Patricia Woodward’s nature reserve dream

“If we keep chipping away at the habitat these species have left on the landscape, they’re not going to exist anymore.”

By Tyler Olsen | June 10, 2022 |5:00 am

This is the third story in a series on the region’s mid-valley mountains and efforts to preserve their natural assets in a fast-growing region.

Part 1: McKee Peak | Part 2: Little Mountain


You won’t find virgin land atop Chilliwack Mountain. Neither will you find old-growth forest. But perspective—in its many forms? Patricia Woodward made sure you can find that.

At night, Chilliwack Mountain glows, a string of street lights tracing a path towards the hill’s rounded top. Like Sumas Mountain to the west and Little Mountain to the east, Chilliwack Mountain has long been valued by residents and developers for the million-dollar views it offers in every direction.

Its trees were prized too—the hill has been logged at least twice—as were the large lots out of the reach of the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Twenty-nine acres of land on the mountainside would fetch many, many millions of dollars today. Patricia gave it away.

In our third story on efforts to preserve the region’s mid-valley mountains, Tyler writes about Hillkeep, Chilliwack Mountain, and the remarkable life—and enduring gift—of Patricia Woodward.

Continues below


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Hillkeep Park remains a sanctuary of greenery on top of Chilliwack Mountain. 📷 Tyler Olsen
Hillkeep Park remains a sanctuary of greenery on top of Chilliwack Mountain. 📷 Tyler Olsen

An educator’s dream

Hillkeep Regional Park is an educator’s dream, not a developer’s dream.

The vast majority of private land that ends up as greenspace are leftovers: scraps that can’t be profitably or legally parceled out and sold. It’s common for developers seeking to build homes to give to a municipality land that contains a protected creek or an un-bulldozeable cliff. The donations aren’t particularly altruistic—they are often decided upon through negotiations with a municipality over what, exactly, might be built on a large block of land. That’s the case on Little Mountain, and it’s also likely to be the result for future developments on Sumas Mountain in Abbotsford.

But something different happened at the top of Chilliwack Mountain and 29 of the sprawling acres once owned by Patricia.

Patricia Woodward assembled the land over years, including by “homesteading” some of it. Homesteading allowed someone to claim land in BC if they “improved” a certain amount of it. The Chilliwack Mountain lots may have been some of the last parcels to be distributed in such a a manner. But the more Patricia learned about her land, the more she would come to see the value in not improving it—in keeping the top of the mountain as wild as possible.

Patricia Woodward 📷 Submitted
Patricia Woodward 📷 Submitted

The land

Reading a little about her life, one senses that Patricia Woodward could have written a best-selling memoir, if she hadn’t been so busy with other projects.

By the time she moved to Chilliwack in the 1960s, Patricia had studied under famed novelist Wallace Stegner at Stanford University, won a job at Vogue Magazine, chaired a Vancouver Art Gallery Show, commissioned a house from legendary architect Ron Thom, cultivated a friendship with Arthur Erickson, thrown cocktail parties, worked as a social worker, gardened ferociously, gave birth to children, trained people with physical and mental disabilities, and completed a doctorate in early childhood education at UBC.

In 1963, when Patricia was in her late thirties, she moved to Chilliwack with her husband Peter, who would become the managing partner of Cheam Marl Products. (Cheam Marl operated a mine at the current site of Cheam Wetlands Park. While Patricia moved for Peter’s work, Peter had done the same two decades prior, when Patricia got a job in New York.) In the 1970s, the pair moved to a home on Chilliwack Mountain.

Hillkeep, as she would come to call their mountain property, was Patricia’s passion project. Peter took part, clearing snow, running generators, and often cooking, but he was a self-described “city sparrow.” It was Patricia who assembled dozens of acres on Chilliwack Mountain, and who passionately explored the plants and animals that called it home.

In 1995, as she neared her 70s, Patricia and her daughter Paige began a nursery on the hill and started cultivating plants. But she kept working, with Pat leading an independent provincial agency tasked with monitoring the care provided to disabled men and women. (She would end up in a battle with the province over suggested cuts, a fight that put her on the front page of the Chilliwack Progress.)

At Hillkeep, Patricia and Paige learned about the land gradually over the decades they worked it. They brought in experts to teach them about fungi and to survey the plant species to give them a sense of what they were working with. They made some errors too—they planted native species, but also some that they later learned were invasive and would need to be extinguished.

They also saw how the mountain was a refuge for animals, large and small. Owls hooted from the trees. Deer thundered along trails at night. And bears came and went, down from Sumas Mountain and across the Vedder, or across the Fraser itself. At least one female bear lives on the hill: Paige once came across her teaching her cubs to dig at the roots of the water lilies.

They not only learned about the land, the land taught them. And Patricia, an educator to the bone, imagined how it might also teach others.

“She was very interested in not just showing things, but helping people learn them,” her daughter said.

Patricia Woodward explored and learned about her land both independently and by bringing experts on fungi and other aspects. 📷 Tyler Olsen
Patricia Woodward explored and learned about her land both independently and by bringing experts on fungi and other aspects. 📷 Tyler Olsen

A plan

In the property’s greenery and its position as an island top oasis above an ever-changing valley, Patricia started to develop a plan. She would give much of her land away.

The land wouldn’t just be saved from development; Patricia hoped it would also help inspire more people to think deeply about their place in the world. She imagined a viewpoint built looking east over the Fraser River that would be more than a showcase of a pretty view.

“The point of that was to look at the human habitation right from First Nations on, to talk about that, and how the river had been so important to humans through the ages, ever since the ice age,” Paige said. “The lookout was meant to be a discussion, or to prompt discussion of deep time: that is to say, that the mountains rising and falling, how this land was shaped, and the geology of it.”

