Adventures Through Cascadia: Part 2, The Great Green North

Continued from Part 1: Roses & Volcanoes

Vancouver City Hall
So Canada is interesting. The last time I was there was in 2007 while rushing my fraternity in college; we went to Montreal for a weekend of fun and youthful mayhem. The thing about Quebec is it’s a bit more foreign than the Ontario I grew up next to. The language is different, and the overall atmosphere is unusual. Because the cultural divide between New York and Quebec is so large, I didn’t really take in the more subtle differences, paying more attention to the stark ones. It had been so long since I’d even been to another country that I wasn’t prepared for how strange English Canada is in reality compared to America.

As I wound my way up 99 in southern British Columbia, I noticed everything. Obviously the signs were all written in metric, though I never really got accustomed to it. (On my way back south I thought Seattle was 200 miles from Vancouver rather than what the sign actually meant, 200 km) My GPS was adorably quirky, showing the speed limits as 37, 43, 50, 56, 62 mph etc. when the road signs read 60, 70, 80, 90, and 100 km/h, respectively. There’s a setting I could have changed, but I wasn’t too concerned with such minutia. I also tried to tweet my excitement about being in Canada, but for some reason I couldn’t get a data connection on my phone.

Now my first priority in British Columbia was finding a place to stay for the night. I zipped around the areas outside of downtown, hitting up every hotel I saw and inquiring for a room at the front desk. I drove up from Surrey to Vancouver on Kingsway, turned down Cambie going all the way to the airport, and then taking a shot in dark across town in Coquitlam. Every. single. hotel. was booked solid. Perhaps I should have planned for that. I got insanely lucky in Richmond, where the Best Western had a single room cancellation for the night. At a price I had no choice but to pay, I booked a room for the night and set off being worried about where I was to put my car/sleep for the next two nights. My drive through Coquitlam and the eastern suburbs was some of the most stressful driving I’d ever done. I was more than lost and couldn’t seen to follow the directions my GPS gave me. I was hungry, my phone had no data, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. After a long call with Verizon, I finally figured out how to enable data on my phone, via a setting I didn’t know I had. With that minor problem solved, I set off for the Capilano Suspension Bridge, a potential stop on my list. It’s located north of Vancouver in the mountains, so I thought it might be a good place to see the city from. It turns out that it’s actually a long hiking course that takes almost two hours to navigate, not unlike a zip-line tour I did in California in April. I wasn’t up for that, especially given my not-yet normalized level of stress. A road sign just across the street pointing toward the nearby Cleveland Dam piqued my interest, so I drove up there instead.

capilanoIMG_1479Another notch in my Cascadian hydroelectric tour belt, the Cleveland Dam is one scarily tall dam. It forms Capilano Reservoir, a pretty sizeable artificial lake, but the canyon it blocks is very narrow and steep. As I walked cautiously toward the front face of the dam from the top, I was left breathless when I saw just how far down it was. I was expecting a much shorter drop, and I quickly backed away, sweat already forming on the camera in my hand. The reservoir behind was a beautiful blue, with evergreen covered mountains beyond in the distance. In fact, the western side of the dam marks the farthest point north that I’ve ever set foot, at least, that I can remember. I glided back down the hill, attempting this time to make my way to the north Vancouver waterfront. I missed my turn and ended up on the Transcanada Highway heading east with rush hour traffic. I had literally one mile to drive and it took me over twenty minutes. Growing more frustrated, I tried to stop for dinner near Lonsdale Quay, but the flow of traffic wouldn’t let me find parking for another half hour. I found an open spot on the road at a meter and prayed it wasn’t forbidden for some reason. It wasn’t and I didn’t have to pay either because of the late hour, so I ditched my car and went for a walk to the waterfront.

