Picturesque vs. Sinister Stanley Park? This was the question I must answer after I took Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tours’ incredible 2-hour tour of this public park in Vancouver, British Columbia.
It didn’t take me more than a minute to purchase my C$32 ticket after I read the company’s description of its tour: “Discover the jaw-dropping beauty – and sinister stories – of Stanley Park. Behind those majestic forests, picturesque gardens and stunning beaches lies a history of forced evictions, buried treasure, shocking crime scenes, and the macabre tale of Deadman’s Island.”
There is nothing I enjoy more than a walking tour that provides the unvarnished history of the people and the place. Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tours delivered. I write frequently about my park treks in Croatia, Italy, and the United States.
I met up with my talented guide Aislynn Mede on Sunday morning at 10 am. The tour began at the whale fountain in front of the Vancouver Aquarium. There were five other participants.
How do I describe Aislyn? Jaunty, dramatic, empathic . . . and heart-tugging. She enters stage left, tapping her hand-carved wooden walking stick. Her black purse is emblazoned with her company’s name: Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tours. It is clear she is an actress after her first soliloquy.
Parents and their young children wait in the courtyard for the museum to open at 10 am. It is a surprisingly warm day for mid-October. It could have been rainy and cold.
In 1886, the city formed Stanley Park (named after British politician Lord Stanley). He served as Governor General.
Stanley Park retains its natural, wild design. This is different than other parks where city planned hired a landscape designer. For example, the “father of landscape design” Frederick Law Olmsted created Central Park in New York City in the 19th century. (In Canada, Olmsted also designed Parc du Mont-Royal in Montreal.)
Home of Indigenous People
Aislynn begins by telling us that Stanley Park was the home of indigenous people for thousands of years before the British colonized British Columbia.
In the 19th century, more than 100 First Nations people lived on the land that was taken (without payment) to create Stanley Park. The park’s board would evict their descendants in the 1930s as squatters.
Stanley Park spans 1,001 acres in the northwestern section of Vancouver. Due to its proximity to the city’s Seawall, the public park is a favorite destination for walkers, runners, and bicyclists. The Burrard Inlet and English Bay offer stunning forest-to-peninsula views. The grey-blue mountains provide the backdrop.
“Stanley Park is a magnificent green oasis in the midst of the urban landscape of Vancouver.”City of Vancouver
Vancouver is home to the world’s longest uninterrupted waterfront path. Its “Seawall” extends from the Vancouver Convention Centre to Spanish Banks Park.
Scottish immigrant Jimmy Cunningham spent 32 years building the Seawall. He cut granite rocks to form the wall’s foundation. During the Depression, he hired workers for $1 a day. Also to save money, he used the remains of broken tombstones. Aislyn said few park visitors know that they may be walking over grave markers of the dead.
Cunningham didn’t live to see the wall’s completion. But Vancouver commemorates his legacy each year when it hosts the James Cunningham Seawall Race.
Abandoned Polar Bear Grotto
One of the saddest areas to visit in Stanley Park is a concrete stage which once housed the polar bear exhibit. The park’s 108-year “tradition” of exhibiting wild animals started when the park’s first Superintendent Henry Avison chained a baby black bear to a stump.
In 1962, the polar bear grotto opened. The Hudson’s Bay Company donated four polar bears – Nootka, Jubilee II, Prince Rupert, and Princess Rupert – to Stanley Park. Another polar bear named Tuk became a celebrity after he saved a kitten that had been tossed into the grotto.
“Despite being a popular attraction for tourists and locals, the zoo angered a growing activist movement opposed to animals being kept in such small, unnatural habitats.”Scout Magazine
In a 1992 referendum, Vancouver residents voted to phase out the park’s zoo. Due to his poor health, Tuk remained at the park. He died one year later. He was 36 years old. According to The Spokesman Review, “the zoo staff never knew whether Tuk was showing compassion, or simply saving the kitten for a later snack.”
Being a cat lover, I am going to hope that Tuk was a real gentleman and didn’t plan to eat the furry bundle which he licked dry and tucked safely under his paw.
Leaving the grotto, our group walks into the forest to observe century-old trees. Aislynn then recites a passage from Legends of Vancouver.
Written by Emily Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake), the author was a gifted writer and performer in 1861 on the Six Nations Reserve. Her father (Henry) was of Mohawk and European descent; her mother (Emily Howells) was born in England and immigrated to Canada. Her father became chief of the Six Nations. He also served as their Crown Interpreter.
Johnson beautifully writes about the “cathedral trees” that are as majestic as Europe’s stone cathedrals.
This group of half-dozen “forest giants” arch overhead with the wild blue sky as their dome.
“But in all the world there is no cathedral whose marble or onyx columns could can view with those straight, clean brown tree-boles that term with the sap and blood of life.”Pauline Johnson
Tekahionwake performed on stage reciting her poems. She honored her Mohawk ancestry by dressing in wampum belts and masks inherited from her family.
