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Illuminated mountain magic

Our shuttle arrives at Cougar Mountain just before 10:45 p.m., not the usual time of day I would allocate for tourist activities or outdoor walks.
LIT Vallea Lumina is getting people outside after dark this summer. PHOTO courtesy of Moment Factory

Our shuttle arrives at Cougar Mountain just before 10:45 p.m., not the usual time of day I would allocate for tourist activities or outdoor walks.

A "ranger" with a characterized name greets us in full khaki regalia, giving us a quick orientation of the base area and the best ways to enjoy our nighttime forest walk. It all feels a bit cheesy and I almost expect Yogi Bear (a 20th Century animated cartoon character, for those too young to remember) to jump out from behind a tree, necktie and all. But the ranger staff aren't here to give us a guided, interpretive tour from last century. We're here to discover this "hidden valley" for ourselves.

Vallea Lumina is the latest Whistler attraction operated by The Adventure Group (TAG) out of its Cougar Mountain base, about 15 minuntes north of Whistler Village. Dubbed a "multimedia night walk," Vallea Lumina utilizes LEDs and holographic light projection synced with sounds emitting from hidden speakers. Describing it like that, however, doesn't do it justice.

"We design it the best we can so people don't notice the technology, but so they just feel the magic," says Patricia Ruel, creative director at Montreal-based Moment Factory, which has Lumina attractions in eight cities across Canada and Asia. "We spend a lot of time (during installation) to hide the light sources, projectors and cables in order to make the experience in the forest feel as natural as possible."

While the light shows—which range from simple silhouettes to complex 3D projections—are what set this experience apart from reading interpretive signs, there's a strong focus on narrative. Each Lumina experience has a distinct storyline, whether it's uncovering the mystery of a sleeping giant (Tonga Lumina in Mont Tremblant, Que.) or following a child's adventure through a fantastical world of plants and beasts (Island Lumina in Iwo Jima, Japan). Vallea Lumina gently points you towards the footsteps of two long-ago hikers that ventured out in search of a hidden valley of wonders. Rustic camping gear inside a vintage canvas A-frame tent serves as evidence of their journey, music plays from a campfire that draws some strange energy from the forest around it. Ruel notes that the natural setting in the valley between Cougar and Rainbow Mountains—highlighted by a flowing river, towering, old-growth trees and ominous peaks reaching towards the sky—served as the perfect backdrop when Moment Factory began the design phase of Vallea Lumina. But the narrative itself is driven by local stories and culture.

"We spent a lot of time talking to the local people and hearing their stories," she says. "There's so many people in Whistler who visit and never go back home, spending the rest of their lives there. We reflect that local culture with the story of the two hikers that decided to not return from the hidden valley."

There's a few interactive stations where I try my best at transmitting a morse code message, but I'm soon drawn away by the sight and sound of talking trees. And no, I haven't indulged in fungal hallucinogens this evening (though many Whistler locals recommend it for a heightened Vallea Lumina experience).

While my inquisitive technical mind wants to know how the illusions in front of me are made, I soon stop trying to debunk the technology and simply let the light spectacle wash over me. Each station along the walk has a cycle that repeats, encouraging you to stroll, not hurry. Without thinking about it, I end up spending 15 minutes staring at thousands of glowing fireflies.

Vallea Lumina is a summer-only attraction (for now) and will wrap up in mid-October before resuming operation in May 2019. While the core story will remain the same, there will be additional narratives sprinkled throughout the roughly five-year lifespan of the show.

Whistler is known—for better or worse—for its nightlife. Vallea Lumina gives locals and visitors alike an engaging nighttime experience that takes a break from the boisterousness of Whistler Village. It's not a thrill-seeking adrenaline rush, but gives you another reason to explore the outdoors once the sun sets.

Vince Shuley likes to take it slow sometimes. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email or Instagram @whis_vince.