Wells Gray centre gets a facelift

Karla Karcioglu, Roving Editor Ω

Tom Dickinson proudly holds Blake St. Peter's design for a new building. Karla Karcioglu/The Omega

Tom Dickinson proudly holds Blake St. Peter’s design for a new building. Karla Karcioglu/The Omega

For 20 years, TRU’s Wells Gray Education and Research Centre, located on the border of the Wells Gray National Park, has been available to students across British Columbia.

Dean of science Tom Dickinson said the property was originally a one-room school house for children of homesteaders who settled the area after a fire in 1928. The school closed in 1960 and was used by the Girl Guides of Canada until 1992.

“When several of us all came at once to build the university college, those of us who studied nature, ecology and the outdoors knew it that would be very valuable to have a facility where we could do that outdoor education type training,” Dickinson said.

The group began by designing a course before applying to the school district to transfer the property to what was then the University College of the Cariboo, now TRU.

The resulting national resource science programs started in 1992, and the Wells Gray Education and Research Centre opened in 1993. Since it began, Dickinson said students have used it as a place to go out and see in real life things they were learning in the labs.

One course that frequently uses the property is the field methods and terrestrial ecology course.

Dickinson said the facility isn’t just for TRU science students. Fine arts students have visited the property for a sketching class, the German club has done language immersion weekends there and geography students meet with historical geographers for the weekend. Researchers from UBC, SFU and TRU also work there.

The centre has also hosted an event called Nature for Kids, where one parent and child are enrolled and taught about birdwatching or other nature-related activities. According to Dickinson, several of those kids ended up at TRU. One of them is now a neurosurgeon in Vancouver, another works for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and another for the Ministry of Environment.

“We’ve had really wonderful, successful students coming out of the hands-on programs that added great value to what they were learning,” Dickinson said.

The schoolhouse has electricity, cook stoves, fridge-freezers, bunks, and is heated by a wood stove from wood cut on site. Last spring six temporary sleeping cabins were built by high school students from the Clearwater school district who were taking the introductory carpentry class.

“For the most part, it’s been a very low-key and a very hands-on experience,” Dickinson said.

“It’s amazing for TRU students,” said Nancy Flood, TRU biology professor. She said the rustic experience “builds quite a community among the students.”

Currently, Dickinson is working with others involved in the Wells Gray Education and Research Centre to build a new building on the property.

“We realized it was getting to the point where we couldn’t do any more with the facilities,” Dickinson said. “We wanted to give more students opportunities. We wanted to run other kinds of courses there.”

The planning began 2 ½ years ago. Dickinson sent a proposal to the architectural engineering class to design a building. In the resulting design competition, Blake St. Peter, an alumnus of the architecture and engineering program, won and was hired for the summer to draw up designs.

In 2010, institutional surpluses from the budget were allocated for the project. According to Dickinson, all program deans came together to donate some of their capital to the project. “It’s a real big community project,” he said.

On Oct. 5, Dickinson and the Wells Gray World Heritage Committee invited Robert Bateman, naturalist and wildlife painter, for the official “breaking of the sod” that marked the start of the project.

“We’re primed and ready to go,” Dickinson said, adding that he thinks the timing is perfect, with the 75th anniversary of the establishment of Wells Gray Park coming this November.