vancouver1Seeing the city across the water like this reminded me a lot of the view of San Francisco from Treasure Island, the expanse of water between both being of similar size and direction being almost the same. At this point I was still trying to feel better about being in Canada, considering the dreadful experiences of my last few hours, so I was in a disappointed and frustrated mood. The view was quite good, but I couldn’t find it in myself to appreciate it. I retreated through Waterfront Park around the corner to get food at a small pizza chain, nabbing a drink at a grocery store next door, before heading back across a footbridge to the Lonsdale Quay Market. I strolled through its concourse, checking out Vancouver-themed trinkets and widgets, and people watching at the pier. Quickly growing tired and somewhat bored of the area, I decided to hop in my car and make the drive all the way to Richmond to lodge for the night. Unfortunately, the route west to the Lions Gate Bridge had become a parking lot and another short two mile trip took nearly forty minutes. When I finally reached the bridge, I became instantly less stressed now that I had something new and scenic to look at, aside from car bumpers and red lights ahead. The Lions Gate Bridge is green, and considering its name, it felt to me like some kind of bizarro-world version of the Golden Gate Bridge, but more on that later.

Vancouver, from Queen Elizabeth ParkI took the car through Stanley Park, down the canyon-like avenue of Georgia Street. That was the moment I really began to appreciate the sheer vertical rise of Vancouver’s structures. There must be hundred of tall, shiny, slightly green-tinted condominium complexes in downtown Vancouver, all rising to nearly the same height and all featuring modern looking curves and angles. I caught the sunset reflecting off of them as I crossed the Cambie Street Bridge and knew I would return the following evening to capture that sight on camera. On my way down toward Richmond I stopped at Queen Elizabeth Park for another attempt at a view of the city. At the peak of Little Mountain, I spied downtown nestled between the nearby foreground trees and distant mountains; the view not so clear, but good enough to marvel at. There on top of the hill was the Bloedel Conservatory, a botanical garden inside a geodesic glass dome. Its architecture reminded me both of Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert and the fictional Genetix Research Station from Space Quest 5. The sun setting through its triangular glass panels made for a nice photo-op, of which I made sure to take full advantage. Around the conservatory building sits a large flower garden. It was very pretty, especially at sunset, yet I was thoroughly flowered-out after Portland and honestly I was just aching to sleep in a real hotel for once.

Bloedel ConservatoryI arrived at the Best Western in Richmond later that night, checked-in, dragged my luggage up to the room, shed my dirty clothes and sat in the shower for a long, incredible shower. The thing about showers is that when you don’t have access to one for a few days, taking one is the best thing in the world. I had been on the road for just three days; I had been bathing regularly with soap and shampoo in the rest areas, but a cascade of warm water and a nice comfortable hotel room were magical. I felt grime and dirt fall away from my body and emerged the cleanest I’d been since the beginning of the week. It was to be the only shower I took on my trip, so I made sure to make it count. I putzed around on the hotel wifi for a little while after that, before finally jumping in the bed, starfishing completely over its soft surface, and passing the hell out.

I woke up on July 27th more refreshed than I had been in days and I was absolutely ready to see what Vancouver was all about. That morning it was clouds, apparently, but only over the city skyline in the distance. I slipped down to the hotel lobby for a continental breakfast. I’d developed a love for hotel DIY waffles over a few past road trips, and the one I made did not disappoint. It was halfway through crushing the waffle that I looked up and noticed that, of the twelve people in the room eating breakfast there with me, I was the only Caucasian; everyone else was Asian. That’s Vancouver, I guess. Once I checked out and left the hotel, I was faced with the next conundrum: where was I going to leave my car as I took the train to the city? I decided the hotel would be best, but as I walked away from the parking lot I noticed signs indicating a car registry, on which I knew I was not. IMG_1640I walked back around the block and drove a little bit up the road to a vacant street that had a few cars parked on it. I deemed it safe enough. Then, as I left my car there and headed once again to the SkyTrain station, I suddenly decided I didn’t like it there. I noticed SkyTrain had a parking garage, so I got back in and drove there. To my delight, the structure at Bridgeport Station was empty on that Saturday morning and I pulled in happily. I was ecstatic to see that parking for a full 24-hour period was just $2.50 CAD, and I decided that it would be an ideal place to camp for the next few nights. My relief was palpable; the biggest obstacle to my enjoyment of Canada had been overcome.

