Urban Orienteering on the Central Valley Greenway

The spring I turned 35, I found out that four ligaments join the bottom half of my leg to the top, and that when two of them snap on a damned bike descent of a Grouse Mountain trail, it’s a very bad thing.

Once the reconstructive surgery was completed and I had learned to walk again, I decided that my cycling energy was better spent on more moderate adventures.

I pored over TransLink’s Regional Vancouver Cycling Map & Guide and discovered that the Lower Mainland’s immense Fraser Valley floor offers an extensive network of flat-earth forest paths, linear parks, dike trails, and greenways. (For a list of retailers who sell the guide [$3.95], visit http://www.translink.bc.ca/ and click on Maps.)

Some of them, like Stanley Park, Pacific Spirit Regional Park, and the B.C. Parkway Trail, are well-known and well-used; but many, such as the newly christened Central Valley Greenway, are largely unpaved, unsigned, and unexplored.

The Central Valley Greenway stretches from Science World to New Westminster Quay, and, like the B.C. Parkway Trail, partly runs beneath the SkyTrain track. But where the Expo-era parkway climbs eastward up and around Kingsway, the Central Valley Greenway follows a path cut by tributary creeks and streams as they flow toward the Fraser River.

The result is a 22-kilometre, completely level, and direct bike corridor through Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster that–if the bike colonists who scouted the trail years ago have their way–will eventually span the entire valley.

Three of those colonists, Richard Campbell and Keith Ross of Better Environmentally Sound Transportation and Gavin Davidson of TransLink, acted as tour guides on this season’s first CVG ride.

Tour guide is the operative term here: the route in progress has minimal signage and can be challenging to navigate alone for the first time. Campbell also points out that the proposed route goes through sections of private land. Until rights-of-way are finalized, he says, cyclists are officially advised that “if you go through there, you are trespassing.” To keep you on the straight and narrow, B.E.S.T. offers downloadable maps of the proposed and alternative routes on its Web site (www.best.bc.ca/programsAndServices/greenway/), as well as the occasional guided group ride.

The entire CVG is divided into one- or two-kilometre segments for easy access. The Grandview Corridor section is what project manager Ross likes to call the “showcase” of the greenway.

“This is the ultimate standard,” he says of the traffic-calmed street, path-facing homes, and serpentine pathway between Victoria Drive and Slocan Street. “This is what we’d like to do with all of it.” When it’s completed in 2006–with support from VanCity, TransLink, Transport Canada, and other private and public sources–the Greenway will allow thousands of cyclists to travel safely between their homes and work, school, and shopping destinations.

It’s difficult to imagine 20 more kilometres like this idyllic two-kilometre section, and personally, I revel in the wild and eclectic nature of the pathway as it is now. Head east along the route and Vancouver’s mosaic and butterfly street furniture transitions to Burnaby’s galleries of surreptitious spray-paint manifestoes. Neatly placed native sedges give way to chaotic brambles of blackberries and random acts of calf-snagging. The trail surface ranges from railway-bed gravel and drainage-ditch planks near Boundary Road to dirt-track sand at the Burnaby Recycling Depot and hard-packed gravel along the Brunette River east of Caribou Road.

The greenway also provides covert access to Still Creek’s duck ponds, the Brunette River’s kayak course, and Sapperton Landing’s tiny, perfect boardwalk park. It reveals unexpected storefronts like Pro Organics’ Saturday-morning market, Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, and Jack’s All Around Demolition. And it allows a back-yard view of what a city looks like when it’s unselfconsciously working: the bumping railway cars leaving the False Creek switches; the piles of stone, gravel, and soil waiting at the Burnaby work yard; and the tugboats and log booms struggling against the Fraser’s tidal push in New Westminster.

As city trails go, today’s Central Valley Greenway is a bit of a bad boy with a nicey-nice name. It’s not terribly child-friendly (unless your snapper likes hauling ass on a Trail-A-Bike), it’s not very wheelchair-oriented (off-roaders exempted), and it tempts you to step over active railway tracks, under barbed-wire fences, and through peculiar intersections.

But if you and your friends enjoy a bit of wayward bushwhacking and urban orienteering when you go on a bike ride, pack a lunch and have a blast. Explore the trail while it’s less developed, then relax at a New West quay cafĂ© when you’re done. The SkyTrain awaits to carry you, your bike, and your reconstructed ligaments lazily back home.

Published in the June 24, 2004 Vancouver Georgia Straight