Marlene Ginader was convinced it was a stranger waving at her from Granville Island as she and her partner canoed across False Creek on a recent Sunday afternoon in April.
But as the boat got closer, Ginader realized the person calling out was her friend. Moments later, Ginader's friend tossed a pack of M&Ms her way, a celebratory gesture to mark Ginader's 36th birthday.
The canoe trip planned by Ginader's partner, Adrian Glynn McMorran, suddenly began to make sense. This was a socially distanced birthday party, with stops strategically planned at various point across the glittering Vancouver inlet.
"He fully surprised me," said Ginader, an actor and writer. "And I was pretty slow to catch on."
Their trip reflects the inventive ways people are safely celebrating birthdays amid rigid public health restrictions.
"When you have parameters that are imposed on you, it actually makes you be more creative," said McMorran, a 40-year-old actor and musician.
The couple travelled eastward, with friends stationed at five points, including the Cambie Street Bridge and the pedestrian bridge at Olympic Village.
Onlookers watched with delight as friends gifted Ginader flowers and balloons. Some observers began to shout and sing Happy Birthday.
"I didn't realize how much of a spectacle we'd be," McMorran said. "We're in this boat, she's covered in flowers, she's kind of sitting there like a queen, not paddling, and there's balloons everywhere."
Planning the surprise
There were some logistical hurdles to overcome. McMorran texted friends the day before the surprise, giving them a rough timeframe to stand ready at their spot. But he wasn't sure how long they would chat with each group.
A hiccup inevitably came when two friends ran late. They had intended to hold up a 15-foot-long birthday banner, but instead found the couple at a later stop.
"They handed me a big pile of knotted letters and were like, just unscramble it," Ginader laughed.
The couple has a history of pulling off creative bashes.
For Marlene's first pandemic birthday, the couple hosted a DIY drive-thru, replete with a projector playing a black-and-white film. Friends watched the movie from their cars, while another friend played piano and improvised the film's soundtrack.
And for McMorran's 40th birthday last September, Ginader solicited letters from his friends and put together a book with handwritten messages.
"I pretty much had to live up to what she had done," McMorran said, "rather than the other way around."
By all accounts, the three-hour canoe ride exceeded her expectations.
"I was touched that everyone would show up and bother to do that and that he organized that," Ginader said.
"I was pretty warm and fuzzy for a few days."