Jewel-like regional parks garland Metro Vancouver like an evergreen necklace. From Bowen Island's Crippen Park to Abbotsford's Matsqui Trail, you can't help but feel blessed, even overwhelmed, exploring one.
Not so at Colony Farm in Coquitlam. On first sight, all that greets the eye is a wide swath of fallow farmland on the south side of Lougheed Highway, just east of the Port Mann Bridge. Classified as “old field”, the former cow pasture and cropland was left to go wild when the provincially owned farm, once part of Riverview Hospital, closed in 1983. Although the property doesn't jump out at you, the land is of special importance to wildlife, particularly birds such as the colourful lazuli buntings, Bullock's orioles, and black-headed grosbeaks that nest here.
One person acutely aware of Colony Farm's hidden values is Metro Vancouver parks' central area manager, Frieda Schade. On the phone from her office, Schade told the Georgia Straight that drinking in the views from the open fields is something she looks forward to. “I love the dike trails, the river, the mountains, the wildlife—especially the birds. The level bike trails themselves are worth a million dollars!” she exclaimed.
Tom Littlewood, project manager for the Kwikwetlem First Nation's fledgling bike tour and rental company, couldn't agree more. When reached by phone at one of the band's two reserves, which border the regional park, Littlewood had just returned from a lengthy pedal. “I have a 50-kilometre loop I do that makes everything all right, if you know what I mean,” he said. “Bikes keep you young forever.” Littlewood was hired in 2008 to help set up the bicycle business, train Kwikwetlem residents as mechanics and tour guides, and handle the marketing. “I'm retired and only allowed to do fun things,” the 58-year-old said with a laugh. This fall, he and his staff of five will work full-time with as many as 120 young students a day. “When we opened last September, we hosted 41 field trips with the local Coquitlam school district, although we'd only forecast six. This spring, we did 15 pilot projects for schools in Richmond, Vancouver, and three other municipalities. We put half the kids on bikes for tours while the rest attend classroom workshops on First Nations history and wildlife. Then they trade off.” If there's one image Littlewood treasures, it's that of Kwikwetlem elders' eyes as streams of youngsters roll by on bikes. “The elders consider themselves caretakers of the Coquitlam River. They've lived for this day.”
Indeed, the intertidal Coquitlam flows through the park and accompanies part of the nearby 25-kilometre Traboulay PoCo Trail. Dikes that hold the shallow waterway in check are topped with welcoming crushed-gravel trails that make for smooth, almost effortless pedalling. Shade cast by a predominantly black cottonwood and western red cedar forest provides welcome relief from both the sun and the din of traffic. The dikes also protect an extensive community garden that thrives on almost three hectares of verdant soil. That's where the Georgia Straight encountered two of the park's founding growers on a recent visit. Lena Jenson and Leroy Phillip have been reaping the rewards of their 23-square-metre plots almost since the community garden—unique in the regional park system—opened in 1997. While Jenson proudly showed off her flower garden, a magnet for hummingbirds and butterflies, Phillip held up a volunteer zucchini that he was taking back to New Westminster to cook up with a neighbour. “Just like my gardening friends here share with each other,” he said, beaming. With row on row of plots up against each other, many featuring protective coverings, the garden looks like an armada of houseboats moored together.
Colony Farm Community Garden's Ginny Wilson is typical of the plot holders, drawn mainly from the Tri-Cities: Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, and Port Moody. As treasurer of the all-volunteer group, she began cultivating at the farm in 1998 after relocating from Edmonton. Speaking by phone, Wilson said she became interested in community gardening after reading about a backyard garden-box project in inner-city Portland, Oregon. “Fifteen years ago, this seemed bizarre,” she said. “Back then, the local-food movement was in its infancy. Although the benefits are enormous, no one saw the potential to improve health. That's what fired my imagination, especially as my new home in Coquitlam was too shaded to grow much. What luck to arrive at just the right moment!”
Finding such an oasis is good fortune indeed, particularly at early morning and evening times when a cooling breeze wafts off the nearby Fraser River where the Coquitlam joins it. Stillness envelops the hillsides and hazy peaks. Clusters of crimson berries hang heavy from the branches of red elderberry and black hawthorn bushes. Drifts of fireweed pattern the fields at the foot of Mary Hill. This is where you'll want to be. Enjoy a picnic supper beside the community garden gazebo. Then, best of all, stroll the lanes to admire the bounty erupting from the little jewel boxes.
ACCESS: Colony Farm Regional Park lies 25 kilometres east of Vancouver on Highway 7 in Coquitlam. For information, visit www.metrovancouver.org. For details on Colony Farm Bike Tours and Rentals, call 604-520-0090. Nature Vancouver's new guide, Parks and Nature Places Around Vancouver (Alison Parkinson, Harbour Press), features an informative chapter on Colony Farm.