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The Places We Love II: Hang Your Kids Over a Cliff and Turn Them On to Nature

Second in a series of occasional blogs about the ever-changing quality of travel destinations around the world—about what’s going on behind the scenes and how it affects the character of the places we care about.

You, your spouse, and your kids can now enjoy “Cliffwalk,” a vertigo-inducing catwalk cantilevered out from a sheer precipice in British Columbia. You can see treetops between your feet. No small matter, given that the treetops themselves are almost 200 feet high. Awesome.

But is there anything more to this than a thrill?

That was the question on my mind as I drove from the airport up to where North Vancouver, B.C., nestles below the rain-grabbing Coast Range. North Vancouver is a verdant suburb cleaved by deep, forested canyons too steep for development. It was largely wilderness in 1889 when George Grant Mackay first threw a wobbly suspension bridge across the Capilano River canyon and discovered that thrill-seekers liked walking to the middle of it and gazing 230 feet down into the tree-lined gorge. In 1953, Rae Mitchell bought the 30-acre site, revitalized it, and sold it to his daughter, Nancy Stibbard, who expanded it into a full nature theme park. Nancy now runs the place as CEO, assisted by her son John and 220 employees. The Capilano Suspension Bridge Park has become one of Vancouver’s iconic attractions.

A quiet moment on the Capilano Suspension Bridge. (Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot)

Rebuilt and reinforced over the years, the bridge remains this nature theme park’s signature feature, but other elements have been added—a tribal traditions section, trails, ponds, a café, a forest-canopy walkway, and the inevitable gift shop. And now, Cliffwalk.

It sounded like a new version of the zip lines and canopy walkways that have been proliferating at ecotourism sites around the world. They can be a lot of fun, and done right, they do little harm. But one purpose of good ecotourism is to, well, learn about nature. So I wanted to see whether eco-thrills like Cliffwalk actually do that.

For a while I had reservations about Capilano. Let’s go back to the day of my visit.

Opening Day

It is June and today is the grand opening of Cliffwalk. The weather is cooperating, thematically speaking: It’s raining. To me, this is totally appropriate for a temperate rain forest. Moss and ferns just don’t look right in bright sunshine.

The heavy drizzle doesn’t faze park staff, who were passing out slickers to the school groups and adults filing through the entry gates.

I first check out the eponymous bridge, whose 450-feet span bounces satisfactorily as families and school groups troop back and forth across it. The Capilano river roars far below. Douglas-fir, hemlock, and cedar reach up toward us, a mix typical of the temperate rainforests native to the Pacific coast from California north to Alaska. The scene feels like virgin wilderness, except for an incongruous clutch of garden apartments perched on a bluff downstream. Across the bridge, nature trails lead to the forest-canopy walkway, 650 feet long and climbing as high as ten stories.

I share the park with plenty of visitors. If this is a light-traffic day, Capilano must be quite a money machine. It costs more than $30 for an adult to enter.  Nancy Stibbard says it can handle an upper limit of 5,000 people at a time on a nice summer weekend.

That many? If I’m interested in communing with nature, that’s about 4,990 more people than I care to share 30 acres of woods with. Apparently, I haven’t yet grasped why this is one of the most highly praised eco-attractions in North America.

The Moment Arrives

The grand opening of Cliffwalk turns out to be a scripted press event, held under plastic tenting on an overlook above the 300-foot precipice. Below, you can see part of the new catwalk. It sweeps out over the abyss in an arc, suspended by cables from a single anchor embedded in the vertical granite.

Promo shot of Cliffwalk on a camera-ready day. (Photo courtesy Capilano Suspension Bridge Park)

 

School kids get authentic, rain-forest weather on Cliffwalk opening day. (Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot)

The Capilano people certainly know how to handle the media, offering us scheduled interviews, media kits with press releases, leaflets, and thumb-drives.  There’s a ribbon-cutting photo op. This is just short of slick, I think, still skeptical. They’ve even brought in an elementary-school class to tour the catwalk so that reporters can get their reactions.

Too staged for my taste. I’m uncomfortable anyway, because I’ve accepted a paid press trip to be here. B.C. Tourism and Capilano cooperated in flying in some journalists to witness this event, and I’m one of them. Though common in the travel business, press trips create an obvious conflict of interest that I prefer to avoid. I have made an exception for this 36-hour visit to Vancouver, since I already knew of Capilano’s solid ecotourism reputation.

As if to underscore that point, John Stibbard tell us about the elaborate precautions to protect the cliff-face during construction. It was his vertical exploration that inspired Cliffwalk. “The way you see the canyon from the walkway is the way I saw it four years ago, rappelling off the cliff,” he says. “When I got to the bottom I was chest deep in sword ferns.”

