Getaways

Getting your tree legs at B.C.'s Greenheart Canopy walkway

Sep. 20, 2013 at 10:28 AM ET

Greenheart Canopy Walkway
Carol Pucci
The Greenheart Canopy Walkway sits 50 feet above the forest floor inside the University of British Columbia Botanical Gardens in Vancouver, B.C.

I can't say I'm ready for a romp through the treetops of an Amazon jungle, but after crossing the second of 10 foot bridges suspended above a Vancouver, B.C. rain forest, I'm paying less attention to the swaying and more to the sounds and smells of nature.

"Eventually, you get your tree legs,'' promises my guide, Matthew Boyes, as he leads me on a stroll along the Greenheart Canopy Walkway, a quarter-mile system of aerial trails and viewing platforms inside the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden in Vancouver, B.C.

Walking from platform to platform along a series of 15-inch wide aluminum walkways, I concentrate on what I can see and hear 50 feet above the forest floor.

The smell of caramel or cooked sugar? That's coming from a Japanese Katsura, a tree with heart-shaped leaves that's especially fragrant in the fall.

Have a cut or a scratch? No worries, says Boyes. We're within touching distance of the top of a century-old grand fir, a living medicine cabinet whose sap works like a natural Band-Aid.

Toothache? The licorice fern growing on the side of a big leaf maple works wonders.

"This is the great thing about getting the perspective on the forest from up here,'' says Boyes. "You see things you wouldn't from down there.''

Greenheart is a Vancouver company that builds eco-sensitive recreational ziplines and aerial trails in parks and protected areas around the world. It designed the canopy walkway in partnership with BCU as a research and educational showcase for forest biodiversity in an urban environment.

Smaller and shorter than the company's projects in the wilds of Africa and South America, the BCU walkway consists of eight circular stationary platforms wrapped around the trunks of giant trees; a 72-foot-tall free-standing observation tower and 10 aerial foot bridges of varying grades and lengths.

Opened in 2008 inside BCU's 29-acre David C. Lam Asian Garden, the walkway offers a high-up glimpse of the native cedar, fir and hemlocks that shelter rare trees and shrubs in a preserved wooded area between a major highway — Southwest Marine Drive — and the Strait of Georgia.

Bald eagles, woodpeckers, owls and other wildlife make their home here. Walking along the paths toward the walkway, visitors see plants native to China, Korea, Japan and the Himalayas.

It's possible to traverse the bridges in 10 or 15 minutes, but it's better to spend more time and go with one of the guides who lead 45-minute tours. Boyes recently led a 94-year woman on the walkway by holding both her hands and walking backwards. A specially-designed wheelchair can be operated with the assistance of two guides, one in back and the other in front.

"Somehow in my mind, I was expecting big wooden bridges,'' said Shannon Kelly of Vancouver, recalling the wide wooden walkways at the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, a popular Vancouver tourist attraction with a pedestrian bridge suspended 230 feet the above the Capilano River.

"The difference with us is really in the engineering,'' says Boyes.

Greenheart's bridges and platforms are hung without the use of bolts, nails, concrete anchors or other hardware that might cause long-term damage.

Unique is what the company calls its "Tree Hugger'' technology, a way of suspending the walkways and platforms from trees with a woven-in-place steel cable system designed for minimal impact on the habitat.

The cables hug the trees like a Chinese finger trap, applying slight pressure on the surface while transferring most of the force vertically through the tree to the ground.

The bridges, just wide enough for single-file walking, are tapered inward to prevent too much swaying. Shoulder-high side cables and synthetic netting offer protection and a place to grab onto.

The effect is like bobbing up and down and side-to-side on an aluminum ladder laid on its side.

Greenheart Canopy Walkway
Carol Pucci
Ryan and Cole LaBounty of Vancouver, B.C. traverse the Greenheart Canopy Walkway at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C.

"The first time you do it, it's a little intimidating,'' said Kelly. About half-way through, you figure out how to move. Stay in the middle and walk slowly."

She said her son, Liam, 6, was so thrilled, they went around three times.

"Kids love it.''

If you go: Visiting the Greenheart Canopy Walkway
The Greenheart Canopy Walkway is inside the University of British Columbia's Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research (www.botanicalgarden.ubc.ca/) in Vancouver, B.C. Entrance and parking is at the reception center at 6804 Marine Dr. SW.

The walkway is open to the public daily from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. between April 1 and October 31. Between Nov. 1 and March 31, it's open only for pre-booked group tours.

Admission ($20 for adults; $15 for students, seniors and those with disabilities; $10 for children 6-12; and $44 for families) includes the canopy walkway and botanical garden. Wear sturdy shoes. No open-toed shoes or flip flops.

Visitors are free to explore the walkways on their own or take a 45-minute guided tour offered on the hour. See www.botanicalgarden.ubc.ca/canopy-walkway or call 604-822-4208. 

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