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BC’s Wacky Winter Weather

Yeah, that.

That is a wayward barge that was pushed onto the beach during last November’s atmospheric river — the storm that caused so many problems in our province. An atmospheric river is a band of heavy moisture up to several thousand kilometres long, but just a few hundred kilometres wide, that develops over tropical ocean areas before moving north and inland. (I’ve now added the term to my meteorological lexicon, along with heat dome.)

The atmospheric river that ran over southern BC last November dumped about a month’s worth of rain on the region in just 48 hours. Along with all that moisture came some strong winds, which is how this barge ended up on Sunset Beach in English Bay. It has its own Twitter account and is a constant reminder that not all is well, climatically speaking, in my home province.

(C’mon. You didn’t think I’d let a winter go by without talking about the weather, did you?)

That storm, the first of four atmospheric rivers to hit southern BC in one month, knocked out an unprecedented amount of BC’s infrastructure.

For starters, the Nooksack River in Washington State overflowed its banks and then flowed downhill into Canada, completely flooding the Sumas Prairie in the Fraser Valley for an entire month. Located about an hour east of Vancouver, the Sumas Prairie is on the other side of the mountain in this photo, but you get the idea from the photo of the geography involved.

The first time I drove through the Fraser Valley was as a teenager when my family moved from Alberta to BC. After so many hours of driving through endless mountain passes, I could not believe how absolutely horizontal the landscape was.

“And they say the prairies are flat,” I remember thinking.

But that’s a river delta for you, and its rich soil is why the Fraser Valley is home to more than half of BC’s dairy and poultry production. Close to a million animals died during the floods, and thousands of acres of blueberry plants were also ruined. We’ll be feeling the effects of this flood for years to come as the farmers work to bring their fields and farms back into production.

Two other communities, Merritt and Princeton, were also flooded. To give you an idea of the scale involved, the area of BC under flood watch last November was equivalent to the size of Belgium.

Then, in addition to the floods, a series of mudslides and washouts extensively damaged all the railways and highways connecting Vancouver to the BC Interior and the rest of Canada. Five people died, and 275 people spent two days trapped between mudslides on one major highway until they were evacuated by helicopter.

With our transportation network knocked out, nothing from Canada’s largest port could get to the rest of the country and no shipments for export could get to the Port of Vancouver (including grain shipments at a most critical time of year).

The pipeline that brings fuel to the Lower Mainland was initially shut down as a precautionary measure but then remained shut for three weeks, which led to gas rationing in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island. Fuel was brought in from the US by barge.

Talk about supply chain issues.

It was three weeks before the trains started running again. The largest and busiest highway in BC, the Coquihalla, reopened to commercial traffic only on December 20 and to all traffic last week. That it reopened as quickly as it did is quite the engineering feat: more than 130 kilometres of the highway in 20 different sections were extensively damaged, including five collapsed or heavily damaged bridges. It’s not business as usual — the highway will remain an active construction zone for the foreseeable future as all of the repairs are temporary.

There is scarcely nothing left of Highway 8 between Merritt and Spences Bridge where the Nicola River changed course and took the road out with it. The Trans-Canada Highway through the Fraser Canyon reopened only this week. Just to give you a bit of an idea of what the engineers working on the repairs are faced with, this is what parts of the Fraser Canyon look like.

I missed out on all those atmospheric rivers while I was in Alberta. And although I also missed out on Vancouver’s first white Christmas in thirteen years, I did get back home in time for another spectacular dump of snow.

Which was … stunning.

But then, just over a week later, a king tide and wind storm pummelled the city and our world-famous Stanley Park seawall.

Some of the damage was caused by logs set free by the November floods that came down the Fraser River and have been in the water since.

Why am I writing all this? Well, last year was pretty tough on all of us, but, to be honest, I don’t have much hope that this year will be any easier. If it’s not the pandemic, it’s drought and wildfires. And if it’s not drought and wildfires, it’s flooding and mudslides. We call these events natural disasters, but there is nothing natural about once-in-a-century storms happening every year. Atmospheric rivers are not new to BC, and they aren’t all bad. (They play an important role in maintaining BC’s water supply.) But they are increasing in intensity and frequency, so much so that oceanographers are coming up with a rating system for them, like the ones used for tornadoes and hurricanes, to help us better understand their risks.

What I find most sobering is the realization that BC has climate refugees. Months later, people who had to evacuate because of the wildfires or the floods are still out of their homes. Many will never go back to their communities.

It’s a lot to take in about the place where you live.

One last note: Barge Chilling Beach is a bit of an inside joke for those of us who live in Vancouver. Google “Dude Chilling Park” if you want to know more. The sign is temporary and has since been taken down.

