Sometimes a person needs to do something unique, unconventional and very, very bold in order to feel like a true, modern-day explorer. This summer, that person is me, and my quest takes me to the most legendary green space on the Canadian map.
Yes, you read that right, and I know what you’re thinking: this is one tough son of a gun.
One of the largest urban parks in North America, Stanley Park is a Canadian National Historic Site and Vancouver’s most-beloved oasis. British Capt. George Vancouver explored here in 1792, and 400 hectares were preserved as parkland in 1888, then named for Lord Stanley, the first Governor General to visit the area. These are my forebears, and my plan for re-conquest is simple. Armed with only a map and a pair of cargo shorts, I will spend four days hiking every single trail, living by my wits and eating only what nature’s bounty will provide.
An adventure for the ages.
Day 1: Seawall
I am underway by the crack of noon, carrying a highlighter pen to mark off sections of map as I walk. I’ve arrived during auspicious weather—sunshine, fair winds and an absence of drizzle. But Stanley Park is a cruel mistress and many an explorer has met tragedy here. (And, by tragedy, I mean they’ve gotten their fleece hoodies mildly dampened.)
The Seawall is Stanley Park’s marquee trail—22 km snaking along Vancouver’s waterfront,
9 km of which are located inside the park—and it’s the path I choose to conquer first.
As I walk, wide, sandy beaches seem to stretch endlessly onward and revelry is in the air. Seniors hold hands in the sunshine; teenagers share illicit cigarettes while dangling their toes in the water; a man does a handstand on a paddleboard; hang-gliders pirouette over tanker ships idling at anchor. Soon the afternoon fades to evening, and barbecues and guitars seem to materialize from nowhere.
By nightfall, I am happy with the ground I’ve covered and plan to start on the park’s interior trails—undoubtedly Sasquatch habitat—at the crack of dawn. I feel fortunate to be so extremely brave.
Day 2: Scavenger Hunt
My plans for a quiet morning of wandering the park’s old-growth forest in solitude are dashed. All around me, the ridiculously fit locals are hiking, jogging and doing pull-ups on tree limbs.
Stoically, I accept my fate and hike up Lovers Walk trail. As I hook on to Bridle Path, hunger sets in. I am surrounded by deer fern, huckleberry and egg-shaped salal leaves. Any one could be delicious or deadly. Perhaps I should have brought along a guidebook to edible plants.
I push on, trying to banish all thoughts of food. Then, just around lunchtime, on a little spur called Raccoon Trail, the forest opens onto a tidy ball field. Half a dozen people are setting up for a retreat—croquet, beanbags, hula-hoops … and caterers, wonderful caterers.
The hunger takes over and I creep up to a food-laden table. “I’m from corporate,” I say when a woman on the wait staff gives me a sidelong glance. “Quality control.” She shrugs and I grab a fresh salmon sandwich and two Okanagan apples then resume my trek.
Stanley Park, I soon realize, is awash in grazing opportunities (not to mention four on-site restaurants). The beaches host dozens of barbecues full of gracious, happy people. I dare to approach total strangers and say, “I’m an explorer and I need a burger.” If I deliver the line with just enough irony, they’ll think I’m funny and pass me a treat.
Belly full, I trudge onwards, the unexplored spots on my map gradually filling in. Stanley Park encompasses a variety of attractions, landmarks and must-see areas, including the circus atmosphere by the Malkin Bowl, which hosts big-name musicians like Ben Harper and Elvis Costello, and the Vancouver Aquarium, which hosts big-name fishes like Anarrhichthys ocellatus, the wolf-eel.
Day 3: Siwash Rock
It’s late in the morning on my third day when I discover what is to become my favourite path—Siwash Rock Trail, at the park’s extreme northwest. The Rock itself sits just offshore, a 32-million-year-old, 15-metre-tall craggy sentinel that features prominently in the legends of the local Squamish peoples. In 2006, a freak storm toppled 10,000 trees in this part of the park—a tragedy for the old-growth cedars, but a boon to explorers, like myself, seeking vistas. With dense forest on one side and a wide view of the Pacific on the other, this is a place a man could plant a flag.
Next, I head back into the park’s dense interior, where multiple trails criss-cross beneath tangled trees and the squawking cacophony of 200 bird species. Almost immediately, a binocular-clutching birdwatcher reproaches me as I nearly trip over two barred owls bathing in a puddle.
I trudge down Thompson Trail, hoping to link up with Beaver Lake Trail and make it to Beaver Lake before dark. The park’s paths were once logging trails for oxen hauling spruce for shipbuilding. I could certainly use a little bovine assist myself. But I am alone, and Stanley Park is a land of brutal consequences. Like mild thirst and slightly aching feet. Fortunately, Beaver Lake is lovely, a riot of flowers and birdsong. Water lilies and carnivorous sundews abound, as do hardy invasives like Himalayan blackberry, Japanese knotweed and me: California Toughguy.
A light rain begins, and it is in these extremes that we discover what a man is made of. Apparently, I am made of whatever it is that makes a man want to sit out a rainstorm inside a Starbucks.
Day 4: Victory
Final morning. I cover some of the little trails around the Vancouver Aquarium, weaving through buskers and caricature artists along the way. Thus, humbly, does my journey end. I have conquered this rugged land and lived in harmony with its inhabitants. Magellan, Lord Stanley, Lewis and Clark; is it too much to say that I have joined this pantheon? With swelling pride, I spread out my map, smoothing the edges so that I may, upon bended knee, present it to the Queen.
But my eye wanders, and my heart sinks. A tiny black line, unbesmirched by my pink highlighter. Chickadee Trail. I have missed it. Less than a kilometre long, but hours away from where I sit, shaking my fist at the sky.
Of course, a real hero knows defeat means only one thing: I must return. Probably three or four times, to make sure I get it right.
Getting There: WestJet flies to Vancouver 61 times a day from 15 Canadian, 10 U.S. and three Mexican cities.