Wreck Beach Vibe
“The real threat here is not nudity. It’s people.”
Rudy’s Instagram photo of the weathered driftwood poles on the sand got 12 ‘Likes’. It was a pinkish-grey sunset shot of Wreck Beach, in Vancouver—the kind of photo that makes you want to be there.
RT and I were yearning for the Pacific and a seagull or two after an icy winter storm hit Alberta in April. Of course, most Canadians crave a beach all winter long!
My three cousins were born in Alberta and then moved to Vancouver. In our landlocked province, we spent many holidays together as children. My family would visit Rimbey, Alberta at Xmas, Easter, and summer holidays. Small-town childhood memories were all there.
Long tables of turkey dinners, the playhouse outside, horses to ride, and trips to our grandparents’ farm in Grandpa’s big-finned car or trucks. The farm in the spring guaranteed muddy views of colts, appaloosas, palominos, pinto ponies, wild and unbroken. Horsemanship was not my habit, but my cousins and grandparents lived in that world.
They wore gumboots most of the year. My city shoes failed me in Rimbey. The foals and barn kittens, pussy willows, and Gramma’s spirit linger in my dreams.
Our ambitious grandparents operated the local theatre in the town. The Empress Theatre stood with an art deco façade on Main Street, next door to the Chinaman’s Café. They worked their farm by day and the theatre by night. Townspeople lined up outside for the nightly movie every day except Sunday.
Lillian, our Gram, controlled the white house lights, sold theatre tickets, and ran the concession, selling popcorn, candy and soft drinks. Grandpa Albert sat at his desk in his theatre office studying bills and receipts. He was ‘back of house’ and Lil was ‘front’. Above the office door was his name and a sign with ‘Proprietor’ on it. The red velvet ropes kept the other kids away from his office. Grandkids got in free.
In the foyer, the antlers of a towering moose-head looked down on patrons. Like the big movie posters out front, with life-size celebrity photos, it was bigger than life to us. Grandpa hunted in the fall, shooting pheasants, duck. This trophy was his. They both told a story. This week’s Hollywood films, “Old Yeller” and “Badlands of Montana”, starring Rex Reason, pulled people in.
On show nights, Grandpa climbed the balcony stairs carrying large round aluminum movie reel cases, heading for the tiny projection booth. He threaded celluloid, turned on the projector. The audience sat in velvet seats and the magic began.
We chomped popcorn in the dark, watching movies with my cousins. The ‘crying room’ downstairs was a glass sound-room for noisy babies and nursing mothers, not for us.
Decades later, my husband, RT, and I caught the flight from Calgary to Vancouver for a spring visit. Rudy, my cousin, kindly picked us up at the airport. He spends most of his summer at the beach.
“So, Wreck Beach must be open now, Rudy?” I asked.
“Between acting gigs, I’m there all the time, still playing in two bands—in ‘Ocean Haze’, and leading the ‘Riptides’ now.
“Any good acting gigs?” I asked him.
“A few this year in the Langley studio. A new series started. I might get a part,” he added.
“I’ve never known of a nude beach in Canada except on Hornby Island,” I commented.
“It’s clothing optional,” he corrected me.
Being in ‘show business’ like Grandpa, Rudy had plenty of free time to create a music haven. Their band, The Riptides, gets together almost every summer day.
“Yesterday, I found my purple shawl and music stuff when I was spring cleaning. It’s beach time again,” he grins. “I’ll take you down there.”
Driving us in his 20-year-old Volvo called Trusty, Rudy headed towards UBC and found a parking spot along Pacific Park Road, stopping under a cedar tree. From the trunk, he lifted his guitar box and amp, shawls, towels, hat, and tarps for shade. A beverage cooler and snacks are essential.
We walked to the top of a stairway surrounded by greenery. I looked down, seeing a crooked staircase of worn wooden steps—over 300 of them, mostly covered with sand.
“That’s a long way down,” remarked RT.
“The stairs work for us,” Rudy answered. “They protect us from non-believers.”
“That’s privacy,” I added.
“The real effort is getting back up,” he says.
“Climbing up is sort of a re-entry into the gravity of another world.”
“The Beach changes you. Wreck Beach isn’t for the faint of heart,” he said.
“I can see that,” said RT.
We descended past ancient Douglas Fir. The West Coast is always an adventure. At the bottom of the stairs, a sign stated the ground rules for ‘The Bare Buns Run’ in July: “Take your clothes off, be natural, respect others. No photos without permission.”