SkyTrain is amazing. It’s sleek, somewhat modern, clean, entirely automated, and as so, always on time. Having ridden BART often for the last two years, I was completely taken aback by SkyTrain. It rides so smoothly that even standing was effortless and enjoyable. I watched the tracks ahead disappear through the front window and in less than a half-hour I had made it from Bridgeport to Olympic Village station. I began another long day of walking at the south waterfront along False Creek, the many pillar-like skyscrapers of Yaletown just on the other side. It was still cloudy and I spent a good portion of the walk anticipating an impeding clearing of the sky.

vancouver2I did a circuit around Granville Island, the eastern side of which was to my surprise a ghost town. As it happens, everyone I was expecting to be there was at the Market on the other side. I walked through the Market, admiring the many bakeries, delicatessens, fruit stands, fish shops, and maple product outlets. I would gladly have stayed and ate, drank and been merry if I’d had nowhere else to be, but I wanted to make it all the way to English Bay and downtown before the end of the morning, just in time for Rogers Arena to open. I kept going, passing houseboats, marinas, parks, apartments out of my price range, and rocky coasts before I made it all the way to a small peninsula at Hadden Park jutting out into English Bay. My back hurt so much I had to sit down for a little while and stretch, the whole time observing the blue sky to the west and the oil tankers out on the water. In no time, I grew bored of sitting and once again pushed myself on to see more of the city.

IMG_1814I shuffled over to the Burrard Bridge and, after briefly admiring the view up False Creek, found myself walking on the downtown Peninsula for the first time. It wasn’t as remarkable or as fun as I thought it might be. It might have been the clouds, but I really wasn’t digging the city so far. The walk from Burrard to Robson was full of strange folk on the streets, homeless people, litter and glass on the sidewalk, and an overall feeling of gloom. Maybe I was just in the wrong part of town. Eventually I found my way around memorable landmarks such as the Vancouver Public Library, the CBC Radio Canada building, a provincial Post Office, and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre before arriving at my goal for the morning: Rogers Arena! Home of the Vancouver Canucks, the 1982, 1994, and 2011 Western Conference Champions and my third favorite NHL club. I spent a good long time inside the team store, admiring all of the blue and green, laughing at the black, yellow and red mistakes of the 80s, and desperately trying to find a hat I liked among the multitude of different designs. I didn’t just want a hat, I actually had a specific need for one for later. One Direction was playing Rogers Arena that night so there was a stream of preteen girls in and out of the store for 1D tour merchandise. I was told they’re the reason I couldn’t get a hotel in the area. God damn it.

IMG_1841After finding a hat I dug, I left the store, walking around the arena north toward Gastown, completely oblivious of the statue of Roger Nielsen out front. No matter, at this point the sun was finally coming out and it made me much happier. I stopped in a pizza place for a quick bite, where I noticed a tweet from a friend tellin me about a Vancouver Whitecaps game happening that afternoon just over yonder at BC Place. I figured I would probably have a bit of free time in the evening, so I got on my phone and bought a ticket for the game right then and there. Once finished eating lunch, I walked up to Gastown, a quaint neighborhood of the sort I’d been looking for for days. It reminded me a lot of Portland’s Old Town neighborhood in that it had narrow, tree-lined streets surrounded by connected brick buildings, possibly former industrial sites, whose storefronts were taken over by artists, cafes, and restaurants. There, on a inconspicuous streetcorner, is the Gastown Steam Clock, a grandfather-style clock operated by a conduit of steam flowing up from below the street out through its top. It whistles every few minutes and performs a loud sustained note on the hours. It’s a pretty neat little token of engineering, and one of the few of its ilk left in existence.

