Vancouver's Stanley Park

The first time you venture inland from the seawall that borders Vancouver's Stanley Park you realize instantly that you're treading on hallowed ground: one thousand acres of centuries-old, sky-reaching trees that quite simply take your breath away. These monuments of nature tower around you and overpower you with the scents of cedar and fir. If you wanted to wrap your arms around one of their trunks, you'd need three friends to do it. And as you step into the forest, the sounds of Vancouver's busy West End mysteriously fade away and you are enveloped in tranquility. Walking along the park's trails, you are drawn to the mystical; the combined stillness and energy of the place seeps into your being and awakens your senses in a way that must be experienced to be understood.

What city in the world can claim to have a park of this size, home to approximately half a million trees, within easy reach of its downtown? Little wonder, then, that Vancouver's citizens take such pride in it and were so moved by the effects of a devastating wind storm in December of 2006 that they pledged more than three million dollars to a special fund to restore the damaged areas of this unique urban forest.

Larger than New York's Central Park and jutting into the channel that leads to Vancouver's harbor, the park was opened in 1888 and dedicated to Lord Stanley, Canada's Governor General, in 1889. More than a park, this natural playground, bordered by mountains and the Pacific Ocean, is a testament to environmentalists who were well ahead of their time.

In 1886, the citizens of Vancouver, working through their city council, approached the Canadian government in Ottawa asking to lease what was then a logging peninsula in order to convert it for park and recreational purposes. The city council set up an elected committee to govern all parks in Vancouver, and today the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation is said to be the only elected body of its kind in the country.

Stanley Park is separated from the ocean by a seawall that is more than five miles, or eight kilometers, long; a paved ribbon that attracts walkers, cyclists and skateboarders who take in the sea air and admire the Lions Gate Bridge that connects downtown Vancouver to the North Shore of Burrard Inlet. In the summer months, enormous cruise ships pass underneath the suspension bridge on their way up the coast to Alaska's glaciers. Walking at a steady pace, it takes about two hours to complete the seawall circuit, so be sure to wear appropriate footwear.

On a recent early evening, I was walking along the western seawall at low tide when, no more than fifty paces away, a pair of bald eagles suddenly swooped down from the trees and, talons outstretched, stole a fish from a seagull that was perched on a large rock in the water. Unperturbed by either the angry seagull that dive-bombed them and cried vehemently, or by the human onlookers that had stopped to watch, the pair of large eagles had their meal. Once close to extinction, bald eagles have made a remarkable comeback on the West Coast.

Further along, at Second Beach, three swimmers swam lengths in the park's public pool, quiet now and relatively still as dusk approached. The wide facility, with a connected wading area for children, is an elegantly designed infinity pool, with its edge matching the horizon and creating the optical illusion of the ocean and the pool being one and the same.

It was a splendid evening, with Vancouverites gathering on the beach at English Bay. People with guitars emerged, couples held hands and sat on logs laid out on the sand, seniors and children alike were talking amiably -- all there to enjoy the sunset. A little off to the side of the path, by the tennis courts and behind the building that houses the Board of Parks and Recreation, rose a cacophony of cries, a curious sound like turkeys gobbling and cats fighting. Looking up into the height of the trees, you could see many families of blue herons nesting. A wooden rail had been erected to keep people on the sidewalk; a raccoon combed the ground at the base of the trees. Droppings covered the leaves.

Overlooking the beach, diners at the Boathouse Restaurant sat on the open deck and talked quietly as the sun slid down behind Stanley Park and the distant mountains on Vancouver Island; watched freighters in the bay turn on their lights as the flat sea turned a silvery gray. Two kayakers paddled softly home and glasses and cutlery tinkled over the boardwalk.

A visitor senses that Vancouver's people know full well they've been entrusted with a gift of nature; something worth preserving, just as the park's founders intended more than one hundred years ago.

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