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Siwash Rock © Brad Zembic

Stanley Park,
Vancouver's Backyard Retreat

By Brad Zembic

English Bay © Brad Zembic
A Glimpse at English Bay © Brad Zembic

The alarm clock strikes 4:30 a.m. but I am already awake – partial insomnia either from being robbed in my sleep one year in Cameroon or terrorized by my older brother when I was a kid. It may sound like a curse, but to a recluse like me being sleepless when most people are still enjoying their slumber is actually a blessing.

I pick up the morning paper. Breezing past the Syrian slaughter, the flying bullets at Toronto's Eaton Centre and the notorious Canadian Psycho, I head straight to the weather section. There is a little promise in this, one of Vancouver's coldest and soggiest Junes. I glance out the window and gage just how far along the swollen, steel-coloured clouds are in delivering rain. The forecast is for a dry morning with showers beginning in the early afternoon, but here on British Columbia's south coast, it's really only guesswork.

Stanley Park © Brad Zembic
Next Stop, Nirvana © Brad Zembic

I am prepared for this. I have already shaven and bathed and laid out my cycling kit the night before. I have also prepared a short breakfast of coffee and biscotti, and after I've eaten I'm off – a pre-work jaunt around Vancouver's Stanley Park at a time of day when the only person I am likely to meet is a bell-rattling Buddhist named Johnny, emerging from yet another cold, wet sleep in the bush.

By the time I have completed the section of the bicycle route that circumnavigates trendy Yaletown and the beach side of the city's West End it is 5:30. There is the odd jogger bounding along the pedestrian way that winds its way like a tentacle at the edge of English Bay, and a few trucks are unloading bottles of wine and beer for local bars. Cargo ships lay like giant toys on the glassy sea; in the distance fibrous clouds thread around hazy mountains. Everywhere there is birdsong. I inhale deeply the salty Pacific air. This is my nirvana, I muse, my great break from city bustle and the complexities of human interaction.

Once my wheels spin onto the park's duck-head-shaped peninsula, Vancouver disappears all together. I am afforded only glimpses of the bay through the summer foliage. A lofty community of blue herons perched high in oaks and maples at the park's southern gateway is rampant with squawking as a bald eagle threatens overhead. Heronries in Stanley Park have existed for nearly a century, but the Beach Avenue site, flanked by West End apartments, is just a feather over a decade old. At its peak in 2005 the heronry was nearly as densely populated as the neighbourhood it shares, with 170 nests crammed into an area the size of a penthouse suite.

Coal Harbour Urban Jungle © Brad Zembic
Coal Harbour Urban Jungle © Brad Zembic

Further down the trail a crow chases a black squirrel into a tree and a solitary worker at the lawn bowling club prepares to trim the already manicured grass. A trio of raccoons trundles across my path, briefly stopping to check me out; a redheaded woodpecker hammers away at a Douglas fir. Some days a quirky collection of musicians performs a seaside concert as the sun glints off the snowy peaks of the north shore mountains. The rare human early bird I meet jogging or cycling seems as affected as I am by the surrounding innocence and utters a hearty “Good morning!” This is a completely different side of the concrete forest I call home.

I cut through the southeast side of the park to reach Coal Harbour and come across Johnny and his shopping cart piled high with brassware, bells and bric-a-brac – a ramshackle stupa on wheels. I first met Johnny a few years ago outside a supermarket where he politely asked me to buy him a slab of cheese. His gratitude was authentic and in exchange for my generosity he offered his intuition and tips on how I could enhance my physical wellbeing. Our conversations have been growing longer – and deeper – on every encounter, and now each evening before a ride I prepare an extra one and a half breakfasts: one for Johnny and an additional half of one for the dog that protects him from the perils of open-air urban living, which includes theft from other park dwellers. Johnny repays me by humbly pressing his hands into prayer position, and then, as I continue my way through the cathedral of trees, by jangling a cluster of bells that will, he claims, give me power.

