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Wood Workers

British Columbia Magazine

Late one night, ten years ago this December, Vancouverite Patricia Thomson was woken by fierce winds rattling the shutters of her West End home. Closing them and slipping back to sleep, it wasn’t until the next morning that the front-page news emerged: a violent storm, with winds topping 120 km per hour, had pummeled the region for hours, whipping debris around the city like a dirty snow globe.


Like many, Thomson’s place of employment had also been hammered. But when you work in Stanley Park – Canada’s most beloved urban green space – you await the damage reports with heightened anxiety. Thomson didn’t know it at the time, but the tempest had toppled 10,000 trees. It was also about to transform her job as executive director of the Stanley Park Ecology Society (SPES).


“My neighbours heard the trees falling but no-one knew the full scope until a TV station broadcast their chopper shots,” she recalls. “It was shocking. When I hiked into the park the next day, I didn’t recognize anything: the roads looked like logging trails completely covered in downed branches.”


But while reporters described the severe windstorm as devastating to the 400-hectare picture-postcard park, Thomson saw natural renewal on the cards, the coastal equivalent of lightning fires that regenerate inland forests. The fresh start also applied to SPES, founded as the Stanley Park Zoological Society in 1988.


“The storm was a wake-up call and a fork in the road for us. We began to help inform the Park Board’s restoration initiatives, assisting with a new forest management plan and ecological action plan. Before the storm, we’d concentrated on education but conservation now became a big focus for us as well.”


A decade later, Thomson still helms an organization that ultimately doubled in size after the storm. From her small second-floor office in the century-old Stanley Park Pavilion – overlooking the Malkin Bowl outdoor theatre – she spearheads a society of 600 volunteers and, depending on the season, up to 16 staffers.


Her job, says Thomson, has never been more diverse. SPES annually hosts thousands of schoolchildren on educational park programs; informs visitors about vital ecosystems via its charming Nature House alongside Lost Lagoon; and even coordinates Vancouverites’ reports of coyote sightings around the city.


But it’s the proactive, grassroots conservation programs – part of a strong partnership with the Park Board – she’s particularly proud of. From installing bird boxes to planting new trees, there’s also a volunteer army that continually removes invasive plants like Japanese knotweed and purple loosestrife.


And while Thomson’s days are devoted more to grant applications than hanging out in the park (she recommends tranquil Ravine Trail), she never tires of her unique workplace. “It’s very special. I’m not a morning person but I love it here at that time of day. It’s when the birds are singing at their loudest – an important reminder that this is their park and not ours.”


But alongside the more than 200 bird species, centuries-old hemlocks and tooth-and-claw residents from raccoons to Douglas squirrels, Thomson isn’t the only person with a Stanley Park job. From train drivers to wedding planners and from lifeguards to gardeners with canon firing duties, she’s one of many gainfully employed in a place that was dedicated “to the use and enjoyment of all” by Lord Stanley in 1889.


It’s a motto that underpins the work of wildlife ranger Mike Mackintosh, who helps balance the needs of Stanley Park’s resident critters with its eight million annual visitors. Challenges include wildlife habituating to easy feeding and tourists who don’t realize that animals need their space. “All Vancouver’s urban wildlife is basically represented here. The trick is to leave them to their own devices,” he says.


It’s an approach that’s evolved over the years. In the past, egg-addling was deployed to reduce the park’s Canada goose population while deer swimming in from the North Shore used to be swiftly relocated before they could munch their way through the Rose Garden. And the great blue heron colony – resident in the park at various locations for a century – now has a highly protective management plan.


But beavers, says Mackintosh, have been an enduring workplace challenge. The park is currently home to a sharp-toothed family in Beaver Lake, where a clever baffling system has been installed to prevent their prodigious damming feats from flooding the area. The paddle-tailed rodents haven’t always been so welcome, though. Relocation was once a common strategy – if you could snag them.


“I remember once standing in chest waders in Lost Lagoon with a net trying to catch one. Then we waited for three days while he hid in a pipe. When he finally emerged, we tried to grab him. There’s nothing like rolling around in the mud with a beaver that doesn’t want to be caught,” recalls Mackintosh.


But beavers aren’t Stanley Park’s only water babies. Superintendent of beaches and pools Glenn Schultz oversees swimming safety here, coordinating up to 18 lifeguards to look after visitors on the busiest days. The City of Vancouver’s longest-serving current employee, he has lifeguarded around the area for 56 years.


“I started at Locarno Beach [West Point Grey] in 1960. I’d saved a kid from drowning a few months before and I thought it would be a good little summer job. But I’m still doing it after all these years,” says Schultz, who often swims several times a week and spearheads Vancouver’s annual lifeguard training program.


The park’s outdoor Second Beach Pool draws most swimmers, he says. But it’s not just families that love it. Raccoons sometimes take after-hours dips, while birds use its concrete flanks to break freshly-harvested shells. And the job isn’t just about summer. “If ice forms, we’ll have people at Beaver Lake and Lost Lagoon to stop the skaters. They did it a lot in the 1960s and 1970s but there hasn’t been enough ice to do it properly here since the 1990s,” says Shultz.


