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Water’s Edge: A fresh look at Vancouver’s postcard locations

Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun, May 11, 2016

It is a calm sunny morning at Third Beach in Stanley Park and not even an introduced eastern grey squirrel is bouncing around for free peanuts.

About the only thing stirring in the corner parking lot is me, hauling my kayak off the back of my pickup truck and dragging it across the grass down a small bluff to the seawall to be hoisted onto the salty shores of English Bay.

Third Beach is the closest practical put-in for the continuation of my journey from Lions Gate Bridge, just a few paddle strokes south of Siwash Rock. Those few people out for an early walk are quick to take notice, ask what I’m doing and tell me their own stories.

Vancouver snowbirds typically fly south for the winter, but not John Brown of New Brunswick. The retired engineer from the Point Lepreau nuclear plant regularly comes to Vancouver from February to April to stay with a brother in the West End.

“Great months to be out here,” he insists, his shorts offset by a toque. “The flowers are coming out, and there’s such variation in the shrubs and trees.”

He walks almost 10 kilometres per day and once spotted killer whales off Stanley Park along with a crowd of gawkers that included a helicopter circling overhead.

Almost half of Metro Vancouver’s oceanfront land from Lions Bay to White Rock is park or green space, according to a review of BC Assessment information by Landcor Data Corp. It defines who we are as a region, more than cappuccino bars and craft beer, historic buildings and highrises.

The moment I paddle out into the bay I abandon the predictability of solid ground for the vagaries of wind, currents, tides, cold water and obstacles such as submerged rocks near shore.

Being on the water also changes your perspective, forces you to look at the familiar through a new lens.

On the North Shore, homes creep like mange up the mountainsides, covering ever more of the forest that forms Vancouver’s natural backdrop. In West Vancouver, the maximum level for housing on Hollyburn Mountain is 365 metres, similar in North Vancouver district.

Shipping risks

On the other hand, the freighters anchored in English Bay seem an integral part of the skyline, scenic in their own right and a symbol of the city’s role as a working port. Thirteen of a maximum allowable 18 anchorages are occupied this day in English Bay.

Some ships wait their turn to load cargo, others for parts and repairs, for crew changes, or even tidal conditions to proceed up Burrard Inlet. Oil tankers generally load quickly, while grain ships can wait up to 10 days or longer if they are loading various grades at multiple terminals.

Shipping also poses the harbour’s greatest risks.

As recently as April 2015, the grain carrier Marathassa spilled an estimated 2,800 litres of fuel into English Bay, of which the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation recovered an estimated 1,400 litres. A federal report on the event noted that the coast guard received about 600 pollution reports for the B.C. coast annually, about 40 of which occur in the port, and approximately 10 of which require an on-water recovery.

The Canadian Coast Guard says it has implemented several measures as a result of the incident, including improved notifications and better staff training, and is working on a regional response plan with other agencies and levels of government.

I continue paddling along the shoreline of Stanley Park, smiling at the people who frame me into the foreground of their photographs of the bay

Off Second Beach, Lou Parsons is bobbing in his 4.2-metre fibreglass boat. The locksmith and member of Jericho Rescue Team used to work the tugs and regularly rows for the unique joys that cannot be experienced on land.

“It’s an environment that changes continually,” he explains. “When you’re on the water you’re exposed to a completely different set of experiences.”

They aren’t always good ones.

Rocky waters

In 1888, the former Hudson’s Bay Company wooden paddle-steamer, the Beaver, fell victim to strong winds and tides and fetched up on the rocks not far away at Prospect Point and sank in First Narrows.

Parsons keeps incidents like that in mind when he rows but can still be fooled by conditions. Once he left Jericho and found himself carried out into the Strait of Georgia by an easterly wind.

“What was a 25-minute trip going out was three hours coming back.”

Jericho Rescue Team is a volunteer group that makes 250-300 rescues per year, he says, the vast majority minor incidents such as righting small laser sailboats that capsize. Parsons is highly supportive of the federal Liberal government’s plan to reopen later this year the Canadian Coast Guard station in Kitsilano, closed by the Conservatives in 2013 despite massive public outcry.

“Bring it back,” Parsons implores. “They are great to work with and are equipped for a vastly different set of tasks than we are.”

As I approach English Bay Beach, one sign stands out among the highrises of the downtown landscape — the white-on-blue of the Cactus Club restaurant that opened on the oceanfront in 2012. While I am in favour of more restaurants on the waterfront, it’s unfortunate this one has become a jarring billboard.

