Chilliwack’s Great Blue Heron Nature Reserve (GBHNR) is ready to open after being closed for two and a half months due to flooding and an ice storm.
The site was closed to the public on Nov. 14 as two back-to-back atmospheric rivers pummelled the Fraser Valley.
Werner and Leona Arnold, the on-site caretakers at GBHNR, and the City of Chilliwack have been cleaning up the site ever since to make it accessible to the public.
The Arnolds, who have been the caretakers for 17 years, recall the floods vividly and the damage caused. They tried to evacuate as flood waters quickly rose around them and their mobile home on Monday, Nov. 15.
They got in their pickup truck, but couldn’t get out of their driveway, so they went back onto their deck. City workers and neighbour Mike Maskall came to their rescue, but it was a difficult and long task.
They arrived in a tractor with a bucket, but the flood water was too deep, so they decided to use a boat instead.
The boat didn’t have a motor and as they tried to row up to the Arnolds’ deck, the boat kept going around in circles with the water’s current. Eventually, Maskall went home to get a motor and they were able to get the two stranded caretakers to dry land.
It took about three hours in total and the water continued to rise the entire time.
After they were rescued, the dike broke and the water at the GBHNR receded. The Arnolds were only away from their home for one night but when they returned, everything was damaged.
”Everything in the park came into our backyard,” Leona said. “It was like a bomb went off in here.”
Things like portable toilets, picnic tables and more were strewn about. Several inches of silt covered their front lawn and backyard.
“It’s amazing the momentum that (the water) has and what it carries with it,” Werner said.
There was flood damage throughout the entire reserve. All three kilometres of trails (3,030 metres to be exact) in the park were covered in mud. The annex was flooded, but the interpretive centre (the main building) was fine.
The first task for Werner was to repair his equipment that was damaged in the flood so he could start to clear debris from the trails.
City crews came in with large equipment to remove mud from the trails, and larger items like root balls and fallen trees. They brought in hundreds of loads of gravel to resurface the trails.
Using a smaller tractor, quad and a shovel, Werner cleared muddy debris from places the city crews couldn’t get to like foot bridges.
“He hasn’t stopped working,” Leona said.
Fixtures like benches, portable toilets, picnic tables and garbage cans had to either be hauled back to their original locations after being swept away by flood waters, or were replaced.
While they were cleaning up flood damage, another weather event came along – the ice storm.
“Every few minutes you’d hear a tree come down,” Leona recalled.
Werner had a new job on his hands as he removed thousands of branches and trees throughout the park.
Aside from during major snowfalls, both Werner and city crews have been working nearly every day to clean up the heron reserve so it can reopen.
Darrell Lindhout with the city called it a team effort between the caretakers and the city.
“Werner and Leona are wonderful,” he said.
On Friday, Jan. 28, some damage was still visible throughout the park like silt in the treed areas and viewing platforms out of place, but otherwise it was evident that a lot of work had gone into making the park beautiful again.
The city also inspected bridges and trails to ensure they’re safe for visitors, Lindhout added.
Now, after two and a half months of hard work, the heron reserve is finally ready to open on Monday, Jan. 31.
And Werner and Leona are more than ready to see visitors again.
“It’s just too lonely with no people around,” she said.
“People are just anxious to get in here, so I think it’s time to open up,” he said.
The Great Blue Heron Nature Reserve is located at 5200 Sumas Prairie Rd. in Chilliwack.