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Water’s Edge: Paddling Metro Vancouver’s scenic shores

Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun, May 6, 2016

One does not embark on a 10-day paddling trip without considering those who went before.

First Nations plied these waters for millennia in dugout cedar canoes described by the Bill Reid Centre at Simon Fraser University as the “single most important physical manifestation of Northwest Coast culture” existing at the “nexus between technology and living beings.”

Then came the Spanish and British in their sailing ships in the later 1700s, charting the coast and putting thoughts to paper.

Captain George Vancouver, navigating Howe Sound on June 14, 1792, wrote of the “dark gloomy weather that added greatly to the dreary prospect of the surrounding country,” described the Coast Mountains as a “stupendous snowy barrier … rising from the sea abruptly to the clouds” and spoke of the melting snow sending sublime torrents of water down rocky chasms.

The early afternoon sun shatters across the surface of Howe Sound and an El Niño pushes the temperature to a balmy 13 C in February. There’s barely a ripple on the water, which is a good thing. The powerful Squamish winds that barrel down the sound can be lethal, including the deaths of two experienced male paddlers who died in 2007 when their kayak flipped.

Captain Vancouver recorded a vacant landscape when he travelled here: “Not a bird, nor living creature was to be seen, and the roaring of the falling cataracts in every direction precluded their being heard, had any been in our neighbourhood.”

He could not have known that June is the quietest month for birds in our region, whereas in winter the number and diversity are greater than anywhere in Canada. Nature is all around me: the dark slippery periscope of a harbour seal; the squeaky-door call of a bald eagle; Canada geese honking from an old barge; goldeneye ducks and common and hooded mergansers carving delicate wakes just offshore.

Below the bustling Sea to Sky Highway, the rocky shoreline is indented with small sea caves. Frail waterfalls tumble toward the Pacific Ocean. And massive log stumps stranded 10 metres up the rocks speak of powerful winter storms.

Paddling close to shore also has its hazards. Ferry waves arrive unexpectedly and, combined with backwash off the rocks, are enough to capsize an unsuspecting paddler. West Vancouver provides much to distract.

It is Metro Vancouver’s quintessential residential community. Homes rising from shoreline up Hollyburn Mountain represented $52 million in tax revenues in 2014 compared with just $36,000 for industry.

West Van is home to three of the top 10 most expensive homes on the Metro Vancouver oceanfront and detached homes on the ocean have an average value of $6.3 million, according to BC Assessment data provided to The Sun by Landcor Data Corp.

Architecturally distinct waterfront homes loom above the shoreline, badgered into the forest of Douglas fir and cedar.

Staircases leading to the water are forged from wood, concrete, rock, metal, aluminum, some spiralled, others with glass siding. Some lead to sun decks and chairs or benches. One sign warns of a sewage outfall, another to beware of mermaids.

Just ahead the scenic seaside community of Horseshoe Bay looms as a navigational challenge.

BC Ferries vessels may seem slow from the perspective of a cheeseburger lunch in the cafeteria, but at kayak level they move along at intimidating speeds exceeding 20 knots.

Once the 140-metre-long Queen of Surrey — almost five times the size of Vancouver’s ship, Discovery — is berthed and loading cars, I boot it across the bay and take refuge behind rocks at Tyee Point.

New explorers

Other modern-day explorers precede me. Two 21-year-olds from North Vancouver — Ethan Kennedy and Tyler Salt, graduates of Carson Graham Secondary school — are also checking out a beach property and wondering why the home is all boarded up and splashed with graffiti.

Property records show the 4.5-hectare Nelson Avenue property is assessed at more than $17 million and is owned by PAK Construction Ltd., the directors of which are Efat and Kazem Askari of West Vancouver.

While contemplating universities and careers, Kennedy and Salt enjoy exploring remote and little-known pockets of land from the North Shore to Squamish. They’d seen this place while riding BC Ferries and decided to have a look.

“We saw you and wondered who you were,” Salt says.

