The Secrets of Lost Lagoon

January 16, 2017
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There’s more than meets the eye to this Stanley Park sanctuary.

From Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World to James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, the word “lost” has always conveyed an aura of mystery and exoticism. Although you won’t find rampaging dinosaurs or ageless Tibetan monks at Stanley Park’s Lost Lagoon, it offers more than just a pleasant 1.79-km (1.11-mi) stroll around tranquil waters.

Located near the park’s main entrance off Georgia Street, the lagoon was originally a saltwater tidal inlet at the end of adjacent Coal Harbour. It was called “Chul-Whah-Ulch” by the native Squamish people, who dug for clams here. It got its current name from a poem entitled “The Lost Lagoon,” published in Pauline Johnson’s 1911 anthology Legends of Vancouver.

Johnson, a local poet of half-Mohawk and half-English descent and an avid canoer, explained her inspiration: “I named the sheltered little cove the Lost Lagoon. This was just to please my own fancy, for as that perfect summer month drifted on, the ever-restless tides left the harbour devoid of water at my favorite canoeing hour, and my pet idling place was lost for many days–hence my fancy to call it the Lost Lagoon.”

The name wasn’t officially adopted until 1922, however, nine years after Johnson’s death. And by that time, the lagoon had changed radically.

The city built the Stanley Park causeway between 1912 and 1916, cutting Lost Lagoon off from Coal Harbour. It became a freshwater body, artificially fed from Ceperley Meadow. British architect Thomas Mawson, who had previously designed Stanley Park landmarks like the old zoo and Brockton Point Lighthouse, proposed to build a grandiose museum and sports stadium on the shoreline, but this was (mercifully) shot down due to the $800,000 price tag at a time when most Canadians earned under $800 a year.

Lost Lagoon remained a popular boating spot for decades to come. Canoes and other vessels could be rented from the old boathouse (now the Lost Lagoon Nature House) at the southeast corner until 1972. The Vancouver Sun reported that circa the late 1950’s, a spectacular Florida water-ski show was staged here.

A 47.5-meter (156-foot) model freighter was placed in the lagoon during World War II, featuring a picture of British prime minister Winston Churchill and a slogan: “Buy Victory Bonds–Give Us the Tools.”

Despite Vancouver’s mild climate, the water sometimes freezes enough to permit ice skating and hockey. “Over the last 30 years, it’s been frozen for a few weeks on about five occasions,” said Terri Clark, the longtime communications officer of the Vancouver Park Board.

But nowadays, this 16.6-hectare (41-acre) expanse is best-known overall as a refuge for birds, fish, and other wildlife.

Some 240 species of birds can be found in Stanley Park, and many stop off at Lost Lagoon whilst migrating from Alaska to South America yearly along the Pacific North American Flyway. In the winter, you can spot goldeneyes, mergansers, and teal ducks, among other species, and flocks of Canada geese, swans, and mallard ducks abound year-round. These waters also teem with bullfrogs, turtles, river otters, and carp, plus the occasional beaver.

Across the lagoon from the Nature House is a lush biofiltration wetland, where runoff water from the Stanley Park causeway, containing pollutants and grit, is filtered and partially converted into nutrients through a series of shallow marshes and deeper pools. “It’s really good habitat, a big reason why wildlife use this area so much,” said Koren Johnstone, the Nature House coordinator.

Beneath the weeping willows that line the lagoon’s banks, it’s not unusual to spot foraging raccoons and skunks. The Park Board reminds visitors to avoid feeding these animals for the good of their health (and to avoid getting nipped yourself!).

Two other man-made features are worth noting. The stone bridge at the west end dates to the late 19th century, and is modeled on similar bridges found in New York’s famous Central Park. The spectacular Jubilee Fountain is located near the lagoon’s deepest point (6.5 feet or 2 metres). It was constructed in 1936 for $35,000 to celebrate Vancouver’s 50th anniversary, and it was refurbished 50 years later to mark the city’s hosting of EXPO 86, the World’s Fair.

At Christmas each year, the fountain is adorned with colorful lights. It was treated less reverently in February 1992, when University of British Columbia engineers stuck a Volkswagen Beetle on top of it as a prank.

Lost Lagoon’s compelling setting has also inspired Hollywood and Canadian TV and movie producers. In recent years, scenes for hit series like The 4400 and Da Vinci’s Inquest have been shot here, not to mention the romantic comedy Catch and Release, starring Jennifer Garner, Juliette Lewis, and Kevin Smith.

But you don’t need to be a pop trivia buff to appreciate what Lost Lagoon offers. When you’re strolling in the shade of tall Douglas firs and cedars on the north side of the lagoon and gaze back toward the city’s glassy towers, you’ll simply relish the miracle of this sanctuary’s existence in a busy urban setting.