Downtown Vancouver & Stanley Park, from Harbour CentreGastown is a short skip from a landmark I’d been excitedly anticipating visiting since arriving in Vancouver: the Vancouver Lookout. Situated in a round observatory atop Harbour Centre, Vancouver Lookout offers the best public view of the city in the area and I couldn’t wait to get atop it. A short time in the ticket queue later and I was in, riding the external elevator up the side of the building. I walked around the circular concourse soaking in the spectacular views in every direction. Vancouver is beautiful in all of them: north lies Burrard Inlet, the mountains, North Vancouver and several different shipping ports. To the east one can see the container port below, the skyline of Burnaby and farther in the distance, the snowy peak of Mt. Baker. In the south, rising over the city’s suburbs, the sharp points of the San Juan islands can be seen, along with the inland tip of False Creek, Chinatown and the entertainment district with Rogers Arena and BC Place sticking out noticeably. Finally, to the west there is no better view of downtown and the peninsula than the Lookout; Downtown Vancouver, from Harbour CentreSkyscrapers of many shapes and designs tower over the city streets, while Stanley Park, English Bay, and even Vancouver Island fill out the background. I spent more than an hour up there to rest, take in everything I could see, and people watch. Considering the overwhelming Asian majority I noticed earlier, I was surprised to hear probably half of the tourists up at the Lookout with me speaking German. I always try to eavesdrop, but I’m afraid they speak too quickly and with too broad of a vocabulary to really understand anything cohesively. Hopefully, someday I’ll get there. With the sun out, the city just glows. The water and the clear sky fill out the back of a vibrant scene, with the greens and whites of the mountains adding their flair. The designer of the Doug Flag did well picking green, white, and blue as its colors; they’re a perfect representation of the geography and sights throughout Cascadia. It’s unlike anywhere else I’d been before. Atop one of the mountains north of the city I spied a wind turbine. A nice tour guide at the Lookout informed me that it’s not only a generator for Grouse Mountain Resort, but it also includes an observation platform below the nacelle. As a (former) wind power engineer, I was intrigued and curious about the technical challenges of making a wind turbine tower open to the public. It reminded me a lot of the turbine at Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts, which, since I first saw it in person, has been a source of creativity and inspiration.

Sun Yat-Sen ParkDisembarking from the Lookout after a fulfilling visit, I wandered over to Chinatown to visit a pair of Chinese gardens. The Sun-Yat Sen Chinese Garden is a completely authentic garden built of materials shipped directly from China. It has several pools that are home to fish, turtles, and a thick covering of lotus flowers. The second Asian garden on my tour, I tried hard to enjoy it, but the proximity to the big city stole my attention and prevented me from immersing myself in the environment. Across a larger pond to the east was the Sun-Yat Sen Park, a free-to-access public area built of inauthentic building materials in contrast to the paid admission Garden. Its centerpiece was a gazebo on the water that offered a beautiful view of the pool and the city skyline beyond. Approaching game time at BC Place, I headed out down the road toward the stadium. Across the viaducts from the northeastern False Creek waterfront I noticed a crowd of hundreds outside Rogers Arena, no doubt preteens stalking the members of One Direction. Upon my arrival at the stadium, there was a brief snafu in getting my ticket, but it was straightened out somewhat quickly. I mae my way down into the depths of BC Place before emerging midway up the bowl from the pitch. The ceiling at BC Place, a suspended retractable roof, was open in the center and a bright circle of light shone on the far side of the stadium. The game itself was disappointing; poor officiating led to Vancouver being shorthanded just eight minutes in and as a result struggled to keep up with the Philadelphia Union, surrendering a single game winning goal in the late stages of the game. It was definitely enjoyable though; I was seated in front of a trio of older Irish gentlemen who commentated on the game with their own hilariously colorful opinions.

With the game over, I pulled up my dying phone to look for dinner. I found a nearby Italian restaurant that seemed to tickle my fancy and made my way over. I was stunned to find it nearly empty, but made myself at home and settled in with a drink and plugged my phone into the wall behind my table. My drink of chance was an absolutely delicious cocktail of vodka, Disaronno, orange liqueur, lemon, cranberry juice and grenadine, and I intend to attempt to mix it myself soon. I ordered a plate of chicken and ricotta ravioli and literally cleaned my plate off when it came. I spent more money there than I really should have that night, but it was worth it; I was on vacation. Buzz still going strong as I headed out, I wandered back to the Cambie Street bridge to attempt the sunset panorama of Yaletown I’d seen the night before. It went okay.

