North of Vancouver, British Columbia, hemmed in on both sides by housing developments, the Capilano River threads it way down to the entrance of the Vancouver Harbor. The river is cushioned from the houses by a thick rainforest. Though not very wide, such habitat provide valuable living space for wildlife in an urban area.
First built in 1889, the Capilano Suspension Bridge quickly became a tourist attraction. At 450 feet long and 230 feet above the river, crossing the bridge can be a hair-raising, especially when several hundred people are crossing with you. With each step the bridge sways and bounces. But the canyon it crosses is gorgeous with the Capilano River roaring down below and the forest on the opposite side inviting.
A common problem when you have a natural area near a large population is how to protect nature from those who’ve come to enjoy it. The recent superblooms in Southern California brought tons of people out to rarely visited areas, causing rangers headaches as people wandered off the trail, trampling the very wildflowers they came for (see Los Angeles Times article). It is also a major problems for national parks that attract huge crowds. We humans can easily love things to death.The owners of the bridge have done a great job accomodating the thousands of tourists that come. Once across the bridge a series of boardwalk trails allow the visitors to wander through the rainforest while protecting the roots of the trees from getting trample. A series of bridges and walkways brings visitors up to the forest canopy, all design carefully to not harm the trees. Another trail hangs off the cliff side, offering fantastic views with minimal impact on the land. Yes, these are man-made structure in a natural area but why do we think that has to be an antagonistic relationship? Why can’t we instead see how we can work in harmony with nature. Does it really have to be pave it all versus hands off? Driving through a well-manicure parkway in suburbia with its exotic plantings I often wonder, why aren’t we planting what was originally there in the first place? Why must we wipe out all traces of what once was? The temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest stretches from Northern California through the Alaskan panhandle. Walking through these forests, I’m amazed by the amount of life there. From a fallen tree, several saplings grow out of the wood. Even a living tree is covered with other plants living on it.
Here in the southwest corner of British Columbia, the main trees are Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), red cedar (Thuja plicata) and western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). The bigger trees are around a thousand years old and tower over two hundred feet. A lot of the forest in this area has been cut down for timber in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, but the secondary growth has begun filling in the area. Luckily, the area around the Capilano Bridge was spare this fate as it was privately own. The forest there and in surrounding area serve a valuable role in protecting the drinking water used by the Vancouver community.On the forest grounds, ferns, lichens and other plants grow, only slowed down by the big trees blocking much of the sunlight. Water is everywhere. The Capilano River roars below in the canyon, and little streams and creeks ripple through the woods and spill over the canyon sides. In this wet soil a plant called the skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) grows. It supposedly smells terrible, like rotten matter, all the better to attract the insects needed to pollinate it. Luckily, my horrible sense of smell was an advantage here.
Several times I came upon trees that seem to stand up on spindly roots. As a seedling, they started life on top of a decaying tree stump. As they grew, the stump continued to decay, revealing the young tree’s roots as they worked their way down into the wet ground.
Even more impressive is seeing the massive trees along the cliff walk, literally clinging to the side of a rock wall. It is like seeing a basketball player palm a basketball, only the basketball is several hundred feet up in the air and the player is able to stay vertically upright while palming the side of the ball. Oh, and he’s been doing it for 100 years.
Capilano Suspension Bridge Park was a wonderful spot to visit the rainforest. That sense of serenity one gets out in nature was limited some by the many visitors there, it was still a peaceful and refreshing outing. For children reluctant to hike, the bridge and canopy trails adds a sense of play to the whole outing. While it may not match the feeling of a back country trail, it is a peaceful blending of nature and humanity.
For more information: Capilano Suspension Bridge Park
All photographs by Alan Starbuck