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First Person Why I can’t stay away from Stanley Park (even though it’s a 14-hour flight)

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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When incredulous friends, family and work colleagues ask, “Why are you going all that way to Vancouver again?” It’s a 14-hour flight from my home in Queensland, Australia, and it’s my third visit, so I understand where they are coming from. But Stanley Park is always the answer. If they don’t know the city, my response is met with blank faces of incomprehension. How do I explain Stanley Park? Words such as massive, majestic and unique always creep into my vocabulary when describing the more than 400 hectares of urban forest. How do I share and explain the pure joy I feel when I walk along the nine kilometres of seawall that surrounds the park? How do I describe the views out over the pristine waters of English Bay on one side of the park and the Burrard Inlet on the other? I share these experiences with enthusiasm and passion, but my friends remain unconvinced and skeptical. However, the fault may lie with them, as my friends’ idea of a holiday involves a hectic blur of crowds, credit cards and cruise ships.

So, I persevere and try to convince friends and family that Stanley Park is definitely worth the 12,000-km journey. My reasons for travelling all that way go something like this: As a hiking enthusiast, Stanley Park always captures my interest and imagination. Whether it’s being amazed by the sheer size of the huge tankers sitting like silent sentinels out on the bay or staring up at the underbelly of the Lions Gate Bridge or watching the seaplanes use the waters of Coal Harbour as their runway, the explanations are endless.

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Also, as an urban forest, there are infinite trails to explore in the interior of the park. With names such as Bridle Path and Lovers Walk, the cross-hatch of dirt trails and pathways that intersect and interweave have led me to places such as the Lost Lagoon and Beaver Lake. The gnawed bases of tree trunks and the sizeable mound of mud in the middle of the lake provide evidence that an amphibious and ingenious rodent does actually live in the park, but on the days I waited and watched, the beaver remained evasive. With the gnawed trees as clues, the beaver was playing a game of hide and seek and was teasing me, luring me to come find him. This, of course, added to my intrigue and interest in this dam-building rodent.

Unlike the photo-shy beaver, a family of raccoons were more than willing to pose for paparazzi merely living in their own Hollywood. These masked bandits appeared one day in scrubby surrounds at the back of the Vancouver Aquarium, one of the few commercial enterprises in the park. The raccoons were completely unperturbed by the crowd of people they attracted, but were probably secretly snickering at the couple taking photos with their pink iPad.

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On another trip, I remember a massive bald eagle also drew onlookers as it disemboweled a seagull. In a show of raw brutality, while perched on a rock in the water not far from the edge of the seawall, this powerful bird of prey used its beak and talons to shred the seagull’s body. The spectacle attracted people and their cameras and, like the raccoons, the eagle remained totally immune to the attention.

If beavers, raccoons and eagles aren’t enough to ignite my questioner’s interest, then there are always the trees. In fall, the burnt-orange leaves of the maple are my favourite as they remind me of my Ridgeback dog. It may seem like an odd comparison, but when I have travelled all that way, I miss my playful, loyal companion and wish she was with me to explore the trails and the seawall. The travel guidebook tells me that there are half a million trees in Stanley Park that include maple, fir, birch and cedar trees with some of these gentle giants being extremely old. On the trail to Beaver Lake, a gigantic western red cedar was blown over during a storm in 2006 and scientists have since determined that the tree was 600 years old. This means that this monolithic tree stood on this Earth well before Captain James Cook sailed his ship, Endeavour, along the east coast of Australia – my home country – and was a relatively young tree when European settlers first set foot in North America.

Although this ancient cedar will eventually return to the Earth from whence it came, while it is rotting on the forest floor, it provides a nutrient base for young trees to grow and thrive. So, just as the ancient cedar provides new life, the budding leaves of the maple trees signify new life and mark the change of season. After all, it is by design and not by default that the flag of Canada, the packaging of Molson Brewery and the uniforms of the Canadian national ice hockey team all use the maple leaf as a prominent feature. The maple leaf, especially the red maple leaf, is synonymous with Canada; the essence of all that is Canada.

The old adage about the journey being what matters and not the destination is wrong. When Stanley Park is the destination it definitely matters and is unequivocally worth travelling all that way.

Wendy Beutel lives in Queensland, Australia.

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