Indigo Lions

Vancouver is a wild place.

That’s saying something for a gal  from Northern Ontario. I’ve always taken pride in being from the North. We know cold, I’d say, with wind chills and ice crystals in the air. (Even though there’s a good deal of colder in places above us.) We know snow, I’d say, imprinted by glacial childhoods full of ice-burdened branches and great snow dunes. (Even though what the Prairies get puts it all to shame.) But even failing those exaggerations, Northern Ontario is the land of bears and wolves, wild cats and deer. This I know. This I carry.

Yet nestled in the basin, carved out millennia ago by the meteor that made it worth a nickel in the first place, the wild was still very much on the other side of those black hills. Bound, at bay.

Those boundaries don’t exist here.

Because dogs are on leashes and cats are behind glass, downtown Vancouver is wilder than you’d expect. Grey and black squirrels duke it out, sure, but who hasn’t seen that? Birds everywhere, sparrows and wrens and chickadees no bigger than the leaves they hide behind. Among larger birds, the city is divided into three flocks — pigeon, gull and crow — but you’ll find cormorants along the water, sleek and cautious, and a heron will appear, huge and alien and utterly indifferent to you, then vanish. The raccoon family will cross Davie street under the street lamps, hedge to hedge, or share the sidewalk with you on your morning commute. Skunks, too, go about their business at the base of twenty-story apartments, confident they have the right of way. That grey-coated swimmer slipping in and around the the sea plane landing docks, seal or selkie? Doesn’t matter. She’s gorgeous all the same.

The coyote, though? That’s a surprise.

Halfway to work on a grey morning after a night of rain, passing a green space that’s an offshoot of a well-maintained heritage building, you see it come out of wet holly bushes fifty feet ahead. It’s healthy, trim, and you mistake it for a dog at first, looking very much like one of the ubiquitous husky-types so common to this city. But the coat is streaks of brown, grey and white, and it carries itself with steady calm, no nervous off-leash pet. It assesses you quickly — too small and too far away to be a threat — and looks to the road, all canny judgement, before trotting across and disappearing again.

It’s not a far walk, by foot or paw, to Stanley Park. Twenty minutes, maybe. Thirty? It shouldn’t have been surprising, but it still locked my legs in place and commanded my sight until the coyote was gone silent as it had come.

Surprises like that keep happening, a year in. Buckling under history, flexing to anticipate growth, the geography isn’t completely nailed down. I’ve transitioned from extended visit to this is where I live sometime in the last few months, yet the city keeps bending in unexpected ways.

Like the mountains. They’ll surprise you. Surrounded by the trunks of buildings and trees, you quickly forget the mountains exist until a celestial conjunction of concrete and bark clear a pathway and there they are, grey-indigo, white-wreathed, larger than they have any right to be. The Lions, they call them, have this shifting, mutable nature — sometimes so high and dark, other times far and faint — that pairs so well to the sense that this city is a shifter, too. Magical. Neighbourhoods wear the styles of decades past, transform into a future of glass and neon, every inch of it cradled in the hands of moss-bodied Ents that bloom year-round. I don’t doubt that part of the draw of Vancouver is that people can come here and it can be any city you want it to be.

You start looking for those mountains, though. Make a game of it. And sometimes, when you’ve thought you won, it turns out those mountains aren’t mountains but storm clouds as dark and indigo as the Lions themselves. In fairness, they look awfully similar when they are so far away and when you only catch shards of them in the sky. Hard to know which to prepare for unless you get up close, past the buildings and right to the water’s edge. A storm you can weather, a mountain you have to climb. Best be prepared for both.

Today the sky is cobalt, the winds sharp, and the mountains imposing, stately and sure of themselves. The city is always strange, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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