall. Eagles, elk and black bears are among the wildlife that can be spotted, though none were seen during our sail. There are places where you can jump out of the boat and safely swim in the pristine glacier-fed waters. All of these features make whitewater rafting in this part of British Columbia far more fun than you’ll ever experience at a waterpark.
For the less adventurous, family-friendly whitewater rafting trips are also available on the Cheakamus River. It features Class I rapids, which are much easier to navigate. While the extreme tour of the Elaho and Squamish rivers lasts eight hours — including an uncomfortable 90-minute van ride on a gravel and pothole-filled logging road to the rafting launch site — the less arduous Cheakamus River trip lasts a half day. Even more leisurely is the winter eagle float tours of the Brackendale area, marketed as the Eagle Count Capital of the World because a world record number of eagles has been sighted here. Sunwolf guests take a pleasant raft tour that includes hot chocolate and many opportunities to see dozens of eagles darting into the water to catch Pacific salmon during their annual migration run.
Fergie’s Is the Place for Breakfast
As good and popular as Sunwolf’s rafting trips are, the company’s largest revenue generator is a part of the business rooted on firm ground. Fergie’s Cafe is responsible for more than 40 per cent of Sunwolf’s sales, the Freeses say, and up until now it has only served one meal. In the Squamish area, that meal — a breakfast that’s so good it’s instantly addictive — is sought after daily. While I was enjoying eggs delivered that day from a farm down the road from Sunwolf, I was already certain I would make the trip back up just for a taste of this fresh, seriously sensational plate that included a hash of bacon and potatoes. Lineups on this property that’s not in walking distance to any populated neighbourhood are known to stretch on for more than an hour.
In July, the Freeses hired chef Jason Nadeau to take over the kitchen operations and eventually expand into dinner service. Nadeau was the chef behind Locavore, a food truck that won raves from Squamish residents, and has formerly worked at Vancouver’s acclaimed Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill. Judging from the three dinner plates I tried, Nadeau’s talents will likely boost Fergie’s revenues to new heights.
What it all bundles up to is a stay in one of the most diverse and unique properties in Canada amid natural surroundings that underscore why British Columbia is among the nation’s most attractive places to visit.
More About Sunwolf
Location: 70002 Squamish Valley Road, Brackendale, BC (see map below)
Telephone: 1-877-806-8046 (toll free) or 1-604-898-1537
Whitewater Rafting: Wetsuits are provided. The eight-hour Elaho Expedition tour starts with a 90-minute drive along a mostly gravel logging road. It includes a one-hour lunch break where Sunwolf staff grill chicken and salmon on a sandy spot off the river. Pictures of the tour are captured by the van driver and are free for raft passengers to download. There is a half-day family-friendly trek on the Cheakamus River. I’ve taken that trip with another company and it is a lot of fun and tame; ideal for beginners.
Accommodations: Cabins start at $100 per night. The 1,000-square-foot Fisherman’s Cottage, a beautifully renovated space on the Cheakamus River, costs $300 per night.
Fergie’s Menu Prices: Breakfast items include a variety of Eggs Benedict dishes, ranging from $11-$16. There are also other breakfast items, housemade sausages and baked goods. Breakfast is served from 8 am-3 pm daily.