Patricia donated 29 acres of land to the City of Chilliwack in 2009, 11 years before her death. (She left her former home and 9 acres to Paige.) The donation earned her five years of tax write-offs on her not-huge income. But her daughter said she didn’t donate it for the write-off but to ensure that what had been a “private, delightful” place for decades would be preserved.

“She was very fond of it and so, she could see, were the animals.”

The land was given as a "nature reserve" and remains designated as such by the FVRD. 📷 Tyler Olsen
The land was given as a “nature reserve” and remains designated as such by the FVRD. 📷 Tyler Olsen

A rare gift

Benevolent gifts of parkland are rare. Gifts the size of Hillkeep Park almost never happen.

Chilliwack’s 2018 greenspace plan lists just six such parks that arose out of donations (Hillkeep, Skelton, Ryder Lake, Central Community, Gwynne Vaughan, and the Karver’s Trail addition to Mount Thom Park). Only two of those arose out of donations since the turn of the century.

Gifts to protect natural land aren’t just historically rare because people like to hang onto their land. For many years, cities weren’t much interested in free land if they couldn’t shape it to suit their whims, according to Joanne Neilson, the executive director of the Fraser Valley Conservancy.

“When I first started, municipalities would acquire greenspace for parks, and conservation wasn’t an acceptable end,” Neilson told The Current. “Some of our first properties to be acquired was because the municipality didn’t want them because they couldn’t turn them into a recreation-based park because they had sensitive habitats.”

Neilson said cities are becoming more welcoming to donations of conservation-focused land. Which is important, she said, because the value of greenspace is more than just the value it presents to humans.

Hillkeep’s trails, of course, do serve a recreation purpose. But the goal of preservation for preservation’s sake also remains front and centre—Patricia gifted the land as a “nature reserve” and that wording has been preserved in the FVRD’s description of the site. Along with Little Mountain to the east and Sumas Mountain to the west, the three mid-valley hills are not pristine and have all been harvested. But all three provide vital habitat for numerous species at risk.

The valley’s hillsides have borne the brunt of development in the Fraser Valley for the last 50 years. The Agricultural Land Reserve was created to protect farmland from profit-seekers for nearly 50 years now. While not perfect, it has stopped development from eating up huge tracts of farmland in a region hungry for it. But its success has had knock-on effects and has pushed development above the valley floor to the nearby hillsides, where such provincial protections don’t exist.

“In order to save the valley, people have been doing horrible things to the hills,” Paige said.

The need to preserve the hillsides, Neilson said, is essential, independent of the purposes they may serve as parks.

“To be honest, all of our local mountains are not pristine old growth forests—these have all been harvested at some point,” she said. But the fact the mountains are not full of old growth trees does not mean they are not incredibly valuable.

“You’ve got these mixed forests where you’ve got a combination of big leaf maple and the conifers and it creates this habitat type that supports species,” she said. The value is not in the age of the trees, but in the habitat the current forests provide to the turtles, orchids, frogs, and other species that have found refuge on the mountain islands.

“All three of those mountains have numerous species at risk,” Neilson said. “If we keep chipping away at the habitat these species have left on the landscape, they’re not going to exist anymore.”

The long game

The Fraser Valley Regional District took over management of Hillkeep in 2012. A decade later, the park remains in a fairly raw state, with many of Patricia’s Woodward’s grandest educational plans yet to be realized.

But that’s OK. Because the park isn’t going anywhere. There’s time.

Others are discovering it, slowly. The FVRD trims back the brush, and keeps the two kilometres of trails navigable. And in 2021, a group of Chilliwack Mountain property owners installed a kiosk honouring Patricia. Today, when Paige walks its trail network, she frequently comes across young couples and families finding a space of solitude in nature.

There’s already a stunning lookout gazing south over Highway 1, Chilliwack’s farmland, and toward Vedder River. Paige thinks her mother’s dream of a second lookout is likely to come to fruition, eventually.

In fact, Hillkeep seems likely to grow, with Paige planning to one day follow her mother and give the rest of the family’s mountain properties away, to be preserved forever.  The gifts are also a declaration of a sort: that if you value nature, sometimes you have to make choices that leave money on the table.

“She could see that Chilliwack may call itself the Green Heart of the Valley, but there are times when it’s possible to imagine that it’s in the grip of realtors, really,” Paige said of her mother. “She just wanted to be sure that this land would stay, and it’s really quite simple. She didn’t cheat, she could have made quite a lot of money off it I guess, but that was not her goal.”

Despite being located at the top of a mountain, Hillkeep has extensive wetland habitat. 📷 Tyler Olsen
Despite being located at the top of a mountain, Hillkeep has extensive wetland habitat. 📷 Tyler Olsen

The sound of preservation

On a recent early June evening, the park is devoid of humans. The sky is overcast, the temperature warm. Mosquitoes may hatch soon, but they are still rare.

From the parking lot, the main path leads down into a small valley. Huge maple teams lurk over underbrush in a million shades of green. The ground is only visible on the narrow path.

It’s the sound, you notice at first. In the background, on the valley floor far below, the stream of highway traffic is distantly heard. But reverberating through the forest is a cacophony of bird dialogue. A robin flits overhead. Other birds yell from the canopy 100 feet above the forest floor.

Walk down the trail, into the forest, and one feels deeply alone as the bustling valley that begins to recede. Best not be too quiet, lest one surprise a mother bear.

Give a cough; a clap. Intrude just a bit. Share the park. Glimpse the Fraser through the trees. Imagine being more alone. Imagine those who were here before.

It’s what one senses Patricia Woodward was aiming for.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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