It was the white swirling mass of her cloud shapes and the happy green paint swishes she used to depict her native trees that made me want to visit Emily Carr’s Vancouver. Beloved by Canadians, Carr was a nineteenth century artist whose sweeping views of the western coast and stylized techniques made me yearn for the wild spirit in British Columbia’s landscape. Once in Vancouver, I realized this seaside city was being inexorably and beautifully overtaken by the tendrils of Mother Nature. Untouched forests of cedar and fir wrapped themselves around the outskirts of Vancouver, while the distant shadow of blue-tinged mountains called out to me. Where better to experience this rough-hewn wilderness than by making my way to the summit of Grouse Mountain?
There are many ways to get up Grouse Mountain, but the Grouse Grind is one of the most popular. The “Grind,” as it is affectionately called by locals, covers a length of three kilometers and during this length it rises to a height of eight hundred and fifty-three meters. A very steep grade indeed! Several previous climbers I met assured me, however, that I could easily make the ascent in an hour and a half to be rewarded by a spectacular view of the Pacific Northwest. I was thrilled by this news and eagerly looked forward to tackling the mountain. Though I am not a mountaineer, I have done my share of treks around the world and thought little about the walk up other than it affording me time to enjoy Vancouver’s outdoor lifestyle. The terrain begins gently enough among the fresh-scented pines of the lower slope. Here, I cannot see much except the strands of giant evergreens and a few of my fellow grinders. Jovially I race my way up, in between the trees, nodding pleasantly at slower trekkers. Soon, they will be the ones laughing at me.
A Real Grind
Before the first quarter-mile marker (400 meters), however, I am singing a different tune. Frankly, I am wheezing the tune as my lungs rasp out every breath. My heart begins to pound and a lurking suspicion enters my thoughts: I am not prepared to tackle this mountain. As I rest against a jutting boulder, my head sunk between my knees, several slow joggers ask me how I am doing as they lope placidly past. I wave them off and in a few minutes, pass them again pushing my muscles to work harder. The slope, however, begins its steep grade, wreaking havoc on my legs, my breath, and even my brain. Feeling utterly defeated I find a rock to sit on. I tell myself I will relax for only a few moments as I ruefully watch the paced joggers glide past me for the second time. I know that the longer I wait, the farther ahead they will be and I will not be able to catch up to them any longer. Still, my hamstrings refuse to budge and I tell myself I simply need an extra five minutes to unwind.
The scenery to the left of me doesn’t motivate me to move either. An azure horizon meeting sapphire waters peeks through the wide angled leaves, captivating my sight and instantly I forget about the twinges down my leg. I would have perhaps stayed put gazing into the distance if a pair of hikers hadn’t gently persuaded me to continue. They were well versed in the Grind and convinced me that I could accomplish the rest of the trail. The Grind path is strewn with a dense forest of maples, alders, firs, and cedars, a textured patchwork of greens rising before me. To divert me from my physical agony, I concentrate on Grouse’s fantastic wild beauty, a topic my fellow ascenders also love to discuss. They point out to me the splatter of sunlight falling betwixt overhanging leaves on our journey or the artistic knobbiness of a deciduous tree whose trunk I am forced to clasp while my knees recover. Even the arduously endless serpentine twist of rocky stairs becomes a poetic image in front of me as I stumble my way higher.
Conquered by Beauty
After a thousand pauses that do not seem long enough, I venture onto the final portion of the Grind, willing myself to tackle the last tortuous staircase of stone. The mountain’s natural beauty has helped me come this far. Whenever my knees buckle and my lungs seize up, a vista opens up to distract me from the pain. I have forgotten the ache of lower back upon seeing a window of trees open to reveal the bright sky and sparkle of Vancouver harbor. My sore calves faded away as a symmetric band of geese sliced through the cloudless Vancouver sky. With each glorious sight of nature my agony receded and I made my way step by arduous step up Grouse.
Finally the ultimate view unfolds as I reach the Grind’s apex. The sun is almost setting by this time and its golden hues cast leisurely shadows on the mauve tinted bank of clouds blanketing the summit. My heart swells as I gaze down at a group of forest-covered islands dotting a never-ending horizon of water. I have conquered the Grouse Grind and my reward is a panoramic vista of Vancouver. I finally get to fully enjoy the mountain’s beauty, which I caught brief tastes of during my ascent. Climbing the Grouse Grind had me thinking about the challenges of traveling.
Travel is fraught with pains and discomforts, but often during the journey, the traveler meets with the joy of an experience unexpected.
The untamed grandeur of Vancouver’s nature will always be entwined with memories of a harsh excursion. I wouldn’t have wanted to discover this untrammeled land any other way.
Vancouver is full of natural beauty from its public space, Stanley Park, to its sparkling harbor, blue-ridged mountains and acres of wholesome forest. The city has a long standing love-affair with the outdoors, making it easy for travelers to enjoy the symbiosis of man and nature. Vancouver is truly a city of the future in its ability to bridge the gap between urban spance and natural wonder.