vancouver3Below the bridge I noticed a piano on the sidewalk at the river front. I was tempted to get down there and play it, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there. I was tired anyhow and decided instead to take the SkyTrain back to Bridgeport. Once back at the SkyTrain Parking Garage I explored the adjacent casino for some usable facilities. After moderate success, I got into my car and tried to sleep, but found the lights of the parking garage unbearable. I opted to leave the parking spot in the now full middle floor of the garage for one on the roof of the complex, which to my delight was empty. I found a good dark space in the open air and locked up for the night. I turned the air on to filter out the heat, rolled the windows nearly halfway down and enjoyed the breeze. Unfortunately, the garage lay directly beneath the inbound approach for YVR Airport and low-flying planes disrupted the peace every ten minutes. Undeterred by their interruptions I found a way to ignore them and went to bed there on the car seat yet again.

Upon waking up on July 28th I was greeted by a beautifully partly cloudy sunrise above the open parking garage roof. Since there were no facilities there at the SkyTrain station, I found myself walking in and out of the casino across the street to use theirs. It was nice, however there was no way I was going to be bathing myself in such a heavily trafficked bathroom as that, so I went instead with the quick coverup of deodorant, facewipes, and fresh clothing. I employed the services of my recently purchased hat to hide the unkempt mess of hair upon my head, just as I had planned the day before. Everything went swimmingly. Another smooth glide on the SkyTrain later and I was at the Vancouver Waterfront. IMG_2227Taking note of the Vancouver Sun building next to the Waterfront train station, I decided to embark on a brief quest to find the parking garage featured in this amazing little video. I didn’t find it (though I eventually figured out which one it was, albeit after I had already come home), but I did get a tweet from the guy in the video, so that was pretty cool. I kept chugging along the waterfront, marveling at the sail-clad roof of Canada Place, as well as the green roof on the Vancouver Convention Centre. I didn’t realize it at first, but I strolled right by (and snapped some unknowing photos of) the 2010 Olympic Cauldron, now situated in the plaza just outside the Convention Centre. It’s four pillars are a lot smaller than they looked on TV. I continued walking and walking and walking. In fact, that’s basically all I did all day. I went along on the north shore of downtown, past marinas and seaplane terminals, around the bend up to Stanley Park and onward to the noteworthy attractions there.

Totem PoleThe totem poles in Stanley Park were my first real experience with authentic northwestern native culture. They’re massive, carved out of giant trees and painted with their characteristic artwork. Birds, sea creatures, and forest animals all standing on top of one another, joined by their kin in adjacent columns. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: northwest tribal art is beautiful and I’d buy it up if I could afford to. Continuing on, I soaked in more beautiful views of the city, this time from the southern edge of Stanley Park. The corner of the peninsula afforded a better vista than the ferry terminal at Lonsdale Quay, and the park provided a calmer, more natural environment to enjoy.

vancouver4I proceeded around the bend, taking a look at the 9 O’Clock gun on the coast, non-threateningly pointed at the city and securely caged. Its barrel shone a bright teal from years of exposure to corrosive seawater. The walk along the edge of Stanley Park is a very pretty one, with the harbour to the east and city behind. It features designated biking and walking paths, each marked with the distance to its origin every half mile/kilometer. I walked this path for what seemed like forever, passing by Stanley Park’s Time Machine, going under the Lions Gate Bridge, and striding by Siwash Rock before ending up at Third Beach. I had intended to make my way from beneath the Lions Gate Bridge up to the road deck, but was unknowingly obstructed by steep cliffs for miles. Over an hour of detours later, I arrived at the front of the Lions Gate Bridge. Lions Gate Bridge I had planned to cross over the Inlet and back, but I was ovecome by a severe case of butterflies throughout my excursion across and I ended up making it only half-way. I attribute them to being forced to the outside of the walkway by the bridge’s bike path rules. I took pictures from many of the same positions as I’ve done on the Golden Gate Bridge for comparison. As I mentioned, it’s like a bizarro-world Golden Gate Bridge, painted in green instead of red-orange, it’s about the same age, but only about half the size, and of course, they both have “Gate” in the name. I really like how the green colour of the bridge fits in with the foliage of Stanley Park as well as not being too obtrusive on the view of the mountains behind it. It works quite well.