Through My Lens: Cherry Blossoms and Snowcaps

We reached peak Vancouver this week. I was in Stanley Park the other day, on the prowl for cherry blossoms to photograph, when the sun drew my eyes to the fresh snow atop the North Shore mountains.

Doesn’t get more Vancouver than that.

Winter Comes to the West End

Remember when I said I was going to stop writing about the weather? And the pandemic?

Yeah, that.

This was a tough weekend for some folks. Today is Family Day, a statutory holiday celebrated in about half of the country. This year it came right on the heels of Valentine’s Day and the Lunar New Year. Which means those of us who are inclined to get together with loved ones on any of these occasions have been three times tested in our resolve to follow the provincial health orders. Here in BC, we are now into our fourth month of in-person social gatherings being limited to the people we live with.

Also, come mid-February, most Canadians are utterly sick of winter. This is the time when those of us who can start escaping to the sun. But, with current travel restrictions, trips south just are not happening this winter.

So, yeah, that.

I, on the other hand, had so much to celebrate this weekend. Yes, my long-awaited snowfall finally showed up, thanks to the polar vortex. I woke up to a winter wonderland on Saturday morning and spent much of the day in Narnia (aka Stanley Park).

The snow is already gone, alas, washed away by last night’s rainfall. But for this Canadian, who loves snow but lives in a place where it is a novelty, it was a good weekend.

Here, take a look.

Merry Christmas!

Lost Lagoon, Stanley Park, Vancouver

Through My Lens: Stanley

Hey everybody! Meet Stanley!

Every year around this time, Stanley lights up English Bay. He is part of the Lumière Festival, which, since it’s easily possible to physically distance while looking at the displays, is one of the few holiday festivals that still took place in Vancouver this year.

Stanley is named after Stanley Park, home to one of the largest urban Great Blue Heron colonies in North America. He stands four metres tall and is made of more than 10,000 lights.

Through My Lens: Four Trees

Something shifted for me last week. It started on Thursday when the provincial health orders announced on November 7 for Metro Vancouver were extended to the entire province and until December 7. (And I have no illusions they won’t be extended again.)

And then, on Friday morning, our prime minister reverted to work-at-home and did his media appearance from the stoop of his home in Ottawa.

It feels like we’re right back where we were last March.

The second wave (or, as I like to call it, the Long Winter) that we’ve been talking about since last summer is starting to feel very, very real.

What does this mean for me personally? Pretty much the same as the last eight months: I will hunker down and do everything I can to stay healthy, both physically and mentally.

I’ll start by posting a series of photos from my recent daily walks. Because they make me happy. Maybe they’ll cheer you up too.

Here, then, are four trees I took notice of one Saturday afternoon about a month ago. I think they’re Douglas fir, but I could be wrong.

Enjoy.

Third Beach

My favourite Vancouver beach is Third Beach. Like Second Beach, it’s part of Stanley Park, but it is enough of a walk from my home that it feels like a destination beach. And with its small parking lot, it’s never as crowded as some of the more popular beaches on the other side of English Bay.

Much of the forest behind Third Beach was cleared by the military during World War II to make room for an army barracks. The soldiers were there to command a gun battery at Ferguson Point and a lookout point opposite Siwash Rock, both of which overlook Third Beach. The gun installation is no longer there, but the lookout still is.

It’s odd, some 80 years later, to think of Stanley Park as a strategic military site, but because of its location at the entrance to Burrard Inlet and the Port of Vancouver, it most definitely was.

Second Beach

Second Beach is the smallest of Vancouver’s beaches. It’s located alongside the Stanley Park Seawall, next to Second Beach Pool and Ceperley Meadow.

The beach is a popular picnic site, especially for large, multi-generational families, because of all the amenities available. The meadow provides lots of room for kicking around a ball, and in addition to the beach and the pool, there are two playgrounds and a concession stand.

Through My Lens: Summer Rose

Here’s something pretty for you all to look at. The roses in Stanley Park are in full bloom right now, as they are every summer from June until September.

This year feels a little more special since the Stanley Park Rose Garden is celebrating its 100th birthday. It is the largest public rose garden in Western Canada and has a total of 3500 rose bushes spread over 60 beds. The Rose Garden is situated between Stanley Park’s rainforest and a small grove of Akebono cherry trees that bloom every April.

If there ever was an opportune time to stop and smell the roses, it is right now.

Surf Scoter

Ever seen a Surf Scoter? In Vancouver, November is peak season to see these diving ducks. Large rafts of them hang out in English Bay where they feed on clams and mussels.

To see the ducks so close to the shore, however, is a bit unusual. I got lucky one afternoon about a week ago.