Vancouver has an urbane look, but its heart is in the wilderness

Vancouver is all chic and urbanity. Yet jazzy skyscrapers and good restaurants notwithstanding, the visitor can't help being aware of the vast British Columbian woodlands and island-studded coast stretching off to the north of it.

Partly it's because nature intrudes even into the heart of the city. Vancouver sits on a peninsula, its surrounding waters surrounded again by mountains and trees. There's a real forest (Stanley Park) in the downtown area, whales perform at the aquarium, and salmon charge up the Capilano River right to the city's hatchery.

Partly it's the accessibility of outdoor sports; within the city limits it's possible to sail, ski, or rent an ocean kayak.

Partly it's the local conversation, which returns again and again to the slump in logging and its effect on the economy.

And partly it's that the culture of the Northwest coast Indian - those geniuses in aspen and cedar - is very much appreciated here. Many of the finest examples of their art have been brought down from Indian villages in the north to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

If you had only a day to enjoy the delights of this city, and to appreciate its cordial relationship with the magnificent woodland to the north of it, then this museum is the place to spend the most time.

True, you can see Northwest coast totem poles in other parts of the world. But here they are not simply museum curiosities for the viewer to gawk at briefly, before moving on to the next entertainment. Here they are part of a living effort to revive a culture that was denigrated for years and then saved when it was on the verge of extinction.

The museum itself is a treasure, its Great Hall as famous for its architecture as for its totem poles. Gray concrete walls and gray carpeting form sensitive spaces for display: It is a peaceful setting for not-very-peaceful images, which somehow manage to look at home in this stark elegance. One giant wall is all window, through which you can see water, mountains, and trees - the better to imagine the poles in their original settings.

The six tribes of the Pacific Northwest - the Nootka, Salish, Kwakiutl, Haida , Tsimshian, and Tlingit - had been wealthy. In the summer, they caught and dried salmon and preserved berries. That left them free to spend the winter devising elaborate ceremonies, for which many objects of marvelous artistry were required, including masks, totems, rattles, and headdresses for the chiefs.

The totem poles in the Great Hall were not worshiped, despite the implication of their name. Instead, the animals represent family crests and stories. The structure of the society was centered on wealth and the transfer of wealth - meaning not only physical objects but prerogatives, such as the right to tell stories associated with the crest figures. The ceremonies, in fact, served a legal function of providing witnesses to ownership for an illiterate culture.

''People are always asking us, 'What's the age of this pole? What is the particular story attached to this figure?' '' says Ruth Anderson, the museum's public relations officer. ''Sometimes we know, if there are informants. Otherwise we can often identify the figures - this is a bear, this is a frog, this is Raven. But Raven may have many stories. One family would own the right to use the image of Raven and one or several of the stories. But often we don't know which one is represented on a particular pole.''

Indians often come forward with information in an interaction that is mutually rewarding, according to Betsy Johnson, curator of collections. ''But then,'' she adds, ''there must be many deeper levels of complexity and meaning which are lost because of the deculturation that has taken place.''

In the 1950s, renewed interest and pride in the native culture brought not only appreciation of older works but an interest in producing new ones. The museum's collection combines old poles and new commissioned works. In the Great Hall is a wooden bear, somewhat less than life-size, by Bill Reid. Half Scottish and half Haida, Reid is widely considered to be the greatest living Northwest coast Indian artist. He caught the massiveness of the animal - muscles seem to ripple beneath the wooden skin. And yet there is something amusing about its stance: Despite its set, ferocious red snarl, children run up to pet it.

''The Raven and the First Men,'' also by Bill Reid, is so dramatic that it has a little gallery all to itself. A free-standing sculpture, it is a brilliant resolution of Western form and Indian design principles. Museum curator Marjorie Halpin points out in ''Totem Poles, an illustrated guide'' that ''what Reid has added from the Western tradition are emotion and individuality.'' Ms. Halpin's excellent book, by the way, is illustrated by artwork from the museum, and although the museum publishes a wide variety of books and brochures, this is the one I would recommend.