Once finished with the Lions Gate Bridge, I wound all the way back around again to Third Beach and the Teahouse Restaurant. I wanted to eat there, but it seemed full, I instead sat down on a park bench across the street to rest and take in the view to the west. Out on Burrard Inlet, numerous oil tankers were still sitting there in the cold seawater, the snow-capped peaks of the mountains on Vancouver Island floating in the distance beyond. I couldn’t get enough of this view, so I immortalized it on camera.

burrardHunger still growing, I finished up the walk through Stanley Park, emerging at the West End and urgently looking for a place to eat. I found a Mongolian BBQ a few blocks into the city, the sort I used to eat at in Tracy, and grabbed a bowl to serve myself. Unfortunately, the line took about thirty minutes to work its way to the cooking station and it was an uncomfortably claustrophobic wait the entire time. Once receiving my cooked provisions, I sat down to eat, spending almost an hour working my way through the bowl of noodles and meat I’d chosen. I ate so much I felt like I could explode; I would be full for the rest of the day.

Canada Place Cruise TerminalAnd then suddenly I decided I was done with Vancouver, forgoing my plan to stay another night in Canada. I walked through the West End among the residential skyscrapers through the center of downtown back to the SkyTrain station. I took a brief rest at the plaza outside the Vancouver Sun building. There’s a neat fountain there that resembles a mature dandelion and its cool spray was incredibly refreshing on my weary face. With my respite complete, I went down into Waterfront Station, admired the dormant SkyTrain at the end of the line within, and boarded the active convoy on the opposite platform. When I returned to my car at Bridgeport, I took a long look to the north, waved goodbye and set off down 99 back toward the United States. I crossed the border in less than five minutes, including the brief annoyance of a car search by the border patrol. Whatever, I wasn’t hiding anything. Soon I was sailing back down I-5 toward Seattle. I was fortunate enough to encounter a rest area barely twenty minutes outside of the city and that’s where I decided to set up camp for the night. There I had a brief chat with a young German guy hitchhiking down to San Diego; he was nice, but I couldn’t help him get to California since I wasn’t exactly on my way back there yet. Back in America, I finally felt free to use data on my phone so I watched that night’s episode of Dexter on the small screen before bed. And that’s why my phone was bricked until August 29th.

IMG_2789Some thoughts about Canada: as I mentioned before there are a lot of differences I’d never really noticed before. The ubiquity of the metric system, the reversal of -er to -re and extra ‘u’s everywhere. Even the road signs were different. Highway numbering was unusual, the shields unfamiliar. Often at lit intersections, the light would turn green but blink on and off. I’d never seen anything like that before, but apparently it means the pedestrians can control the flow of traffic at the crossing. I ate breakfast at a Tim Horton’s once, though we have those in the States too. Gas prices are in cents/L, which is funny to read (ex. 145.9) Wow, so cheap!…not. Also, Canadian flags everywhere. I really liked seeing them and I took too many pictures whenever they appeared. The short stops in a North Vancouver grocery store revealed brands I’d often heard about but had never seen before, like Coffee Crisp and the Canadian version of Smarties. Also, FIve Flavor Life Savers are the same as they’d been before they were reinvented in America years ago. I enjoyed the hell out of a couple rolls from the Casino store and I wished I could have bought some small bags for the ride home.

My time in Vancouver was a decent re-introduction to the Great White North, but the next time I go I’m going to need to have a better plan. I spent 90% of my time walking without purpose, not knowing really where I wanted to go. The other 10% was spent frantically searching for lodging and food. It was stressful and weird and I wasn’t prepared for it. No doubt I’ll return someday, but under better circumstances and hopefully tenfold more enjoyable.

Continued in Part 3: Reflections


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