“If we’re not supposed to be here then he’s not supposed to be here,” adds Kennedy: “We’ll go down together.”

I paddle southward along the shoreline and find a burly man looking down from a residential construction site. He walks down to the water to chat, pointing out the impressive garden of green sea urchins below my kayak.

Home builder Mike Ruegamer of North Vancouver tells me I am lucky because I get paid to paddle and because the seas are frequently stormy here.

This is the 102nd home he has constructed in the Vancouver area and the one he won’t easily forget.

“We’ve been here for over five years,” he says of the 10,000-square-foot concrete home on Arbutus Place. “It’s like having an office job, going to the same place every day.”

The owner is a German businessman married to a woman from Saskatchewan and they’re finally about to move in. At what cost?

Ruegamer replies it’s the kind of money you’d expect from winning a lottery. “It’s incredibly detailed, the amount of work and planning that goes into it. All my homes typically take two years minimum, but they are built to last.”

Just beyond lies the rocky bluffs of Whytecliff Park — Canada’s first marine-protected area, created in 1993. People are positioned across the rocks like Hollywood Squares: families, lovers, friends, all seeking nature’s solace in a region of 2.5 million.

A spine of rocks exposed at low tide extends out to Whyte Islet, where God knows how many people must get stuck when the tide comes in.

Batchelor Bay around the corner is followed by salmon-bearing Larson Creek, named after Pete Larson, owner of the old Canyon View Hotel above the Cleveland Dam in North Vancouver.

Old versus new

I erect my tent in the late afternoon on a patch of grass near the Gleneagles Golf Course and practice no-trace camping — creating a small campfire below the tide line and even cleaning up others’ garbage. Still, it is a restless night, wondering if the police might show to roust me.

The next morning, raindrops bounce off the griddle of flat ocean. It makes for tranquil paddling despite the insidious water finding its way down the cuffs of my jacket.

I cast a glance over my left shoulder toward West Vancouver Yacht Club and Thunderbird Marina then skirt the shoreline of Eagle Island, accessible only by boat.

Indian Bluff just ahead is an impressive stretch of rock that precedes the boundary of 65-hectare Lighthouse Park. I paddle past Juniper Point and Merganser Bay to Point Atkinson and its distant views of Point Grey in Vancouver.

My map warns of potential “strong tide rips and steep overfalls” where the waters of Burrard Inlet and Howe Sound meet. Calm conditions allow for an up-close look at the historic white-and-red lighthouse, which was built in 1912, declared a national historic site in 1994 and automated in 1996. Elaine Graham, widow of the last lightkeeper, Donald, still lives on the site, but refuses to be interviewed.

Around the corner I pull up to a pocket beach where longtime residents of West Vancouver are playing with their dogs.

“There’s been lots of development,” begins Marina Alexander, raised at 29th Street and Palmerston Avenue. “We had chickens. It was very rural. Now the homes are huge.”

Some are cashing in on the high prices and moving out, but not her. This is her community, where her friends live. “Every once in a while … you look at how spectacular it is and you think, ‘why wouldn’t the world want to live here?’ ”

Tom Foster, a resident of 40 years, agrees that the village feel of West Vancouver is gone. “It was very peaceful. That ambience has changed. People recognized that West Van was a very nice place to live, so they started to come and build, tear down and build.”

One constant is Lighthouse Park, the sort of waterfront green space that only grows in value over time.

“It hasn’t changed,” Foster says. “It’s still as great as ever, a wonderful place to come and relax and see nature.”

Seals, sea lions, mink and river otters can be spotted here. “It’s pretty spectacular in the middle of a big city.”

The park gives way to the residential Caulfeild area and a new-look waterfront — homes no longer situated on imposing rock bluffs in the natural forest but on flatter ground and decorated with palms, trimmed hedges and ornamentals.

