An oasis meets farm life on Barnston Island
As the Fraser River nears the Pacific, its lower course is dotted with isles large and small, from metropolitan Lulu Island in Richmond to rural Barnston Island just east of the Port Mann Bridge. Several, such as Deas Island in Delta, are now wholly preserved as public parks. Conversely, Westham Island, downstream from Ladner, is all privately owned, though several berry and mixed-farming operations welcome visitors. Much like Westham and Deas, Barnston Island has long been a favourite with day-trippers out for a walk or bike ride. The catch there is Barnston’s status as a mostly “look but don’t touch” destination.
In the 1980s, when the Georgia Straight first reported on Barnston Island as a day-trip destination, there was no public access along the narrow 10-kilometre perimeter dike road. Those who took the five-minute ride across Parsons Channel to the island aboard the free provincial ferry could enjoy the scenery but not much else. With the establishment of Surrey Bend Regional Park in 1995, that state of affairs shifted slightly. A small rest area at Robert Point (not to be confused with Washington state’s Point Roberts enclave adjacent Tsawwassen in Delta) was created on the island’s northwest corner opposite the mainland portion of the new park. Washrooms, trash cans, picnic tables, and a stretch of sandy beach provided welcome relief for both visitors in search of the river and islanders weary of dealing with trespassers.
More recently, in 2009, Metro Vancouver Parks purchased eight hectares of shoreline at Mann Point on the island’s northeastern tip and bolstered it with seven more hectares last September to create a second riverside rest area.
Frieda Schade, Metro Park’s central-area manager, told the Georgia Straight by phone that since the 1960s, Metro Vancouver (then known as the GVRD) has had a long-standing vision to acquire land for future parks. “We’ve been pretty successful gradually opening land to meet demand in places like Tynehead Regional Park in Surrey, one of the earliest sites acquired, in the 1970s.” Schade dismissed any suggestion that more of Barnston Island might be added to the Surrey Bend park. “There’s a lot of important agriculture on the island. We’ve met our needs and there’s no reason to acquire more. With all the redevelopment in Surrey, hopefully, Surrey Bend will remain a little oasis.”
To assess the new addition, the Straight journeyed to Barnston Island earlier this month. Much had changed since previous visits. In the interim, proposals by a group of 23 landowners to rezone their properties from agriculture to light industrial use had been turned down by the Agricultural Land Commission in 2006. Other ill-fated plans floated for the island included using it as a stepping stone for a new bridge to Pitt Meadows on the Fraser River’s north shore, an amusement park, a racetrack, even a university campus.
These days, the island looks much as it always has to the untrained eye, a little Brigadoon set apart from landscape-altering changes wrought by work on the South Fraser Perimeter Road’s eastern section. Although access to Mann Point is currently sketchy; a grassy patch affords views of the Golden Ears Bridge. In a bid to restrict ATV access to the delicate shoreline, a problem that plagued Richmond’s Iona Island before it was reclaimed as a regional park in the 1980s, Metro Parks has barricaded Mann Point with concrete blocks.
Although islanders favour a reduction in motorized traffic in general, chats with residents revealed a more complex picture. When reached by phone at her Painted River Farm, Donna Gilmore said: “I like my rush hour, tripping over my dogs on the way out the gate to the barn. I’m a sixth-generation farmer, and I couldn’t do anything else.” Together with her husband Wes, Gilmore raises 70 head of cattle and a hundred goats for meat that they sell to local consumers.
“People see this as a jewel, but there used to be 11 dairy farmers. Now there’s one, and even that’s a rental property. All the island is good for is growing great grass. Our herbs come from greenhouses, the cows live in barns, and cranberries grow in water. Wow!” Barnston Island Herb Farm co-owner Jennifer Hoffmann highlighted the sometimes fine line islanders tread between living modern and antiquated lifestyles. “It’s nice if you don’t have to go anywhere, but doing business is a pain in the butt. Ferry access is a big issue. The whole island isn’t a park, but that’s how a lot of visitors see things, especially cyclists who call me names when I’m driving past, even if I am only doing 30 kilometres an hour.”
The litany of pros and cons cited by the two landowners ran the gamut between how peaceful the island can be midweek to the stress of manoeuvring farm equipment past visitors on summer weekends. Both agreed spring is an ideal time to visit Barnston.
Just don’t everyone go at once.
Access: Surrey Bend Regional Park lies 35 kilometres east of Vancouver. Take Highway 1 east across the Port Mann Bridge, then 176th Street North [Exit 53] toward the Fraser River. Turn east on 104th Avenue to the Barnston Island ferry parking lot. Trails lead into Surrey Bend from both the ferry parking lot as well as a short distance west at the intersection of 176th and 104th. The Barnston Island ferry schedule is posted on the BC Government website. For information on Painted River Farm, visit their website.