Hanging On By A Dread: How I Survived the Capilano Suspension Bridge, Despite a Fear of Heights

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Capilano Suspension Bridge Park: Forest View, Photo by Cecilia Kennedy

“Thrilling,” “wobbly,” and “bouncy,” are not words I’d like to associate with a bridge—ever. I can’t remember a time when I’ve said, “Hey, should I take my child and husband across a wobbly structure or the one that mainly stays in place?” Yet, there I was: creeping along the 230-foot high “thrilling, “wobbly,” and “bouncy” Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver, British Columbia on Saturday.  Nate and Alex couldn’t have been happier to experience such an “exciting” and “beautiful” tourist attraction. I am just happy I survived.

Oh, I had seen the pictures. They’re beautiful. I imagined myself actually enjoying the walk—perhaps learning to be comfortable with the swaying and bouncing—perhaps connecting with my childhood self, who loved to jump, sway, and fly. I’m older now though, and have somehow developed a fear of heights. Perhaps I’ve always had this fear, but as a child, my desire to fly through the air overpowered that anxiety—until I saw teammates from gymnastics come to practice with neck braces and leg casts. Maybe the child in me grew up too soon.

In any case, after Nate, Alex, and I crossed the border into Canada, we picked up a few tourist attraction maps at the Peace Arch Provincial Park. I scanned the photos for pictures of scared tourists, but I didn’t really find any. Most people looked like they were having fun.

“Can I help you?” One of the workers at the gift shop in the park asked me.

“Is this scary?” I asked him, while I pointed to the Capilano Bridge.

“Oh, it’s pretty high up there, but it’s one of our most popular attractions. We sell tickets here, which will help you avoid the lines over there and will save you $3-$4 on each ticket.”

I found him so helpful that I encouraged Nate to buy the tickets. When I look back, I’m not sure he really answered my question, but I figured that if the bridge were “popular,” then I’d be joining a number of people who successfully crossed it each day—without incident.

In fact, there have only been three reported “incidents” in the past few years since the bridge itself was first built in 1889 by the Scottish civil engineer George Grant MacKay. In 1999, a Vancouver woman unintentionally dropped her baby from the bridge, but the baby survived. In 2010, a California teen on a class trip, may have climbed over a fenced area in the park, resulting in a fall that caused his death. In 2012, a 30-year-old Ontario man died while trying to recover his debit card, which he dropped while on the bridge. Reading about each incident was certainly chilling, but overall, I gathered that tourists couldn’t simply just be unexpectedly “bounced” off the bridge.

According to the Capilano Bridge website, the original 1889 structure consisted of hemp rope and cedar planks. Mackay’s bridge and cabin was a popular spot for friends. In 1903, after MacKay’s death, a wire and cable bridge replaced the hemp and plank structure. Edward Mahon, who began mining operations in the area, bought the bridge and improved it in 1914 with additional cables. A new owner bought the bridge in 1935 and sold it in 1945, to another owner who promoted the bridge worldwide. In 1956, the cables were encased in concrete. In 1983, Nancy Stibbard bought the bridge and has successfully marketed and run this tourist attraction to date. Throughout the years, the structure has appeared to remain pretty sturdy and each owner seems to have made improvements. So, I was starting to feel a little more secure—even as we continued our drive into Vancouver.

Once in Vancouver, we could park our car at the hotel downtown and pick up a free city bus to get to the bridge. Nate, Alex, and I waited about 20 minutes for the bus at Canada Place near the waterfront. During the bus ride, the driver assured us of the bridge’s safety and gave us some more background information. For instance, the name “Capilano” itself comes from a First Nations name: Kia’palano. It means “beautiful river” and it is the name of the Squamish Chief who lived in that area in the early 1800s. Also, he told us that there was a fierce storm in Vancouver in 2006 that threw hurricane force winds at the bridge. Those winds also threw a 46-ton, 300-year-old Douglas Fir-tree right down onto the bridge. The bridge stayed in place and the steel cables were not damaged.   I figured that if the bridge could withstand that kind of force, then I could definitely at least scoot my scared butt across that bridge—along with all the other tourists who really, really enjoy jumping, rocking, and swaying bridges on purpose—while those of us with a fear of heights would appreciate it if they would just stop it!

So, how did I conquer my fear and get across that bridge? Well, I can’t say that I actually conquered any of my fears. I can’t say that the walk was “beautiful” either. I wasn’t looking. In fact, I was disappointed that once I made it across the bridge, I actually had to go BACK again because there is no path that “circles” around to the exit. The only way back out is through—or across—the bridge.

The steps I took:

1) Followed Nate. I figured I would walk directly behind him and follow his lead. Alex would go behind me because I can’t watch my teenage son walk in dangerously high spots. He is growing at a speed so fast he can’t remember how to move gracefully from one place to the next. Of course he’s smart, handsome, tall, kind, caring, funny, and absolutely wonderful. However, he’s also going through that “clumsy teen stage”—the one in which teens all over this nation are handed the car keys and told they can drive—despite the fact that they’ve just tripped over the strawberry bushes in front of the house on the way to the car parked in the driveway. I just can’t watch him perilously plod in front of me. If he happens to take steps that look precariously unsteady, then: If I didn’t see it; it didn’t happen.

