Capilano Bridge brings back memories

Vancouver is where I chose to retire. There’s the temperate climate, flowers year-round, a laidback lifestyle-and for me, nostalgia. More than a half century ago, I lived briefly in the city.

I was a bride the weekend Canada entered World War II, in September 1939. But my new husband and I were soon parted when he joined the Royal Canadian Airforce. His squadron left Hamilton, Ontario for training at Jericho Beach in Vancouver.

Before long, I boarded a train for the long, wartime no-frills trip across the country, to snatch what precious time we could together. In those uncertain days, none of us knew what lay ahead.

Run-down park
One Sunday, we rented a car. With three other airmen at our boarding house, we drove through Stanley Park and across the new Lion’s Gate Bridge to the north shore.

Our landlady had suggested we visit a suspended footbridge that swung across the Capilano River. In the 1920s, she said, there had been a park, popular with Vancouverites. But it had suffered during the Depression and might not even be open anymore. We would soon find out that she was right.

Seeing a shabby road sign, we parked in an on expanse of grass and tangled bushes, and decrepit log buildings. This was all that remained of the park. We walked through the long grass, heading towards what we guessed was the river and possibly the bridge.

But we weren’t prepared for a deep gorge splitting the land with a river running far below. The only access to the forest on the other bank was a flimsy apology for a bridge connecting the steep, rocky walls on either side of the Capilano Canyon.

Free swaying bridge
I froze with terror as my daring young men prepared to step onto the free-swaying span. Two options faced me: Wait in safety and watch, or go on an incredible journey. I chose the latter, reasoning that if we all plunged into the river, at least my dearly beloved and I would meet our fate locked in each other’s arms, like Romeo and Juliet.

I gripped the thin wire handrail, took a tentative step from the grass onto the so-called bridge. Under our weight, it instantly began swinging and swaying from side to side. A lifetime later, we reached the far bank. I collapsed thankfully onto the solid ground, my knees like jelly, my mouth too dry to make a murmur and my ears ringing.

My brave companions let me sit there until I could breathe normally.

Next page: Return trip

Return trip
“We’d better start back, the sun’s going down. Come on, hon,” my husband said, gently pulling me to my feet.

There was only one way back-that wicked, wobbly wooden monstrosity. But sheer grit carried me through the ordeal. It was just as well that I didn’t know then what I learned many years later: The canyon is over 145 metres wide and 25 storeys tall!

Fifty years later
Fifty years later, I was about the retrace my steps. This time, I found myself in a real park, with people and a real bridge. The grounds were landscaped, with winding paths among vivid flowerbeds and totem poles. Carved wooden figures of early Aboriginals told the region’s history.

I brushed shoulders with visitors of all nationalities who had come from far away to experience the thrill of crossing the suspension bridge. Its nickname is “Eighth Wonder of the World”. Its origin and history are told at the Story Centre, where visitors pore over old photos and texts on display.

Origins of bridge
This small building is a replica of a cabin built on the rim of the gorge in 1889 by an intrepid Scottish immigrant. In his 60s, George Grant Mackay brought his wife and grown family to settle in the young port of Vancouver, where he became a land developer.

During a land search, he discovered a stretch of wilderness along the Capilano River. He was so taken by its rugged beauty, he bought some acres for a summer retreat. Building and supplies were transported by ferry across wide Burrard Inlet from Vancouver to the north shore.

Then the loads were hauled uphill on narrow logging roads, In time, a livable cottage perched on the edge of the steep cliff. The wrap-around verandah gave a panoramic view (and probably wild palpitations) to anyone daring enough to stand at the railing.

The view that teased Mackay was the forest he owned, but couldn’t explore, across the gorge. The dauntless Scot drew on his engineering skills and devised a suspended footbridge to reach the far bank.

Next page: Ropes across gorge

Ropes across gorge
Somehow, with the help of two local Aboriginals, thick hemp ropes were anchored under piles of huge tree stumps beside the cabin and then flung down one bank. The ropes were dragged across the river by a team of horses and hauled up the far rocky bank.

Then more huge trees were cut down to anchor the rope ends on the other side. It was an impossible feat, but Mackay succeeded in stretching a footbridge across the deep gorge.

Business associates in Vancouver began making the long trek to the Mackay cabin, bringing their families and a picnic for a day’s outing that summer of 1890. A few of the more courageous guests even ventured across what Mackay’s wife Jessie called the “Nervous Bridge”.

Mackay himself wanted to develop his serene, scenic site into a park for people to enjoy. Unfortunately, he died in 1893 before realizing his plan. His sons sold the property, but subsequent owners also never allowed the spendour of the site to be spoiled.

Million visitors annually
Cement eventually replaced the log anchors. Foot traffic on the swinging span increased and safety measures were added. One of the rundown buildings we had seen in 1940 had been a popular teahouse at the turn of the century. Today, it is the Trading Post emporium of British Columbia gifts, crafts and specialties.

The bridge has had major facelifts. Regular inspections keep it safe for the million visitors who come annually.

My return crossing
On my return visit, I kept delaying my crossing for as long as possible. Why, I kept asking myself, had I told my children and grandchildren that when I moved to Vancouver, of course I would repeat that wartime experience and send them pictures to prove it?

They never tired of hearing “the Capilano caper”, so I had no option, really. My mind told me-“stop shaking, bite the bullet, cross the canyon!”

Old memories flooded back as I took a tentative step on the cedar deck and then felt the bridge floorboards moving. But others were close behind and I had to keep going. But at least now, there were mesh sides and a thick steel handrail. Faces coming towards me on their return trip were smiling. I still felt terrified, but it was a safe adventure this time.

The swaying span rocked sideways at the center, but even I stopped to take pictures of the view up and down the gorge. On the far bank, I sat on a rustic bench, then roamed a trail down to the river’s edge. I looked up and saw an eagle soaring to its nest high up in an ancient Douglas fir tree.

Lunch for reward
My return trip, I told my family (with only slight exaggeration) was “a piece of cake.”

My reward was lunch at the Bridge House Restaurant outside the park gates. This heritage home, circa 1912, is another step back in history, with beamed ceilings, stone fireplaces, and old photos and artifacts from the early days of the park.

As I sat enjoying the local salmon, I thought of the edge I had on all the other visitors to the park that day. For them, it was an exciting side trip on a vacation to Canada’s West Coast. For me, it was reliving a long ago event, filled with memories and never forgotten.

Nowadays, when family and friends come to visit, the ultimate highlight of every visit is an outing to Capilano Suspension Bridge and Park. Along with the exhilarating thrill of crossing the canyon, visitors get my commentary on my long ago adventure. It never seems to bore them-or me.

Jean Hobson is a freelance writer who lives in Vancouver, B.C.