A far more reliable winter attraction is the Stanley Park Train’s Bright Lights Christmas trundle, transforming the miniature railway’s 2km woodland track into a fairy-lit festive wonderland. One of the enduring attraction’s busiest periods, the train also runs Easter, Halloween and summer-long services, says engineer Krista Moyls, a driver here for 15 years.


The railroad – trundling through a clearing that was created by the park’s previous big storm, 1962’s Hurricane Frieda – has two locomotives. One is a standard theme park mini-train while the other is a unique 50-year-old replica of Engine 374, the loco that pulled the first transcontinental passenger service into Vancouver in 1887.


“We alternate them every three weeks but both are converted tractor engines running on gas. Each weighs three-to-five tons and they’re very expensive to maintain,” says Moyls, adding that she spends up to 40 minutes prepping the day’s train for service before the passengers arrive.


The Halloween ghost train is her favourite, but Moyls says the best part of her job isn’t dependent on the season. “I love it when little girls run up and say ‘I didn’t know ladies could be train drivers.’ I never get tired of hearing that.”


Gardener Trent Furlong also never tires of a near-legendary park duty he performs. Joining the team of 10 or so gardeners here a few years back, his green-thumbed responsibilities include formal flowerbeds and maintaining the cricket and rugby pitches plus keeping the Brockton Point totem pole area authentically natural.


But it’s his Nine O’Clock Gun duties that fascinate many. “The gardener that used to do it retired so I got my pyrotechnic certificate and took over,” says Furlong. The job – the seawall-mounted 1816 British canon has been fired to keep the time here for at least a century – used to mean personally detonating the charge at the appointed hour. Now it’s primed with 1.5lbs of gunpowder at 2pm and fired off later via timer.


“When people see me here in the afternoon, they expect it to be fired. I have to explain that it won’t be going off until 9pm – they always look disappointed!” says Furlong, adding that gardening consumes the lion’s share of his park time.


Challenges include tourists trampling his flowerbeds while leaf-blowing duties on the 8.8km seawall have to be performed before the crowds arrive. Is there an upside to gardening in such a heavily-trafficked place? “There’s so much visitor feedback, it feels like everything you do has a positive result,” says Furlong, whose favourite area is the rhododendron-lined Ted and Mary Greig Garden – especially in spring.


That’s also the time of year when Shel Piercy’s thoughts turn to the stage. Director of 11 productions at Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) – the open-air musical season that’s colonized the Malkin Bowl since 1940 – spring is rehearsal time. Staging twin shows to audiences of up to 1,000 per night is a logistical challenge in itself, but doing it outside on the ‘Wet Coast’ presents an extra layer of potential drama.


“Rain can be a problem but we never cancel,” says Piercy, who directed 2016’s Beauty and the Beast. “We always rehearse for rain: if it comes, it hits the first eight feet of the stage so we modify the performance. Also, everything is waterproofed and we have squeegees backstage to mop everything up.”


Preventing slippage is vital with up to 35 actors on stage plus a 20-musician orchestra tucked underneath. But precipitation isn’t the only nature-based challenge. “I remember a love scene in 2007’s Oklahoma! when all I could hear was the audience laughing. It transpired there was a raccoon on stage just sitting there watching the actors. Of course, he stole the show,” recalls Piercy.


His own love affair with TUTS started in 1970, when Piercy worked here as a young stagehand. “One night, it looked like the wind would blow the roof off one of the buildings so I went up, with another guy, to hold it down. Up there in the dark, I had a perfect view of the stage and I watched Cecilia Smith singing I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady. It was magical.”


It’s a word Vivian Leung also uses about her job. A wedding planner with the Capilano Group, which organizes weddings in and around its elegantly refurbished Stanley Park Pavilion space, she helps couples orchestrate their perfect big day here.


“Everyone has a vision for their wedding but Stanley Park is a great backdrop whatever you add to it,” she says, noting that many ceremonies combine the flower-framed Formal Garden with the adjoining Pavilion – where everything can also be quickly moved if a spot of wild weather suddenly kicks-off.


For wedding photos, the perfectly manicured Formal Gardens are popular, she says. But other park areas also lure nuptial snappers. “There’s the nearby Rose Garden as well as Prospect Point, which is the highest lookout in Stanley Park. It has great views of the Lions Gate Bridge, Burrard Inlet and North Shore Mountains.”


But while curious park critters have yet to photo-bombed anyone’s wedding photos, Leung says they’ve certainly made themselves known to the planners working in the Pavilion. “We have a resident otter living close by who once visited during a site visit and there was also a family of raccoons that joined us for a rehearsal.”


Not every animal encounter here is unexpected, though. Senior Biologist Mackenzie Neale has been at the park’s Vancouver Aquarium for 18 years, spending much of her time with one specific species. “I work in the B.C. Waters department collecting and caring for local fish and invertebrates. But my specialty is jellyfish: I care for their displays and also culture jellies for display, education and research.”


Like everyone employed in the park, Mackenzie is fully enamoured of her unique workplace. “I’m a triathlete in my spare time so I swim, bike and run here before, during and after work,” she says. And what do the park’s four-legged locals think about that? “I’m always running into animals here. I especially enjoy spring when I often see lots of baby skunks and baby raccoons. I love working here!”


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