RT, a water color artist, is accustomed to ‘life models’ as part of his art practise. He knows of the parallel universe of naturists who bare all for art’s sake.
A list of rules is posted at the bottom of the steps:
Clothing optional beach—
Keep the bathroom clean for the next person.
No staring or geeking at others
No overt sexual activity.
Psychedelic tarps pulsed in the wind—blues, reds, greens, yellows. There were purple T-shirts and yellow towels for sale.
We chose a spot in the sand near a large piece of driftwood for our day of sun-worship. Many regulars there ahead of us had a mellow look. This is a place to get high, I thought. Sun-kissed and self-satisfied, that’s it. A little recreational M.J. in the air. I caught a whiff.
“Let’s set up here.” Rudy pointed out a mound of sand by the driftwood.
He put down his guitar, amp, and tarp. A girl offered us a soft drink. I was overdressed with a t-shirt and shorts, but half the people there wore clothing, including Rudy. Today, only a few brave souls were naked; ‘commando’ they called it. It was spring, and only 15 degrees. Some were topless. I took off my sandals and RT unbuttoned his shirt.
Rudy and the Riptides—the band’s name sounded like poetry.
Paddy Irish, an older Beach regular, wandered up to Rudy. “Do you folks need a pop or Jamaican punch? Or a cigarette?”
“No, we’re good Paddy,” Rudy told him. “Heard you were in Florida.”
“Yah, I had to come back. Harsh politics there. Nothing like this Beach.”
Rudy nodded, strumming his guitar, gazing at the horizon, putting us at ease. RT and I relaxed, lulled by the freedom vibe of so many people hanging loose.
“I’m a Wrecker for sure. You can scatter my ashes here when I go,” Rudy sang.
“Divina made empanadas today at the small tent. Good Peruvian style,” Paddy told us.
“Thanks Paddy. Smells good,” Rudy added.
“The ‘clean up’ by the police last summer was news here,” he told us. “Police were checking the area around Wreck Beach every day, generally throwing their weight around.”
“What was the big deal?” RT asked.
“They arrested some people over nothing really—Divina’s alcohol popsicles. It made the papers. The Georgia Strait interviewed a few regulars,” he said.
“Shutting the beach down in the 60s failed, so why change things now?” Rudy added.
“I remember,” I said. It made the national news.”
“The real threat here is not nudity. It’s people. Where there are people, there’s garbage and a few weirdos. More people are coming up on jet skis, shouting at regulars, trying to pick up girls. We call them ‘textiles’ because they wear clothing.”
“Regulars formed the Wreck Beach Preservation Society, a non-profit association with town halls, a constitution. We hold meetings at Airport Square,” Rudy told us. “We really care about this place. We get together at Annual Meetings, Xmas Parties.”
It’s weird that people bully people who are different. The Wreck Beach regulars just want to be left alone. I leaned against the driftwood log, closing my eyes, letting the sun kick up the freckles on my face. RT took in the rocks and light. On the horizon, I saw only water and trees.
It’s easy to be a free spirit here.
Rudy strummed his guitar, singing, Purple haze, all in my brain…Excuse me while I kiss the sky.
“It is pretty laid back here. No one is bothered about much,” RT said.
“I suppose we’re geeky for wearing clothes.”
“It’s still a good vibe,” He answered.
“Nature-bathing. No news. No politics,” I said. I exhaled a long breath.
The sea air permeated our senses. There was weathered bark and gentle grit of sand. The air filled with soft conversations. Seagulls squawked. Clouds raced over the water. Our lips tasted of salt. RT kissed me.
My thoughts drifted….What if we stayed here forever? I remembered my trip to Vancouver when I was 19 with my friend, Jeanette. We were underage and bored with university. I had hauled my guitar onto the plane in a black cardboard case, intent on never returning home. I knew the chords to “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “Norwegian Wood” along with a few folk songs.
One evening, we dropped by Pharaoh’s Retreat, a basement nightclub on Hastings. Back then no one checked ID. Guys asked us to dance, offering to take us to an after-hours club. We told them we were going to Daisy’s Club and crawled up the stairs, crashing at her aunt’s apartment for a few days.
A week later, I saw a Job Offer in the Vancouver Sun. “Go-Go Dancer Wanted at Oil Can Harry’s.” I walked downtown to the popular dance bar in the afternoon.
“You’re underage,” the Manager said, then asked, “Can you dance?”