She relocated to Vancouver in 1909. Her articles were published in the Daily Province newspaper. Her friend Chief Joe Capilano recounted the legends of the Squamish people. Many had lived on the land which later became Stanley Park.
Today, Stanley Park commemorates the poet’s legacy with an abstract stone sculpture on the grounds. The inscription says “E Pauline Johnson 1861 – 1913.”
In addition to the pine cones buried by the squirrels lies hidden loot in Stanley Park. In July 1942, two men robbed a Bank of Montreal in Vancouver. They absconded with $56,000. No one knew its whereabouts. One of the thieves died in 1944.
His girlfriend tipped off police that the money was buried in the “cricket pitch” in the park. Police could not locate it in the park. There are periodic reports of visitors sneaking into Stanley Park with shovels to hunt for the hidden treasure.
The sculpture “Shore To Shore” honors “Portuguese Joe” and his two wives who lived on Brockton Point. The 11 Pacific salmon represent their children. It honors the link between Portuguese and Coast Salish First Nations cultures.
Originally born on Portugal’s Azore Islands, he sailed to Canada’s Pacific Coast and jumped ship in 1860 to mine for gold.
Joe’s first wife was named Khaltinaht. They had two children before she died. His grandfather in-law was Chief Kiapilano of the Capilano Nation.
“Her uncle Sam Kwee-ahkult was chief at the Squamish Xwayxway village on the south shore of Burrard Inlet, that would later become Stanley Park.”
Shore to Shore Sculpture
Portugese Joe then married Kwahama Kwatleematt. They had nine children. Many of Portuguese Joe’s descendents still live in Vancouver.
Stz’uminus Master Carver Ts’uts’umult Luke Marston (creator of the Shore to Shore sculpture) carved the sculpture in cedar and then cast in bronze. A plaque describes it “as a tribute to the ancestral connection between this area’s aboriginal and Portuguese communities.” Marston is the great-great grandson of Portuguese Joe and Kwatleemaat.
Most tourists flock like geese and fan out to pose in front of the nine tall totem poles at Brockton Point. The Vancouver Park Board installed them in the 1920s to create a pseudo-village. The first four totem poles were purchased from Vancouver Island’s Alert Bay. According to the City of Vancouver, the nine totem poles at Brockton Point are BC’s most visited tourist attraction.
Additional totem poles were acquired from Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) and the BC central coast Rivers Inlet.
Rose Cole Yelton Memorial Pole
Robert Yelton of the Squamish Nation carved the newest totem pole, which was installed in Brockton Point in 2009.
The sign for the Rose Cole Yelton Memorial Pole of the Squamish Nation explains that the pole was raised “to honor Rose Cole Yelton, her family and all those who lived in Stanley Park. The pole is erected in front of the house site where the Cole family lived until 1935. Until the time of her passing in 2002, Rose was the last surviving resident of the Brockton Community.”
The pole incorporates five important symbols for the sculptor. There is the woman holding bones (Robert Yelton’s mother Rose Cole Yelton), the thunderbird (his eagle daughter Lenora), the wolf (his son Peter), the raven (representing the Haida Raven clan which adopted Robert Yelton), and the killer whale (recalling the sculptor’s ferry trips across Burrard Inlet with his grandmother Matilda where he would see whales.
Our group ended our tour on a hillside overlooking a grove of trees. Aislynn read another section from Legends of Vancouver about the well-known trail in Stanley Park that leads to whaJJohnson called the “Cathedral Trees.” I would have to agree with Johnson that “there is no fresco that can rival the delicacy of lacework they have festooned between you and the far skies . . . “
“No tiles, no mosaic or inlaid marbles are as fascinating as the bare, russet, fragrant floor outspreading about their feet.”Pauline Johnson
CarlyOctober 29, 2022 at 12:17 pm
Wow, this is a completely different side of Stanley Park than what we learned about on our school trips there in the 1990s! So interesting!
TerriOctober 29, 2022 at 12:21 pm
Honestly best Canadian walking tour ever! Since I am an American, I really knew nothing about the history of this park or how the land was taken away from the indigenous people who lived on it for centuries.
Irma R FrancoOctober 29, 2022 at 1:23 pm
TerriOctober 29, 2022 at 2:12 pm
Sara EssopOctober 29, 2022 at 2:43 pm
I love places with interesting personal stories like this – and a great guide is essential. I wonder if the buried treasure is actually there!
TerriOctober 29, 2022 at 5:05 pm
I wonder too if the bank loot is buried deep in the park underground. But the paper currency probably rotted over the last 80 years.
AnitaOctober 29, 2022 at 3:31 pm
Stanley park has awesome statues, like of Portuguese Joe and his wives. I love also totem poles and would be happy to pose in front of them. Such a great walking tour!
TerriOctober 29, 2022 at 5:04 pm
Thank you Anita. The newest totem pole is a work of art. I am so glad that it was erected to honor a family who lived on the land.
