Places

Stanley Park: Vancouver’s iconic greenspace

Bestselling author Bill Arnott takes readers on a journey through Vancouver’s most popular park in anticipation of his new book, A Perfect Day for a Walk 

  • Jun 07, 2024
  • 1,222 words
  • 5 minutes
Stanley Park's famous Siwash Rock. (Photo: Bill Arnott)
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This text has been written in conjunction with the stories from A Perfect Day for a Walk: The Histories, Cultures, and Communities of Vancouver, on foot. 

I’m exploring, or rather, re-exploring, Vancouver’s Stanley Park, the peninsular west tip of the city, an expansive greenspace comparable to London’s Hyde Park and New York’s Central Park combined. A crow glides by, clutching a mussel, as I walk the park’s perimeter, clockwise, on sea-hugging walkway and serpentine roads, now misty in delicate rain.

Starlings and pigeons peck at aerated grass, and daffodils blanket a south-facing slope. The park at the moment is quintessential Pacific Northwest: steely sea with an evergreen fog. Fronting the beach, the shared footpath and cycle route widen, inviting and pedestrian friendly. Two geese cross the road on a zebra-stripe crosswalk. Traffic comes to a halt as the birds thwack along with everyone else.

English Bay with Stanley Park in the background. (Photo: Bill Arnott)
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A bust of David Oppenheimer – mayor of Vancouver, 1888 to 1891 – stares east, a smear of guano on one ear. I pass ash trees and arrowwood plants where a sign describes shorebirds: oystercatchers, goldeneyes, herons, and grebes. The tide, low and slack, reveals rocks in algae and kelp. A ship puffs in the harbour, and my breath in the chill resembles the exhales of the boat, as though we’ve been cast in a Marlboro ad. A few good mornings as I pass other walkers, a sense of shared space. Were the world still on lockdown, we wouldn’t be here, doing this. The park closed at that time as coyotes took over, reclaiming domain.

Past a fir seeping resin, the look of a gigantic candle. Around the Teahouse and Third Beach, I’m now at the westernmost point of the park, where sea-going tankers are surprisingly close, looming in rust-reds and blacks. The roar of a helijet, basso and throaty, skims under cloud, aiming east. The sea, oil calm. Something about the near-silence, low mist, what I expect to be muting is in fact amplifying the world, an increase in each little noise.

Two cormorants stand on an islet of rock, the look of castaways gauging the tide. The ground here is a mess of patched grass with fir bows and cones, a lumpy pine carpet. A placard pinpoints where I am on a map (you are here). Still a distance to go. At an open gate, the twin peaks of The Lions are depicted in steel. A sign warns of rockfall. Beside me, a high cliff of sandstone and granite with a few clinging alder. I could be staring at a painting by Emily Carr, only larger than any one canvas.

Two geese stand atop Siwash Rock like newlyweds crowning a cake. A lone tree tops the rock with the geese, the look of unruly hair. A herring gull watches me pass. Ahead, a circle of rocks in the water, ancient Salish fish traps, with the smooth sandy slope of a hand-built canoe launch, what could be 4,000 years old. At the base of the Siwash Rock pinnacle, a plaque shares the stone’s legend. “An imperishable monument to ‘Skalsh the Unselfish,’ who was turned into stone by ‘Q’uas the Transformer’ as a reward for his unselfishness.”

'Girl in Wetsuit' by Elek Imred. (Photo: Bill Arnott)
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More cautionary signage: Slippery surfaces ahead. Another warns: Don’t feed the wildlife. Snowberry and blackberry grow from the cliff. Water near shore is glass-clear and I’m able to peer through the shallows, make out tiny rocks on the seafloor with ripples of sand, mottled stone, a cluster of barnacles with a few strands of bull-kelp the colour of tea.

A yacht putters by, its wake slapping shore with a sibilant sound. The peaks of The Lions are sheepish in lingering cloud, woolly and just out of sight. An odd speckled rock directly offshore gives a nostrilly snort and exhale – a harbour seal – that follows me east, five metres away.

Lions Gate Bridge is now behind me. Ahead, Brockton Point Lighthouse. To the east, the cranes of the Port of Vancouver. Between here and there, scalloped beaches with driftwood. Immediately south, the Stanley Park Totems stand in a copse of storytelling and family trees.

Offshore, a bronze lounges on rock, Girl in Wetsuit, a sculpture by Elek Imredy. Remarkably lifelike, the woman, a diver, seems to be sitting right there, watching the narrows and bridge, maybe waiting to chat with the seal. Watching over this is a figurehead of the SS Empress of Japan, a CP liner that crossed the Pacific over 300 times at the turn of the twentieth century, hauling passengers, cargo, and mail.

Lumberman's Arch. (Photo: Bill Arnott)
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'SS Empress of Japan' figurehead, with Lions Gate Bridge visible in the background. (Photo: Bill Arnott)
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A float plane curves from Coal Harbour to split the bridge uprights like a perfect field-goal. Rain picks up, I turn south, through Lumberman’s Arch and a corridor of moss-freckled sycamore. Like various meeting locales around town, the Arch is a place countless people have gathered. A simple but clever design, a lashing of raw timber, now reinforced with steel bolts, resembles a felled tree. Which serves as a historical marker as well, for it was here, more or less, that Captain Edward Stamp made his first attempt at a sawmill in 1865. The idea being easy access to Burrard Inlet, the “First Narrows,” a seemingly ideal spot for raw material as well as dock access for shipping. But tides here are exceedingly strong. That, combined with an unpredictable reef made Stamp’s mill plans infeasible.

He moved his plant farther east, near the site of the modern day port, but still it didn’t succeed. Stories vary. Some claim Stamp lacked business acumen. Other accounts indicate he was impossible to work with, or for. Whatever the reasons, his initiatives failed. But what he began did eventually succeed, with others in charge. Hastings Mill was that venture, what many consider the seed that would sprout the city of Vancouver.

A crow with the 'Turtle Back' of Stanley Park to the right. (Photo: Bill Arnott)
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Vancouver Aquarium is now to my left. To my right, a rose garden. On a slope stands a statue of Lord Stanley, arms wide with benevolence, regifting unceded land. To the northeast, the Nine O’Clock Gun, the Naval Museum at HMCS Discovery, and a statue of Harry Jerome, the teacher from North Vancouver who set seven world records in track and field in the 1960s. Ahead is the Vancouver Rowing Club, here since 1899, with its predecessor, the Vancouver Boating Club, established in 1886, when the city changed its name from Gastown to Vancouver.

By the shore are commemorative benches, one with a bouquet of flowers: red, yellow, and mauve. I pass the Japanese-Canadian War Memorial, a sentinel column. A few ducks paddle a pond, surrounded in poplar and laurel. And a confluence of trails finally funnel me out from the park. Ahead lies Coal Harbour, with an east-facing view of the city.

More rain. I switch from a hood to umbrella. At an underpass a resident has set up a shelter with blankets and groceries. Around Lost Lagoon, through the West End, I bear south. A nod from a man in a kilt, his umbrella in Salish design. Near Burrard Bridge four herons brood from tall hemlocks, feathered hands clasped behind backs. The sombre collective could be undertakers at work, browsing for business. I can’t help but quicken my pace, hoping to avoid their attention.

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