“Of course,” I replied.
“Show me your moves.”
“There’s something else,” he shouted above the music. “It’s topless.”
“What kind of job is that?” I said.
“I’m serious if you’re serious,” he said, scanning my t-shirt.
“Give it a try?”
“No way,” I said, recalling my father’s advice.
“If you change your mind, come back anytime.” He leered at me.
I had to choose. I could dance topless in white go-go boots in Vancouver, or go back to university in Calgary. There didn’t seem to be much in-between.
Vancouver was perfect after we gave up on jobs. Jeanette and I rented a suite on Haro Street, the top floor of an old stone building. The creaky, metal cage elevator took us up to our leaky apartment. Rain dripped through the ceiling, landing in old pots we had placed on the floor.
Soon our money ran out. The city by night was bigger, denser, and fierce—more unforgiving than our daytime walks to the beaches at Stanley Park.
It was the summer of ’70. We sipped pop, and wrote poems on the Sea Wall. Teen years were left behind on a ferry back to Vancouver. Our hippie days were over, left on the steps of the Old Courthouse near the concrete lion.
In Vancouver, Rudy had found his niche—acting, music, friends, and the Beach. I saved my salt-water memories and an old guitar and returned to Calgary. RT became a watercolor artist in the Rockies.
Today, years later at Wreck Beach, a bald eagle passed overhead, circling towards Musqueam Reserve. Long ago, a ship had been wrecked in this place. Before that, First Nations lived and fished here.
Rudy had his band. RT was planning a new watercolor project. That won’t change, I thought. I was grateful for this place. I took out my notebook to write a story for Rudy, called “Musqueam Beach.”
We wandered past old growth forests, soaked in ocean views, saw the occasional Great Blue Heron along the breakwater. In a week we’d be back in Alberta, far from Wreck Beach.
We floated up 300 steps to re-enter the world of gravity. Our visit changed us, opening spaces in time and mind.
The Beach is always open before sunset. And it’s free.
Wreck Beach Vancouver, near Musqueam West Spanish Banks shipwreck, near Captain Vancouver’s discovery. Once an ill-fated ship came to die in this golden place. Under an eagle’s wing, a heron’s plume Music floats on purple sunset, driftwood finds a home, sheds feathers with the Great Blue. Hull upturned, disappears into oblivion. Beachcombers gawk at relentless salt and rust. At Wreck Beach, urban shipmates drift down, embrace warm wood, each other. Pacific spirits ghost the sunset shore. Clothing optional, go naked or half-clothed. Stardust sailors! Forget the gold. Now you’re someone else, nowhere else. Pure, pristine, perfect. Reclaim the natural, child. Keep the Beach! Sister/brother captains of earth, Hang together! Don’t sleep in the forested gully when the tide comes in. Use the porta-potty Keep it clean for everyone, Take your garbage home . No staring, no judging, just mellow down. Don’t crowd us with your threads, man! ‘Bare Buns Run’…. walk… crawl…fly! Or just sit… Chant your practice Clothing or none, hang loose or lose it, rainbow people of air. Laughing spirits climb the long sky-stairs just born and screaming the Great Yawp. In the Great Blue Heron’s nest beach time resurrects us *Author’s Note: I acknowledge that Wreck Beach land is the unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples, including the territories of the xwməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lō and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil- Waututh) Nations.
Patricia Paterson is a poet, fiction writer and history writer. She has published short stories ‘Day of the Doppelganger’, War Memorial Project AWCS,(2019) ‘Calgary Skyline’, Loft on Eighth ‘Inner City’ (2021) ‘Things We Can’t Afford’, WORDSPIN chapbook, ‘Handfasting Mary’, Scottish Borders Society (2018), ‘Sunlight and Shadow in Tomkins Park’, ‘Calgary’s Crush on 17th Avenue’ and ‘Jimmy Condon, Philanthropist’ for Calgary Heritage Initiative (2018, 2019) “Just Call me a Person” YYC Poetic Portraits of People, (2020) https://sheridwilson.com/yyc-pop/patricia-paterson/
Educator and former editor/publisher of 17th Avenue Newspaper and Calgary Avenues, Patricia published a U. of C. arts magazine, Gaillardia. Seeking Scottish editor for ‘William’s War’, Novel Manuscript and Canadian WW2 immigration novel. Member of AWCS, Alberta Writers Guild and Calgary Heritage Initiative.