Many of the works in the Small Masterpieces gallery are in silver and argillite, media that date from after contact with the white culture. Native artisans hammered silver bracelets from coins obtained from white traders, and they shaped the argillite - a smooth, black, slatelike stone that permits extreme subtlety of carving - into miniature totem poles and other objects for souvenirs. The museum offers courses for local Indian high school students, who learn traditional crafts - and give daily presentations to the public during the summer. The museum also has a year-round program of dance, mime, and crafts.

(For a recorded message, including information on the special Sunday events, call 228-3825; if you have further questions, call 228-5087. The museum is open in the afternoon only; it is closed on Mondays.)

If you still have time after luxuriating in Indian art, go to Stanley Park to have a look at the raw material from which it is made. Sections of the park look like the forest primeval. You can walk there on cobwebbed and pine-needled trails where the only traffic noise you hear is the deep, organlike note of the ferry. You can also walk for miles along the ocean - or play croquet.

But if your time is limited, go straight to the park's Aquarium. Out front, you will spot the gorgeous Bill Reid bronze of a breeching killer whale - another brilliant adaptation of a Western medium, a free-standing statue in bronze, with Indian design. You can then go inside to see the real thing in action. There are frequent performances of various animals during the day. I caught the pleasant but unspectacular beluga whale show first. Belugas are grayish white and known for the oil they carry in their foreheads - the announcer poked one good-humored animal there to show us how squashy it was. ''They're mostly fat,'' he said, smiling, adding that, ''They're not very athletic.''

The real athletes are the killer whales, one pool over. These powerful black and white beasts are local residents. Leaping again and again, they rise full length out of the water (try this sometime).

Other animals worthy of note are the seal pups, hanging out by the front of their cage, rolling their eyes adorably under a sign that says, ''Harbor seal pups bite''; otters, always a hoot, one washing its furry face to the delight of all; and some tiny crocs, imported from the Amazon, which drift slowly toward you staring with such grinning concentration - as if there was something in it for them - as to make getting too close seem unwise.

But there is only one place to finish up your day in Vancouver: a very urban spot called Granville Island. You can drive there easily across a sort of causeway ramp. On first view, the site does not immediately inspire you. A huge bridge thunders high overhead, while the corrugated shed-type architecture, and the presence of Canada Forge and Chain and a working cement factory, testify to the industrial origins of the place. But a few years ago, artists began moving here to set up shops and studios. Now there is a farmers' market where hand-dipped chocolates and fresh-squeezed honeydew juice can be had, as well as some good restaurants, three theaters, a handsome marina, and nearly everything else that ingenuity and high spirits can devise.

I sat in a co-op restaurant named Isadora's and ate salmon pate while gazing at children playing in the water park - a sculptured concrete area supplied with a dozen fire hydrants and hoses. One young girl, with plenty of impunity, squirted all comers. Others paddled in the knee-deep puddles that had formed in the hollows. A small boy, a client of the restaurant, was reprimanded for jumping into the water with all his clothes on. Nearby is a grassy, roofed area where a poster announced Baroque classical and early music ''free as air'' every day from mid-August to mid-September.

In short, it is a garden of urban delights. This being Vancouver, however, the great British Columbian outdoor playground is not forgotten. Granville Island features travel agencies specializing in outdoor sports. I noted two canoe and kayak rental centers and an agency that focuses on ecological and anthropological tours, white-water adventures, whale-watching, and ballooning. At a place called Adrenalin Sports, you can buy a wet suit. Next door, you can try it out by taking a scuba diving lesson. Sailing lessons and charter boat rentals are commonplace.

But one of the greatest conveniences of the island is more than urban: It's positively urbane. That's the theater package its restaurants have devised. Many of them offer a special theater dinner which can actually be consumed without haste in plenty of time to catch an 8 o'clock curtain. If you call in advance, they will also obtain tickets for the show of your choice.

After the theater, you can sit on a bench staring blissfully at the lights of the city across the water - and vow to rent a kayak or some fishing tackle tomorrow to head upcountry. And you will be well on your way to being an honorary resident of this cosmopolitan city, whose heart is really in the great north woods.

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