An artist’s inukshuk erected at the corner of Bidwell Street and Beach Avenue reminds me of the real one I spotted years ago during a kayak trip off northern Baffin Island in the Arctic. These collections of rocks serve as landmarks, typically indicating good hunting and fishing locations, but in the urban wilderness could just as easily represent an individual’s personal, spiritual or emotional turning point.

Around the corner, I pull into sculpted Sunset Beach to chat with a family of six. Turns out they are Syrian refugees and speak no English. Well, almost.

We each take some photographs and the father says all their names into my tape recorder. Then he pushes the bow of my kayak to ease me on my journey and says, simply, “Welcome” — the one word he learned upon arrival at Vancouver International Airport.

False Creek

Ahead lies False Creek, the most congested and diverse stretch of oceanfront on my journey. I keep to the right shoreline while paddling under Burrard Bridge and past wharfs with pleasure craft and commercial fishing vessels, and on to Granville Island with its iconic market, shops and restaurants. I keep an air horn close by in case one of the innumerable pesky little passenger ferries gets too close.

My journey continues past several floating homes and colourful murals on six silos at Ocean Concrete painted by Brazilian twin brothers and street artists known as Os Gemeos using about 1,500 cans of spray paint in 2014.

The vibrant, multi-dimensional south shore of False Creek, with its sense of community, stands in sharp contrast to the creek’s antiseptic-looking north shore, dominated by high-end residential highrises.

Even here, though, the evolution is remarkable. Search the Internet for historic photos of False Creek and its beehive burners blasting out toxic smoke and you can still believe in a bright environmental future for our urban oceanfront.

Proceeding back out into English Bay, I am greeted by an armada of about 30 recreational vessels anchored just off the entrance to False Creek. They are saving about $12 per foot per month in moorage fees, although, in fact, local marinas can have a one- to two-year wait for a slip.

Life is a game for these mariners. In winter they are permitted to spend only three weeks at a time anchored in the sheltered waters of False Creek, after which they move to English Bay for about another three weeks, before moving back inside again. Starting in April, False Creek permits are valid for only 14 days.

Kristian Angelov is a native Bulgarian testing out an emergency raft on the bow when I pull alongside his Coronado 10.5-metre sail boat, purchased last September in Washington state. He’s lived in Montreal, and has worked in the oilpatch in Alberta and the potash mines of Saskatchewan. His plan is to sail to Los Angeles in the spring.

“It’s like a boat apartment, kitchen and hot water,” he explains of life on the water.

My journey continues past Vanier Park and the Vancouver Maritime Museum, where the memory of pioneering mariners are preserved, and on past the Kitsilano shoreline. A man stands among the rocks and plays a flute, the melodic sound eddying around the shoreline.

The line of affluent homes — Kitsilano’s so-called Golden Mile — is located on smaller lots than some of their peers in West Vancouver and they do not enjoy the same easy access to the shoreline. These property owners cannot even see the graffiti on the retaining walls below them, including Lululemon founder Chip Wilson’s home on Point Grey Road with an assessed value of $63.8 million — the most expensive in B.C.

I take pleasure threading my way beneath the wharf pilings of the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club despite signs telling me not to, then pass Jericho Beach Park and Spanish Banks en route to Point Grey and the University Endowment Lands.

Suddenly, urban life disappears and I am paddling almost alone past Acadia Beach next to a rocky shoreline beneath leafy cliffs fronting the rolling waters of the Strait of Georgia — one of the most beautiful stretches of the trip.

There’s history here, too: a couple of Second World War light towers, part of military infrastructure that includes gun emplacements still found near the Museum of Anthropology designed to protect Vancouver from naval attack, at Tower Beach.

Farther along, Wreck Beach is a patch of sandy beach at the foot of stairs at Trail 6 in UBC. It’s known for nude sunbathers in summer, but there’s not so much as a plunging neckline to be found on this cool evening.

Campfires are banned here, within 874-hectare Pacific Spirit Park, but several are burning as I pull ashore on the soft sands. I hide my tent behind some shrubs on the calm side of a rock breakwater next to a marsh and log booms demarking the north arm of the Fraser River.

The beach is busy with mostly young students who have ditched their homework and come down for the sunset views and to watch the harbour seals and tugs just offshore. Several individuals stay after dark to drink and party loudly for hours and are oblivious to my presence at the other end of the beach. They eventually stagger up the steps, their flashlights flickering through the forest like fire flies, leaving the stars overhead and the waves gently massaging the shoreline at my toes.