At low tide, mussels and other crustaceans are fair game. Gulls paddle up to the exposed rocks to peck away while crows stand on top and work their way down. One gull catches a small purple starfish but is frustrated by the fact it hardens out of the water. As part of his master’s thesis at Simon Fraser University, Justin Suraci found it can take 45 minutes to choke one down, including a “pre-digesting” period to soften it up. “I often saw gulls hold two legs in their mouth/throat for several minutes, then … switch it around to hold two different legs in their mouth.”

As I continue eastward, one man waves as he powerwashes his backyard, as does the operator of a backhoe. A worker shouts “ahoy” from the third-floor window of a home under construction.

Up on Radcliffe Avenue is the lavish home of business magnate Frank Giustra: eight bedrooms, six full and four partial bathrooms on three lots with a total assessed value of $37 million. We both attended Aldergrove Secondary school and our late principal Norm Sherritt at reunions liked to tell the story of having to call Giustra’s Italian mother due to his rebellious nature.

“Go ahead, she doesn’t speak English,” Giustra taunted. Sherritt reported back that “she speaks better English than you do.”

Just ahead, Dundarave Park is the perfect place to come ashore for a hot lunch near a colourful drugstore mural that depicts the first European sailing ships and wisps of smoke from native villages on a forested shoreline.

Single-family residences yield to highrises on the oceanfront east of Dundarave, the maximum allowable height set at 20 storeys.

At popular Ambleside Park, a welcome figure — a large cedar carving by artist Stan Joseph, with the assistance of Wes Nahanee — looks to the sea with open arms just before the Capilano River and the historic Squamish community of Xwemelch’stn.

The first people

Captain Vancouver wrote fondly of his experience at First Narrows, where Lions Gate Bridge was later built in 1938. “Here we were met by about fifty Indians, in their canoes, who conducted themselves with the greatest decorum and civility, presenting us with several fish cooked … These good people, finding we were included to make some return for their hospitality, shewed much understanding in preferring iron to copper.”

Today, the Squamish remain sharp business people with vast land holdings that include the Park Royal Shopping Centre, Lynnwood and Mosquito Creek marinas, and the Capilano River RV Park — visible to motorists as they merge onto the north side of the Lions Gate Bridge.

I recall actor Matthew McConaughey on a late-night talk show relating how he stayed in the RV park while shooting a movie in Vancouver. Salmon were running upstream, he said, and natives would place metal shopping carts on their side in the water, let them fill with fish, then cart away the bounty.

Unable to find a good take-out point on the Capilano River, I put the kayak onto my pickup truck and check in as the park’s only tenter. My address tonight is 295 Tomahawk Avenue. Clean washrooms, hot showers, laundry, Wi-Fi, but no wood campfires and, sorry, the hot tub isn’t working.

You’d think that sleeping like a troll beneath a major bridge would be oppressively loud, but the slow-merging traffic is surprisingly quiet.

Across from me, Derek Garner is couch surfing in a relative’s RV after a couple of weeks on the streets. The father of two misses his family and struggles to get ahead without a job and a recent hospitalization.

“Twenty-five cents for water at McDonald’s is a fair price — if you’ve got it,” he says. “I’ve been 14 months sober. I don’t do any drugs. Smoke a little bit.”

He would like a job that involves keeping kids safe. “Social work, teaching life skills, taking care of the kids and making sure they don’t hurt themselves with the shit that’s out there, needles and who knows what.”

Later, Bob Brown, a retired BC Tel worker from Gibsons, and his dog, George, drop by my tent for a visit. Some people are full-time residents of the RV park; Brown’s been here seven weeks taking physiotherapy after knee-replacement surgery.

“It’s not the greatest spot,” he allows. “The sites are a little tight, but it’s just so damned handy. Everything’s here. You don’t have to travel back and forth on the ferry.”

He also appreciates the security. “It’s quite secure, too; as far as riff-raff coming through, nothing happens,” he continues, allowing for the odd reporter to slip under the radar.

“I forgot about that, Larry. They do let some in.”

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