Thursday, March 1, 2012

All Along The Waterfront

Vancouver 1792 by Jim McKenzie
The history of the Vancouver beach scene is a fascinating one and, thanks to the City archives, there is a considerable photographic record to mark its evolution from pristine wilderness to what we have today.  In 1792, when Captain Vancouver anchored in what he was to name English Bay, the area was a massive forest of first growth cedar, hemlock and Douglas fir, with native communities scattered along the edges living off the teeming fish stocks.  It was nearly another 100 years before settlement actually took place, along with the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway, but by then the fame of the lumber to be had from the forests was well under way and the beaches were being used as either log dumping grounds, sawmill sites or fish canneries.

The new residents of Vancouver needed a place to get away in summer and so the most popular spot of course was the beach at English Bay.  In those days some folks had summer cottages along the beach and many people camped as well.  Established in 1893 as a recreational beach, sand was later added in 1898, and the first bathhouse was built in the 1900's.  Back then the beach even boasted a water chute/slide and a pavilion. 

English Bay
However, to really get away from it all people would set out for Greer's Beach (later known as Kits Beach) where the only way to get there was either by boat or by following an old logging road.  From 1894 - 1908  rows of tents would be set up during the summer months and families would spend their summers happily playing in the sand and ocean.  But in 1908, due to sanitation issues and development pressures, beach camping was banned on both Kits beach and English Bay.

Greer's (Kits) Beach

Nearby 2nd Beach also attracted campers and a fair share of bathers which can be seen in photos from the 1920's before any pool was built and you could still ride your horse or donkey in the park and let your dog run free.

2nd Beach

By the 1930's big changes came to all the beaches with large "draw and fill" saltwater swimming pools built at both 2nd Beach and Kits Beach.  2nd Beach was the first one built in 1930 with the one at Kits opening in 1931, and both operated on the same principle of fresh seawater being drawn into the pool and then drained and refreshed after a week's use. To really appreciate how massive these pools were it helps to have an aerial perspective.

2nd Beach Pool
Kits Beach Pool

English Bay 1930's
Over at English Bay new bathhouses were built out of concrete but otherwise the swimming was left open to the ocean.  Regardless of which beach a person chose, the crowds were tremendous and at Kit's there was also the attraction of a high dive platform.  The draw and fill pools were a great investment for the City and Parks Board with the original Kits pool lasting until 1979 and the 2nd Beach pool only being replaced in 1995.

Kit's Pool & Dive Platform 1930's

By the 1940's it appears the diving platform had been significantly lowered, perhaps the first example of "no fun" Vancouver rules and regulations.  But it doesn't seem to have affected the number of swimmers who frequented the pool and it's interesting to note the pool was so large the lifeguards needed rowboats to get around.  2nd Beach was doing a good business as well, and all along the waterfront everyone was swimming in the ocean.

Kit's Pool 1940's
2nd Beach Pool 1940's

Taking Care Of Beaches

Parks Board machines photo by Junie Quiroga
Long before anyone, other than me, usually thinks of going to the beach in the morning there's a tag team crew that's already there making sure everything is clean and tidy.  One is a front end loader that moves the logs and the other is a beach cleaning machine that sifts out the sand.  All year round these two do the beach circuit around English Bay that includes Spanish Banks, Locarno, Jericho, Kits, Sunset, Second & Third beach and of course English Bay beach itself.

Front end loader photo by Junie Quiroga
There are endless windstorms, particularly in winter, that heap up logs and other debris onto the beach, and there is no end to the trash left behind by an inconsiderate public including food and beverage containers, needles,cigarette butts and articles of clothing.  Piling up the logs, that at one time kept all sorts of beachcombers in business but now aren't worth the bother, is another depressing reminder of how the forest industry has changed.  At least there is no shortage of logs for the sunbathers to lie against.

Agassiz debris trap

Of course the log and debris situation could be much worse if it wasn't for the Fraser River debris trap that has been in operation for more than 30 years outside of Agassiz.  The amount of wood that is collected there each year and chipped into hog fuel staggers the imagination.  Estimates range from 50,000 - 100,000 cubic metres of debris which is enough to fill 10 or more football fields up to a depth of 10 feet.  Hard to imagine the mess it would make of the waterways in and around Georgia Strait if it wasn't contained but harder still to believe the government can't find a way to permanently fund such a critical operation.

Beachcomber photo by Junie Quiroga

Every once in awhile though a beachcomber does appear to collect up some particularly valuable logs that might have come loose from a log boom being towed.  Logs on the beach may be a bit of a mess but out in the ocean they are a considerable hazard.  Every year insurance claims in the thousands of dollars are made by boaters who have lost a prop, holed their boat or had other damage done by logs floating just at or below the surface.

Fireworks Trash
But as trashy as Mother Nature can be, nothing beats the crowds on Fireworks Nights in English Bay when hundreds of thousands of suburbanites descend on the city's beaches to eat, drink and enjoy the fireworks.  The mess they leave afterwards is truly disgraceful and what makes it worse is that it's obvious they didn't even try to put any of it into a garbage container.  But one man's garbage is another man's treasure and, while the Parks Board employees give the beaches their daily cleanup, there are some resourceful entrepreneurs with metal detectors also out there taking care of the beaches.

Man with metal detector
Nelson Quiroga  a bump on a log