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Don Gillespie remembered for carving trails on Coquitlam's Burke Mountain

Don Gillespie, who died at the age of 90 on Sunday, was an award-winning volunteer who created trails on Coquitlam's Burke Mountain; his efforts were also recognized for his work at Finnie's Garden.
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Don Gillespie (and his wife, Norma) volunteered at Finnie's Garden in Coquitlam; the late Port Coquitlam resident and father of five, who died on Sunday, is remembered for his conservation work.

An environmental champion who cleared trails on Burke Mountain and took care of the səmiq̓wəʔelə/Riverview Lands in Coquitlam died this week.

Don Gillespie was 90.

Gillespie, who passed away at Eagle Ridge Hospital on Sunday from stroke complications, was an award-winning advocate who opened up the backcountry for hikers.

A longtime member of the Burke Mountain Naturalists, Gillespie added new paths to connect Coquitlam with trails in the area that’s known today as Pinecone Burke Mountain provincial park.

“It is absolutely magnificent,” Gillespie told the Tri-City News in 2015, during the park’s 20th anniversary celebrations. “On the trail, you can walk through and touch 600- to 700-year-old trees. It’s like a cathedral.”

At səmiq̓wəʔelə/Riverview Lands, Gillespie and his wife, Norma, a retired psychiatric nurse, were best known for their volunteer work at Finnie’s Garden; in 2019, Coquitlam-Maillardville MLA Selina Robinson recognized their efforts with a plaque at the site.

Robinson recalled their first meeting, when she was a city councillor and “he let me know, without reservation, that he thought I was headed in the wrong direction on a particular development,” she told the Tri-City News. “He was direct and quite gruff about it. But rather than leave it at that, he offered to take me on a tour to show me why he felt and thought that way.” 

She added, “He took the time to teach me. And I changed my mind on that particular development. Behind his opinions and his gruffness was a thoughtful, wise man with a lovely smile and a great warm hug who was willing to teach you so that you understood just where he was coming from. He will be greatly missed.”

TRAIL BLAZER

A former minor sports coach for soccer and track and field as well as an oil refinery worker who retired from Gulf Canada (previously British-American Oil) in Port Moody, Gillespie was often singled out for his conservation work.

In 2014, he won the Eugene Rogers Environmental Award — plus $1,000 — from the Wilderness Committee for creating hiking trails on Burke Mountain, among them the Woodland Walk and the Coquitlam Lake View Trail. 

In 1995, with the Wilderness Committee, he helped to clear a trail through the Elaho Valley, north of Squamish, and in 1996, he was part of a crew that set up a trail building camp on the west side of Flores Island, near the village of Ahousaht in Clayoquot Sound; the resulting Wild Side Trail is considered one of the finest on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the committee stated in its release.

Nine years later, the Port Coquitlam resident also helped to clear the trail on the Ghost Pass Trail, east of Hope.

“Don didn’t just advocate for the environment, he took the time to educate people about the history of the land, and the importance of protecting it. And his legacy will live on through the work of the people he has inspired,” said Coquitlam Coun. Craig Hodge, who served with Gillespie on the city’s environment and Riverview Lands advisory committees, and who is on the Metro Vancouver regional parks committee. 

“He knew the history of Riverview and the importance of protecting the buildings, the grounds and the trees, but his true passion was for Finnie’s Garden which he worked tirelessly to restore and maintain.” 

Hodge added, “Our entire community owes a great debt of gratitude to Don and his wife Norma for their dedication and commitment to protecting Pinecone Burke Park, Colony Farm, Riverview and Widgeon Marsh for today’s residents and future generations to enjoy.”

“If you have ever enjoyed a hike on beautiful Burke Mountain or up to Widgeon Falls, there is a good chance Don helped build, mark and maintain the trails you walked,” said Port Coquitlam Coun. Laura Dupont. “He was a committed outdoorsman and a true community builder in his roles with the RHCS Riverview Horticultural Centre Society and the BMN Burke Mountain Naturalists. Finnie's Garden is a truly special place for Don’s love and care.”

Gillespie leaves behind his wife of 67 years, Norma; five children Michael, Donald, Christine, Ian and John; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

TRIBUTE 

Don Gillespie must rank amongst B.C.’s most dedicated environmental volunteers. Don has devoted almost four decades of his retirement to preserving wild−and less-wild−natural areas for others to explore and enjoy. He has volunteered with many environmental groups over the years, including Friends of DeBoville Slough, Coquitlam RiverWatch, the Friends of Douglas Island, the Wilderness Committee, and with his wife Norma, the Riverview Horticultural Centre Society and the Colony Farm Park Association. 

However, it was with the Burke Mountain Naturalists that Don has had the longest association (more than 30 years), and our organization’s reputation in the community is due largely to the passion and energy of Don and a handful of other long-time volunteers. 

Don was raised near the foot of Burke Mountain in Port Coquitlam, and knows that mountain well. Upon retirement, Don began making Burke more accessible and appealing to hikers by brushing out the old logging roads and opening up viewpoints. By the early 1990s, when hopes were high for getting the mountain protected, Don had recruited a team of volunteer trail-builders from amongst his friends. Don soon began leading free public hikes on the newly-built trails on Burke’s lower slopes, delighting hikers with his enthusiasm and corny jokes. All of them went home charmed and convinced that Don was right: this mountain needed to be preserved for nature and nature enjoyment. 

Today, Burke Mountain is contained within Pinecone Burke Provincial Park, and many of the Park’s most popular trails such as the Woodland Walk and the Coquitlam Lake View Trail are trails created by Don. Don blazed other trails into more remote regions of the Park, including portions of the Fools Gold Trail from Coquitlam to Squamish. Don’s sweat, ingenuity and vision proved to be key in raising public support for the creation of Pinecone Burke Provincial Park in 1995. One of the highest peaks in the Park was named Mount Gillespie (2021 m elevation) as a tribute to Don. 

Don also built trails closer to home. Don and his friend Doug Bennie created the popular Sheep Paddock Trail along the Coquitlam River in what is now Colony Farm Regional Park. More recently he built trails through the wilder “backyard” area of Coquitlam’s Riverview Hospital, a site that Don and Norma have pressed to be fully restored for mental health care. 

- Ian McArthur, Past President of the Burke Mountain Naturalists