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Walking the legacy of Walter Bean

The Walter Bean Grand River Trail, named after beloved community member Walter Bean, connects residents 'with the river and each other'

“Few people in K-W have worked so tirelessly for the community good,” columnist Henry Koch wrote about Waterloo Region’s Walter Bean in the late 20th century.

Bean created a name for himself throughout the 20th century, from being Kitchener-Waterloo’s only brigadier general in the Second World War, to excelling in business and helping raise funds for local charities. 

But his ultimate legacy is the Walter Bean Grand River Trail, which winds its way through Waterloo Region along the Grand River. 

Throughout much of his life, Bean dreamt of creating a multi-use trail for residents to “experience the beauty of bald eagles, cormorants and limestone cliffs that were just minutes from the busy downtown streets where he grew up peddling newspapers,” according to the Waterloo Public Library. 

The first sections of what would become the Walter Bean Trail were set aside in the late 1990s, according to Niall Lobley, director of parks and cemeteries in the City of Kitchener.

“Several sections of the trail existed before then but were not recognized as part of a larger trail system. In the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a conscious effort to start filling in the gaps, securing access to property and building trail segments to create a linked trails, the Walter Bean Trail,” Lobley said. 

Not much development with the trail had happened by the time he passed away in 1998, the project was renamed in his honour and was passed on to the municipalities. 

Today, the 76-kilometre trail can be found throughout Waterloo, Kitchener, Cambridge, and Woolwich, with multiple access points, such as RIM Park. It runs along the banks of the Grand River, though it often crosses through private property.

The trail covers a variety of landscapes, from more open and sweeping areas right on the edge of the Grand River, to more suburban areas that take you right through the city. Along it, you will see several landmarks, like the Pioneer Memorial Tower in Kitchener; in Cambridge, the trail passes a 300-year-old tree.

Because it is a multi-use trail, both pedestrians and cyclists can use it, as well as those who want to cross country ski or snowshoe in the winter months. 

The trail is incomplete in several spots, as development is ongoing. This is because, though it runs through the entire region, it remains the responsibility of each individual municipality. 

“Much of the trail does exist, although it is sometimes hard to find,” writes Anne Crowe of the Grand Watershed Trails Network.  

“Work by local municipalities continues. Woolwich Township is working to choose a route (likely on-road) and develop it.  Waterloo and Cambridge have completed their multi-use trails and have erected signage and wayfinding.  Much of the route in Kitchener is completed, but some sections require upgrading and signage and some remain missing,” she writes. 

However, Lobley says while there is always work to be done, as a connected route, the trail is technically complete. 

“There are a couple of sections closed currently or in less than optimum condition due to flooding damaging the trail or a bridge, and repairing and restoring these ‘broken’ sections is the priority. Work is scheduled around the Deer Ridge Golf Course for example over coming years, and we have a damaged bridge in the Bingemans section that we need to address. We have temporary detours in these areas, but will need to look at repairing the trail when we can,” he said. 

Lobley believes the trail is one of the more significant trails in the region for a number of reasons, one of which is that “no two days are the same, and you will see something different each time you visit a section.” 

But, he says, the most significant aspect is how it connects residents to the river.

“For me what stands out particularly about this trail is the focus on the river. The trail connects communities along the river and the river is the central focus for the trail. It serves a recreational need most directly – it is built primarily to connect community with the river and each other,” he said. “It adds a river focus to the region, an exemplar of recreational trails in Ontario and as such as a completeness to community. I believe that the Walter Bean trail also serves as a focus for the natural environment of the region and contributes economically through tourism – be that local visits stopping for a coffee, or longer visits by people staying along the trail.”

Crowe agrees with the significance of the trail surrounding the river, especially as Kitchener is developed around the river -- whereas, for instance, Cambridge has developed along it. 

“Kitchener is urban and it can be easy to lose sight of how green a city this is. The river for us is at the edge of the city where many have developed around it, and this leaves this as somewhat untouched. What this means is you can get to the trail easily, but feel like you are miles away from the city,” Lobley said.  

Though it’s not maintained in the winter, the trail is open year-round. 

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