The press corps asks him only a few desultory questions about the innovative engineering, which Capilano’s PR team has made much of. Interesting, but is that the point? So I voice my own concern: “How much will people actually learn about rain-forest ecology from this?”

Stibbard perks right up. “We didn’t want to just build a walk. We wanted to overlay a full educational experience.” Enthusiastically, he picks up steam: “We wanted to tell the story of the power of the water—water in its relation to flora and fauna, water in relation to the salmon in the river. We’ve opened another acre above us that goes into those stories in depth.”

Well, okay! And indeed it does.

The Cliffwalk first takes you out over the canyon for the wow factor. After you’ve seen the cliff as if hovering next to it, and looked down between your feet from one of the transparent sections, the route then feeds you back onto solid ground. There you can play with various attractive, interactive displays, read interpretive signs about water and ecosystems, and eye the hokey-looking but accurately sculpted concrete salmon swimming upstream.

Signage helps us learn by enriching the thrills. (Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot)

Yes, you do learn things, in digestible morsels. A lawn can use 2 to 6 times more water than a swimming pool. Trees can get 40% of their moisture from the fog. Such tidbits are scattered all over the park. “Years of trial and error taught us to keep the signs short,” Stibbard says, “so people will take away one thing from each.”

I’m beginning to realize Capilano isn’t about communing with Mother Nature; it’s more like having your first date with her. A speed date, perhaps, but a pretty good one.

Behind the Scenes

“The Cliffwalk is a hook,” Stibbard confides to me later on. “It’s like building a roller-coaster, only with layers of educational material added. So that people leave here with something to think about.”

To me the most mind-boggling factoid was one that sums up interconnectedness:

Scientists have found salmon DNA in Douglas-fir trees.

How can this be? Bears and other predators pull salmon from the river, and the fishes’ remains fertilize the trees. Thus a decline in salmon can affect the forests. Discovering such wondrous, essential relationships is an eco-thrill in its own right.

And more. A sense of wonder is what inspires us to care about special places. The water story that Capilano tells, for instance, may help us better understand what is at stake elsewhere, even here in British Columbia.  One of the latest conservation battles is brewing a few hundred miles to the north, where mining interests seek a foothold in an area dubbed the “Sacred Headwaters” of the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass rivers. A spectacularly photographed book on the topic, with text by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis, is due out this October. Places like Capilano show that the beauty of such places is more than photograph-deep—that flora and fauna are worth more than their weight in newly mined gold. After all, you can eat salmon.

Do people make the connection between learning and action? Capilano may be more smoothly commercialized than suits my own taste, but it can introduce hundreds of people to ecology in a single day. Many of those visitors vote in B.C. Yet so far, no one has done a study of whether visitor perceptions and opinions change after a visit to the park. Perhaps some determined grad student will step up to the plate and research it.

Regardless, I’m impressed by Capilano’s sincerity.

Stibbard points out how many of the trails through the forest are now eco-friendly raised boardwalks. “We used to have gravel paths. Since then, we’ve lifted up the entire walkway, taken out the invasive species, taken up the gravel, and replanted with all natural vegetation.”  He notes that national park managers call him for advice. “They should be doing boardwalks, too. In popular parks, you know, the trails get wider, and people walk here and there and carve their names in trees. You need to contain the crowds. But the parks just don’t have the money.” He does.

So how can a private, for-profit business justify the seemingly exorbitant spending on environmental perfectionism?

Capilano's canopy walkway, engineered not to harm trees. (Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot)

“You have a long-term vision, you make the right decisions. Otherwise, you’re not doing things for the right reasons. You’re doing things for now, for profits.” Stibbard quickly adds. “Not that I’m against profits! I like making profits. But you can’t think short term. It will take all our profits for the next two years to pay for Cliffwalk, but our time line is not two years, it’s not five years. When my grandfather was here, he wasn’t thinking about himself, he was thinking about my mother. And now I’m thinking about my kids. Our time line is 50 years, a hundred years.”

I note the shortage of long-term visions in current affairs. “I think that’s difficult with governments,” he says. “With politics, it’s always the next two years, or four years. You never make the right decisions.”

All this from a successful businessman. For one brief, shining moment I imagine a corporate, economic, and political world with his point of view, measuring success not in terms of the next election or annual report, but the next generation.

I go away with something to think about.

Practicalities

About the only major complaint people seem to have with Capilano is the entry fee—ranging around $32 Canadian ($10 for kids)—so plan on spending the day. That fee does cover nature guides who will take you around, pointing put the secrets of the forest and answering questions.

But if the fee strains your budget, consider going instead to nearby Lynn Canyon, a public wildlife reserve with its own eco-center and suspension bridge—a bit shorter but still plenty impressive—and a quieter more natural experience. I recommend Capilano for learning, then graduate to Lynn Canyon for communing.