In the descent from 9,000m, the plane lowered as if in steps, bellying down from level to level and, after the hours aloft, we glimpsed land through wisps of cloud, pinpricks of light on the dark face of the earth below.
Next time we looked, the darkness had become a plain of light, a living thing through which corpuscles flowed, glittering and winking, clustering in places, amoeba seen through a microscope flaring for nano-seconds before dying, spread from horizon to the horizon with dark channels between them, fingers of the sea splitting the land.
Our son met us and 30 minutes later we were looking out on the rooftops of a shining city from an apartment on the 10th floor of a magnificent building where he and his wife are fortunate enough to rent an apartment, though not cheaply, with views of snow-capped mountains and a seawater channel where power boats and yachts worth a ransom reside.
The wilderness we’d seen in the dusk as we took off from Toronto on the second leg of our journey from Dublin, the dark Canada of endless pines, lakes and mountains, was gone. We’d arrived in Vancouver, pearl of the western coast, City of Light on the Pacific Rim.
Later, deep in the night, my wife woke and heard geese flying overhead, calling and trumpeting. I won’t ask my readers to guess the species, named for the land over which they fly.
In the morning, my son pointed out a pair on a rooftop below us. This city is full of wildlife, he said. Raccoons, skunks, squirrels and coyotes are resident; seals ply the channels of the watery arteries, beavers have dams.
Just after dark of our first day, five minutes from his flat in the heart of town, we walked along a wave-lapped seawall beside an inlet of the Pacific, and saw a small head splitting the calm water just beyond the seaweed and mussel-colonised rocks below us. An otter, we thought, a sighting on our first night.
However, as we paused to look, a man in a wheelchair, a flashy dude with a baseball jacket, baseball cap, a magnificent steel-grey Wyatt Earp moustache and rings on his fingers, told us that no, it was a beaver.
And not just any old beaver, but Justin Beaver, named after Justin Bieber, the famous Canadian purveyor of schmaltzy pop songs loved by millions, and the beaver was heading seaward from the land-locked end of the creek (it’s a dead end from which the tides come and go) where it has built a lodge in one of the most expensive residential areas on earth.
Good for the beaver. In beaver terms, his real estate must be as valuable as that of his human namesake. We watched as he swam parallel to us, 10m away, and then hauled himself ashore. It was too dark to see more than his profile but it was the first beaver I’ve seen — and I didn’t have to go to Northwest Territories or the Yukon River to see it.
Down this sea water channel — urban berth for yachts and powerboats and spacious enough to accommodate 40m long, iron barges — one can ride small ferries from landing stage to landing stage.
Round-prowed, and a little like floating bathtubs with roofs and all-round perspex windows, they accommodate 12 passengers and are a fine way to travel. While enjoying a maritime experience, visitors are probably less at sea in the city than when using dry-land maps.
Also, there are the sea birds to watch, the huge glaucous-winged gulls and the pelagic cormorants surfacing from their dives with beaks-full of seaweed for nest building.
A bathtub-ferry ride took us to a beach from which we walked to Stanley Park, pride of Vancouver, a 1,000-acre temperate rainforest home to 150,000 trees with a few old-growth giants, topping 50m, surviving.
Its lagoon is haunted by blue herons, wood ducks, bald eagles, yellowbelly-slider terrapins. Its wildlife is legendary and legion — but I must admit that, that day, it was the human nature of Vancouver that most bowled me over: Perhaps it was the “country boy come to town” syndrome. But, no; I’ve been in skyscraper cities before.
We walked home via a city canyon. Fifty storeys and 150m above us, the skyscrapers caught the evening sun. Human nature rivalled, in form, the beauty of the wild. Cross streets opened to reveal below us a wooded harbour of yachts and power boats back-dropped by the snowcapped Rockies. There’s a spiritual song “Oh, what a beautiful city...” I couldn’t help but hum it in my mind.