Tower Beach is an underrated refuge

Just east of the Museum of Anthropology, a small slope off the sidewalk lining Northwest Marine Drive leads down to Trail 3 of Pacific Spirit Park. Winding down the cliffside, the trail offers breathtaking views of the thick and lively temperate rainforest as it slowly approaches a small and seldom-visited section of Wreck Beach at the northernmost tip of the peninsula.

Right where the dense tree-lined cliffs give way to a mass of smooth, round pebbles, there sits an old and long-abandoned WW2-era lookout tower that lends the beach its name of “Tower Beach."

The iconic tower is coated with layers of graffiti, from simple tags to more elaborate murals — the oldest of which have been painted over, and the newest of which reference recent events like the COVID-19 pandemic. It has maintained its lonely watch over the inlet, accompanied only by a similarly abandoned and slightly less-noticeable twin a short walk away, for the better part of eight decades.

I have only been down three times, but each visit was a window into a different side of the beach. The first time I went was on a chilly day in October during my first year. Weighed down by a toxic cocktail of anxieties and stresses, and itching for excuses to procrastinate working on a soon-to-be-due essay, I decided to dedicate half a day of my long weekend to visiting a place that I’d read about in a Ubyssey Blog piece (of all places). Chasing the article’s promise of solitude and contemplation more than its guarantee of a “main character” vibe, I hoped to catch a break and relax. The results were mixed, but rewarding in their own way.

I wasn’t alone, but I might as well have been. Both myself and a handful of strangers proceeded as if nobody else was there.

Wedged between the tall, tree-lined cliffs and the rolling waves of the inlet, I gazed first at the mountains on the western edge of the North Shore and on Nex̱wlélex̱m (Bowen Island), and then to the hazy sea to the west, where I hoped to catch a glimpse of more distant peaks. Lost in my intense apprehension of the future both near and far and the growing, grieving nostalgia I held for a childhood split between two places — one nearby and one much more distant.

As I walked — wondering, wandering over the dirt and pebbles beneath the frayed edges of the forest canopy — an abandoned bunker up on the cliffside drew my gaze. Seemingly inaccessible, it was nonetheless, like the tower, covered in graffiti.

More so than the tower, the sight of the bunker, wasted, rotting, close to forgotten, filled me with an intense and wistful melancholy. I considered the distant— yet resolute— echoes of the Second World War that prompted the creation of these fortifications, and the ruthless passage of time that saw them reclaimed by the forest.

Eventually, my legs grew tired and I turned back, well short of my intended destinations. I began my slow ascent back up the cliffside — freed of many of my weights but with new ones to carry as well.

The second time was the late summer, between the end of my second term of summer classes and the start of my second year. Growing up, birthday celebrations were inconsistent and, when they happened, generally intimate and low-key, so I decided that #19 would involve treating myself to a mostly solitary afternoon in and around campus and a return to Tower Beach.

As an underrated gem of the greater Wreck Beach, Tower Beach is both a window to the past and a raw and expressive ode to the present.
As an underrated gem of the greater Wreck Beach, Tower Beach is both a window to the past and a raw and expressive ode to the present. John Chen / The Ubyssey

On that warm day, I saw a different view of the beach. Between basking in the sunlight, I explored some of the more subtle details of the beach, from the mosses, seagrasses and mollusks clinging to rocks in the tidal zone to the tiny streams that emerged from some unseen source within the mass of pebbles to trickle down the sand in miniature deltas, nourishing the ocean with tiny sips of water.

I even managed to catch a westward glimpse of what must have been the mountains near Snuneymuxw (Nanaimo) on the Island. Throughout this visit I photographed the beach with gusto, hoping to capture as much of its magic as I could.

The third time I went was just this March, a much briefer and perhaps less remarkable visit that nonetheless reminded me of its beauty. Feeling under the weather and unsure of how to spend an unexpectedly free afternoon, I decided that some fresh air was in order.

Though habit had sapped the place of some of its novelty, I still noticed new details, from scattered twigs to the roots at the end of the logs that lie amidst the pebbles.

I still maintained my connection to the spiritual life of the beach had not yet, enough for me to recall a folk band’s rendition of traditional sea deity worship in Southern China. The song is sung in my maternal great-grandma’s little-known mother tongue, which, like the beach, is both so intimate and so foreign to me. The song is a connection to the past that remains an active site of creativity (though I hope that through revitalization this heritage language of mine will not be as abandoned as the beach’s fortifications).

As an underrated gem of the greater Wreck Beach, Tower Beach is both a window to the past and a raw and expressive ode to the present, a quiet refuge that trades the vibrant bustle of UBC and Vancouver for a brief, nourishing serenity.