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Too low a flight from Vancouver

Welcome to Vancouver

Things seem to be descending into complete chaos extremely quickly.  Firstly, there’s a boat heading almost directly at us. Next, we have suddenly begun accelerating towards it. Now really, that could surely only be adding to an already bad situation couldn’t it? I was certain that it was game over right there. I could make out the captain of the tiny craft looking straight at us. I was certain he was thinking the same thing as me. I wondered vaguely what the collision would be like. There seemed absolutely no way we were going to avoid the vessel.

Then somehow, we jumped over it.

Signing up for an early death had not been part of the plan for the day when I walked into the Vancouver Floatplane Terminal a little while earlier. It is right on the edge of downtown and the waterways that ring Vancouver. I was looking for a way to get out to Vancouver Island, and I wanted something quicker than the hour and half ferry ride. I was heading to Victoria, the Provincial capital of British Columbia, on the furthest north-western edge of the sprawling North American continent.

The lady at the desk told me there was one seat left on the flight that was about to leave, and hustled me down to the dock. The plane sat rocking at its moorings in the stiff breeze. It had a squat design, and perched low and ungainly in the water, as if ready to leap out of its surroundings. It had only one engine, situated at the front, with the propellers exposed, and long floats slung underneath. I climbed up into the cramped cabin. The ten other passengers were already seated. The only seat left was a bucket type thing right at the back of the plane. The pilot must have seen the disappointment on my face, and he called me up to the cockpit. Next thing I knew, I was strapping myself into the co-pilots seat to the right of the pilot. After he had conducted a safety briefing lasting no more than 30 seconds, the pilot signalled for the attendant to release the ropes. The scream of the engine was almost unbearable as the pilot pushed the throttle right up to full. We began bouncing across the small waves, accelerating hard straight away from the dock and out towards the open water. Things begin to rattle as we picked up speed.

It was then that I had spotted the boat coming in towards the marina. I immediately wanted to run for the bucket seat at the back of the plane, as far as possible away from the lethal propellers spinning not more that 5 feet in front of my face. I squirmed in my seat as we bounced once, and then achingly slowly began to rise above the water. I glanced out of the side window as the boat whipped by underneath us, and then we were climbing away in a lazy arc above the city. The pilot seemed entirely unconcerned by our near miss, so I slowly began to relax and enjoy the view. The roar subsided as he throttled back a little, everything stopped rattling so much and the plane began to seem much safer.

The mountains of the North Shore spread out along our right hand side. The blocks of North Vancouver stretched back, rising to the lower slopes of Cypress Mountain, while the sleepy bays of West Vancouver stretched away in to the distance ahead of us. We banked left slightly and flew over the Lions Gate Bridge. The Bridge leads from the North Shore across to Stanley Park, where the lush old growth trees rise sharply from the waters edge. The Park is an island of greenery, forming a strong contrast to the glass and concrete skyscrapers of the adjacent Down town core to the south. We banked further above the water, passing over the many tankers anchored in the bay, and headed out over the sprawling southern suburbs of the city. After passing directly over Vancouver airport, where I could see the line of Jumbos coming into land, we flew out over the water again. After bouncing through some turbulence, I started talking to the pilot.

He told me he had flown this route over 200 times. I asked him whether he always took off flat out straight from the jetty like that. Apparently it was normal practice. Sometimes when the weather was poor, he took off almost blind because of the spray kicking up from the choppy conditions. He was pretty chilled about the whole thing. The safety record was very good. There had never been any serious accidents and the floatplane design was robust and easy to manouver. As we headed out over the Georgia Straight, we traced a line very close to the border between Canada and the U.S. The exact border twists between the islands and was marked on the GPS navigation device taped over the obsolete instruments on the panel in front of us. I took a moment to stare at the ancient looking dials around the hi-tech instrument and saw that the plane had done only 605 hours service. We continued talking as we headed out towards the group of small islands that led to Vancouver Island itself. He let me pull down the small side window to take some photos without the reflection, and the air that rushed in was crisp and fresh. As we cruised at around 3500 feet, the afternoon sun glinted off the windscreen ahead, and below I could see the ferries on the route between the small islands. In a section called Active Passage, the ferries pass close together. The passage is close to the open ocean, and the first time I took the ferry out to the islands, I saw Orca killer whales near there from the deck of the ship. There were perhaps 10 of them cruising slowly near the steep cliffs on the edge of an island with a couple of small boats following them. Their strong black and white markings stood out clearly and I could even make out some Orca calfs as they gracefully patrolled the coastline shallows.

We crossed over the island of Galiano and, further to the right, Salt Spring Island stretched away into the haze. The island is one of the most populated of the Gulf Islands, mainly due to its proximity to Vancouver. Around its edges I could make out hundred of little docks. Many rich businessmen live there and commute in to the city by boat. I could think of far worse ways to go to work…

I watched the sun glint off small winding passages of water between the beaches of North and South Pender island, as we approached Vancouver island itself. Now when I say island, it is 286 miles long, which is almost the length of Ireland, and has an area of 12,076 square miles. The population is around 700,000 people, mostly around Victoria at the southern edge. As we cruised along, Mount Douglas passed below on the left, while the range of mountains that form the backbone of the island stretched away in a jagged ridge to the north, on our right.

I could see the smudge of rain between the land and sky from a distance, but the sun was shining ahead of us as the centre of Victoria began to open up. We slowed a little and began to descend. After my experience with the take off I was a little nervous. I actually really enjoy flying, but when there are large objects to crash into like boats and buildings, the idea of having a front row seat for my own demise doesn’t really appeal. I was especially fidgety as I peered ahead at the splay of buildings, because I just could not work out where the pilot was planning to land this thing.

We lost a large amount of height quickly and my stomach temporarily went to the roof. We dropped down further over the grids of the city, coming in towards the harbour from the land side. The water flowed down into the ocean in a bulging dogleg to the right and the open sea. There were two bridges crossing at the narrow sections, and the edges were crowded with houses. I saw the white smears of boat wakes scattered all along the slim waterway. There didn’t seem to be anywhere obvious to put the plane down.

The Parliament building stood proudly facing the water with the famous old Empress Hotel, clad in its green ivy, standing at right angles to it in the corner of the harbour. We appeared to be heading towards a point right between the two. As I turned to take a photo from the open side window, we banked hard to the right, and I found myself looking straight down at the water. We levelled out very low as I was about to claw upwards at the pilot, and then we flopped down at the edge of the bay. The pilot looked at me and grinned. 

I thanked him and staggered out after we had docked. My balance felt a little off as I wobbled off down the floating dock. Once I was on dry land, I headed over to the Parliament steps, where I sat down in the sun to take in the city.

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