Hotel for the homeless by night, recreational wonderland by day, Stanley Park is something for everyone. It's a 400-hectare garden oasis in one of Canada's largest cities and one of North America's most renowned urban green spaces. It's also the traditional home of the Burrard, Musqueam and Squamish first nations who for thousands of years forged their livelihoods from the abundance that nature provided. After their first contact with Europeans in 1771, however, things were never the same. Several decades later, the British government recognized the peninsula's valuable military importance and in the 1860s, partly in anticipation of an American invasion, it was designated a military reserve. The city proclaimed the region a park in 1888 and named it after Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley, Canada's Governor General – not something that sits well with the Squamish. Recently, Chief Ian Campbell of the Squamish nation tried to convince the Canadian government to honour his people by adding Xwáýxway, the name of a Squamish village that once occupied the site, to the park name. Politicians averse to upsetting the park's internationally recognized brand rebuffed his request.

midway © Brad Zembic
Midway Point © Brad Zembic

Aside from its nearly ten-kilometre, coast-hugging seawall, Stanley Park is a paradise of beaches, rainforest trails, gardens, cafes, restaurants, and tourist activities and attractions. The only thing it lacks, it seems – apart from a first nations nickname – is a zoo. Although the park boasts having Canada's largest aquarium, animal exhibits – for ethical reasons – were phased out in 1994. In 2011 the popular children's petting farm was dismantled, its wards – chickens, goats, bunnies, and the like – adopted out to compassionate families and, reportedly, to a Fraser Valley farm that passed them on to a local abattoir. Even without domestic critters to play with, though, there is much to entertain the over eight million visitors that walk, run, drive, cycle, rollerblade or skateboard through the park each year. A miniature train toots along a two-kilometre track, carrying passengers through theme-oriented settings; an outdoor theatre holds concerts during warmer months; the Variety Kids' Water Park ensures a cool down on a hot summer day. It's no wonder this emerald parcel of property that squats like a goose at the edge of the city's downtown core is so popular.

But what attracts me to Stanley Park isn't the cluster of totems at Brockton Point, the horse drawn buggies that clip-clop through the cedars or even the orca show at the aquarium. My purpose is deep and personal. It's born from a crying need to escape the concrete, the crowds, the commerce, the machines and, for a brief time, to be in a place where nature isn't produced solely by design and where I can, at least before the sun rises, belt out a song without anyone questioning my mental health. I cycle Stanley Park to hear the surf's yogic rhythm and the robins' throaty warble, to marvel at the Canada goslings and the rolling mist on Lost Lagoon and, frankly, to experience as close as I can the world in a state of grace.

Facing West © Brad Zembic
Facing West © Brad Zembic

One morning last week I stopped near the lighthouse at Prospect Point to breathe in the fresh sea air. A gentle flip-flop sound alerted me to something long, dark and furry making a beeline across the path behind me. A three-foot-long sea otter had climbed the granite steps from the water and made for the safety of the underbrush. “Cool, huh?” a passing cyclist commented, his face a beam of light. I've seen Solitary Ollie many times since – swimming in the shallows or munching on a crustacean breakfast – and each time I am held in awe. I watch blue herons eating, too, their elegant necks extended upward to ease the passage of a meal. And bald eagles foraging in the tidal pools. And seals flipping back fish. Every cycle around the park feels, to me, pristine, as if I am experiencing a glimpse of Eden. And I get all this before a freeway commute and a hectic workday.

As I leave the park, after my 40-minute pedal, the city is just waking up. Couples are strolling along the seawall, coffees in hand; dogs on leash are towing their masters from tree to tree; trim joggers in trapeze-like spandex, some as colourful as a circus, are dodging each other on the narrowing walkway; a restaurant is already blaring its piped music onto the street, hoping to attract the breakfast crowd. I'm entering a different world than the one I'm leaving behind. But I take heart and think ahead: I'm just two freeway rides, one workday, and one more short sleep away from another visit to my own private retreat, to the state of grace called Stanley Park.

The Great Blue Herons of Stanley Park © Stanley Park Ecology Society

To learn more about the Stanley Park herons and other conservation efforts in the park, visit the Stanley Park Ecology Society website

Brad Zembic is a Vancouver-based writer of travel stories, book and film reviews, and fiction. His work has been published in the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun, the Cape Argus and the Cape Times.

All images © Brad Zembic