vancouver, british columbia

Thirty-odd years is a long time between visits, and a lot has changed in the interim. Vancouver has gone huge on me. Somewhere in there, Vancouver became every investor’s dream, and along with all the capital came a whole lot of people. How it’s played out, at least in part, is property values have soared, there doesn’t seem to be a square inch of available space, and it looks and feels like a real estate bubble just waiting to burst. We’ll have to see how that pans out, but in the meantime, as a visitor, all I have to do is enjoy it while I’m here. And so I do.

Bridget and I are fortunate to be staying with a school chum of mine from my Montreal days, Sharon, and her husband, Philippe, who graciously host us for a few days in their lovely home in North Vancouver. North Van is also home to the Capilano Suspension Bridge – a 450-foot-long bridge that sways 230 feet above the Capilano River.

Originally built in 1889 from hemp rope and cedar planks, the bridge has since been rebuilt, so now we hold on to steel cables instead of rope as we swing and sway our way high above the canyon floor.

Across to the other side, we’re deep in old-growth forest of Douglas fir, wandering along nature trails and cable bridges suspended between high tree platforms …


… and then there’s the cliffwalk – a cantilevered 20-inch-wide walkway jutting out from a cliff 300 feet above the river. Vertigo, anyone?

Burrard Inlet separates Vancouver’s suburban north shore from its city center, and there are a couple of bridges that will get you there. Heading south on Vancouver’s most famous bridge, the Lions Gate, lands us in Stanley Park – a thousand-acre forested peninsula that serves as a gateway into downtown. The park offers bike paths and beaches, totem poles and gardens, not to mention great views of the city …

Inside that skyline is Gastown, Vancouver’s original downtown, named after “Gassy” Jack Deighton, a Yorkshire steamboat captain, who showed up in 1867 (the year of Canada’s confederation) and opened up the area’s first saloon. Apparently it was the gassy monologues he delivered from behind the bar that gave him his nickname.

Gastown’s most famous landmark is the steam-powered clock on the corner of Water and Cambie streets. Below the city’s streets there is a steam heating network, and the clock was built over one of the grates as a way to harness the steam.

Watch it in motion as the big hand hits the 12 …



There are not a lot of views around town that don’t capture the water. The city is a port, so water is bound to be a big part of the picture. Here’s the view from our perch on Granville Island – an island on the south side of town that is home to a collection of artisans’ shops, restaurants and great views of the harbor …

Back on the north shore, one of our evenings in town we’re invited for dinner with old family friends whom we caught up with at Jenn’s wedding – Kathy and Paul, and their son, Brett, and his girlfriend, Julie. It’s like old home week for Kathy and me, regaling ourselves with stories from the summer of ’69 and our time in Osoyoos. And the summer of ’81 when Kathy was logging hours in the cockpit to get her pilot’s license and took me for a ride over the islands off the coast. A lot of water under the bridge since then and a lot of ground to cover – great times with friends, then and now.

We have a wonderful dinner with Sharon and Philippe one night, giving us a chance to get to know Philippe a little bit when Sharon and I aren’t hogging airtime with stories about our school days back at St. Helen’s. Thanks to Facebook, some of the girls from St. Helen’s have virtually reunited and we’re making it official in the fall, when we’re getting together for a St. Helen’s first-ever reunion. Sharon and I have pledged to be there.

Our third night in town included a visit to Dollarton, east along the north shore of Burrard Inlet. Bridget and I borrowed a few books from Scott and Val’s library a few weeks ago and we’ve promised to return them to their daughter, Tara, who lives in Dollarton, and let her take care of getting them back to her parents. Tara and her husband, Paul, live a stone’s throw away from the water and a nearby park with a commemorative plaque and a trail named for Malcolm Lowry, author of “Under the Volcano.” Lowry and his wife, Margerie, lived in a squatter’s shack on the Dollarton shore from 1940 to 1954. I’ve long had an image, gleaned from a biography of his, of Lowry standing over the shack’s lone table, leaning into it with his arms straight, hands bent at the knuckles, and in that position, fists pressed into the tabletop, he’d dictate his writing while Margerie typed up his words. Scott told me another Lowrey story just a few weeks ago; this one has Lowry looking across the inlet to the Shell refinery on the south shore. As he looked at the furnaces burning, it happens that the “S” was burned out of the Shell sign, and Lowry is reported to have quipped a bon mot about his vantage point at the edge of hell.

I don’t know if Shell still owns it, but indeed, Lowry’s hell is still there …

South of the city, towns fill up the map on the way to the U.S. border, and we’ve got a few of them to visit on our way to the ferry that will take us to Vancouver Island. Our first stop heading south is Surrey, where my birth mother lives. Living on the other side of the continent as we do, it’s not often that we get the chance to see each other, so this is a very happy day. We’ve decided that nothing would be more perfect on this beautiful sunny day than a dockside lunch of fish and chips in the neighboring town of White Rock. Perfect.

You know you’re in British Columbia, when you pass by this kind of sign on the shop door …

It’s all smiles …

From Surrey and White Rock, Bridget and I are off to Tsawwassen for a couple of nights of couchsurfing with my friend Paul and his family. It’s been so long since I’ve seen Paul that this is the first time I’ve met his two grown sons, Dennis and Al. I only wish Paul’s wife, Cheryl, wasn’t out of town on business, but be that as it may, we soldier on without her. Paul’s arranged for a backyard barbecue in our honor – old friends and new, and among them is a St. Helen’s School chum of Sharon and mine, Diane, whom I haven’t seen since … well, we’re not really counting.

The old libertarian crowd: Paul, Shannon, Lindsey and Marco

The totem pole is ubiquitous here on the British Columbia coast. With each one telling a different story, the poles keep First Nation legends alive. It would take someone more aware than I to interpret these stories; my job it seems is to simply stand and look and imagine what they say. Whatever it is, it is quintessential BC and Vancouver.



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