PaulaOctober 29, 2022 at 4:06 pm
WOW! I learned a lot just by reading your post, and this tour really shows the treasures that we should learn and cherish. The poles are so beautiful, thanks for sharing this very educational post.
TerriOctober 29, 2022 at 5:03 pm
Thank you Paula. I was most struck by the story of the indigenous people who lived on this land and then were ejected. I am so glad that I took this historical walking tour. I learned so much.
JuliOctober 29, 2022 at 10:45 pm
Wow, thank you for sharing such a comprehensive summary of this tour! Sounds like one not to miss!
LinaOctober 30, 2022 at 2:21 am
I would love to visit Stanley Park when I’m in Vancouver. It sounds like such an interesting place with many exciting stories! Also I didn’t know Vancouver has the longest waterfront path in the world, thanks for sharing!
TerriOctober 30, 2022 at 5:39 am
I took me almost an hour to walk from Stanley Park via the Seawall to my AirBnb. Great exercise!
TerriOctober 30, 2022 at 5:39 am
MayiOctober 30, 2022 at 4:00 am
This is why it is sometimes so important to use a guide. Appreciating the sight is good, but learning about the history of the place is even better. Thank you for sharing and letting me discover Stanley Park along with you!
TerriOctober 30, 2022 at 5:38 am
You are so kind. I highly recommend using a local guide whenever visiting a new locale.
DaniellaOctober 30, 2022 at 4:24 am
Oh my word, Terri – this guide was so interesting to read. I spent a month in Vancouver visiting my uncle a while back and absolutely loved Stanley Park but it has quite a dark history. I’m so taking this tour when I visit again. I think it’s good to know the truth about the destinations we visit.
TerriOctober 30, 2022 at 5:37 am
I am so glad you enjoyed my article. It also learned so much how Canada treated its indigenous people—in the past as well as today. I think you would really enjoy this walking tour.
PamOctober 30, 2022 at 8:49 am
What a cool park! I love how they acknowledge the history of the park including the First Nations. It’s so important that we recognize and remember those actions so we don’t repeat them. I love the Rose Cole Yelton Memorial Pole – it looks like a beautiful and powerful memorial.
TerriOctober 30, 2022 at 12:10 pm
I think the Rose Cole Yelton Memorial Pole was my favorite thing I saw in the park, especially since it was carved by her son Robert. It also represents the indigenous people who lived on the land and were evicted.
StephanieOctober 30, 2022 at 10:28 am
I would love this tour! I enjoy tours like this that share all the hidden gems an area has to find. And I agree that old polar bear exhibit is sad, but an interesting spot still.
TerriOctober 30, 2022 at 12:11 pm
I loved learning about Tuk who saved the kitten that was thrown into the exhibit.
BrittanyOctober 30, 2022 at 10:47 am
Wow, Stanley Park has some awesome stories and history! I love going on walking tours to learn more about the places I am traveling to, so I think I would love this. Thanks for sharing!
TerriOctober 30, 2022 at 12:11 pm
Walking tours are the BEST way to learn about a new city on your travels.
AndreaOctober 30, 2022 at 12:53 pm
Wow this sounds like a fascinating and well-done tour. I really appreciate learning the history of places that I visit as well.
TerriNovember 3, 2022 at 6:26 pm
I love when locals offer walking tours. You learn so much about history and architecture.
A Capone ConnectionOctober 30, 2022 at 6:00 pm
The sculptures look amazing. I love all of the history and hiking options for the tour. Thanks so much for sharing!
TerriNovember 3, 2022 at 6:25 pm
I highly recommend visiting Stanley Park. It offers nature as well as history.
ANUKRATI DOSIOctober 31, 2022 at 1:23 am
This sounds like such an insightful walking tour. I am glad that children take so much interest in history as well.
TerriNovember 3, 2022 at 6:24 pm
It was very insightful. We even had a baby on our tour.
Goya GaleottaNovember 1, 2022 at 4:59 pm
This has been a fantastic pre-read ahead of our trip to Canada this December. Thank you so much for sharing!
TerriNovember 3, 2022 at 6:24 pm
This makes me so happy! The company offers other walking tours. Enjoy Canada!
DeniseNovember 2, 2022 at 3:29 pm
I have been wanting to get back to Vancouver and you can be sure I’ll take the Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tour when I do! Beautiful scenery and sinister stories sound awesome!
TerriNovember 3, 2022 at 6:23 pm
You definitely need to visit Vancouver. It is a dining paradise for gourmets.
Kim OwuorNovember 3, 2022 at 5:16 pm
After following you for quite a while (Reddit lead me here, iykyk) it’s so thrilling to see you in my neck of the woods! Great piece, learnt something new about an area I pass by daily
TerriNovember 3, 2022 at 6:23 pm
Kim you are a loyal reader. The Reddit post was a long time ago. I absolutely love your “neck of the woods.” I wish I could travel across Canada to see all the provinces. You should take this walking tour in Vancouver. Thank you for reading my blog.