2) Drank beer AFTER crossing the bridge both ways. They sell beer at the Capilano Bridge Park. I didn’t drink any of it before getting onto the bridge. Instead, I ate a PowerBar and used up all 200 + calories shaking, shuffling, and sweating my way across the 450 feet and back.

3) Held onto the rail—or not. I decided to slide my hand along the wire “rail” that runs along the bridge, but that method just put me right up next to the view of the “long fall down.” There are also barbed coils that pop up at regular intervals along the rail, which forced me to lift up my hand or else slice it on the wire. Either way, I didn’t feel any safer whether I held the rail or not.

4) Marveled at all the other children and adults who were absolutely loving their time on this bridge. In some ways, their enthusiasm made me feel safer. In other ways, I wondered how those tiny children didn’t just bounce right off the bridge as it was swaying.

5) Ignored what others were saying. Just before I set foot on the bridge during my return path, I heard someone say, “It feels like you’re going to get bounced right over the rails!” That phrase echoed in my head as I crossed the bridge to leave the park. It was not a comforting thought.

6) As the wind blew, the bridge swayed, and the entire center took a nosedive down, I just started counting. At one point, I asked Nate, “Are we done yet?” He said, “Almost. Just ten more steps.” So, I counted out loud: 1, 2, 3, etc. When I reached the number ten, I was not off the bridge yet. So, I started over: 1, 2, 3, etc. I must have counted to ten at least 3-4 times at that point, but it felt soothing to just count out loud.

7) Told myself and anyone else who asked that I was “fine” even though I was dizzy, breathing hard, and feeling light headed. Alex, who was behind me, kept asking: “Are you okay, Mom?” I always replied, “I’m fine.” Of course I wasn’t fine. Anyone could clearly tell that I was not “fine.” I was pale and my walking “stride” took on a wide-stance waddle in an attempt to lower my center of gravity. It didn’t work. Each footfall was just as wobbly as the bridge itself.

8) Let Nate and Alex do the canopy tour and the cliff walk on their own. I’d crossed enough physical and metaphorical bridges that day.

However, I did manage to pose for one picture near a Kia’palano totem pole in the park. I definitely look relieved!

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Standing in front of the Kia’palano Raven Story Totem Pole. Photo by Nathan Kennedy

Many totem poles are placed around the park and each one tells a different story. The pole by which I’m standing tells the tale of the Raven. I didn’t stay long enough to read the accompanying plaque, which details the story, but luckily the blog of a home-based gardening and plant business in Vancouver, B.C. has pictures and captions that quote the explanations of each pole in the park. According to the story of the Raven, a selfish chief stole the sun, stars, and the moon from the sky. A clever Raven, attracted to shiny things, found the chief’s treasures and returned all of the light back to the sky. Without knowing it, I’d picked a story that perhaps captures a bit of my experience. For a few moments, I got to feel what it was like to share the realm of the birds and to touch the sky. Then, the wind blew my hair right into my face as I struggled to brace myself and make it to firmer ground. For all of these moments—frightening and free—the sky and solid ground—I’m grateful.

Your Turn: What is the scariest tourist attraction you’ve ever visited? How did you “survive?”

 

5 thoughts on “Hanging On By A Dread: How I Survived the Capilano Suspension Bridge, Despite a Fear of Heights

  1. When my family visited the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina in 1973, a “chief” grabbed us by the hair. Our mother thought it was great an snapped a picture, to our profound embarrassment in later years.

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  2. OMG…this was very hard to read with my eyes squeezed shut… why on earth did that guy who fell have his debit card out on the bridge? ?? I just cannot even imagine how brave you were to make it across and back…I know I would have stopped half way across, frozen in place…well done! I applaud you! I climbed Mt. Sopris in the Roaring Fork Valley here in Colorado…not quite a fourteener… we were on the scree on a narrow “bridge,” if you will, probably about 10 feet wide, but the mountain fell away on either side of the trail, so to my mind I was on a tightrope… I froze halfway across…could not move forward, could not turn around, could hardly breathe…I slowly lowered into a crouch…seemed like I was stuck in that spot for hours…but eventually my climbing partner talked me to slowly inch forward until finally we were beyond the drop offs…UGH…

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    1. Wow! You made it, though! When Nate and I were first married we went to beautiful Cape Breton in Nova Scotia and we started climbing. I was talking and not paying attention–going higher and higher–when I suddenly noticed how high up in the air we were and how the “mountain” we were on just fell away on either side–I panicked! I totally crawled all the way back down. There’s just something about getting low–feeling low to the ground–it really helps–so embarrassing, but inch by inch I guess we make it:) Having patient friends, family, and climbing partners helps too.

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