Equipped with a handsaw and armed with charismatic charm used to recruit help for the cause, coupled with a knack for scavenging old lumber, George Christie has blazed several trails in Collingwood.
When Christie returned to his hometown to retire in the 1990s, Collingwood trails were squiggly lines on a map leading nowhere.
It took the work of community volunteers and staff to turn the trail map that looked like “worms on a plate” into a connected network of more than 60 kilometres of pedestrian trails.
For the last 30 years, Christie has been one of the leaders among those volunteers, working hands-on to carve out trails, maintain them, and dream up new ones.
“He’s called Mr. Trails, and there’s no question about it,” said Jack Marley, a member of the town’s Trails and Active Transportation Committee and one of several dozens of volunteers recruited by Christie.
Marley met Christie through the Probus Club and has since become part of a core group of volunteers who have done everything from clearing fallen logs and trimming back growth from the sides of the trails, to building boardwalks from lumber they recycled from other town projects.
“He’s a little cherub,” said Marley of Christie. “Everyone likes him … people get friendly and the next thing you know he calls you to help with a job. Now he has this list of workers. But people like doing it. They like doing it for him.”
Christie was born in Collingwood. He attended Collingwood Collegiate Institute and King George School. He moved away to pursue his career as a stock broker, but moved back to town full-time in the early 1990s.
After he was encouraged by his doctor to retire, he bought a home in Collingwood to start his retirement work.
As an avid snowmobiler, he was frustrated to find there were no trails he could take from his home in town to the trails on the mountain.
And so began his work toward forging a trail system in Collingwood.
“One thing led to another,” said Christie. “We got a lot done by begging forgiveness instead of asking permission.”
Christie was joined in the early days by Rad Whitehead and Sonny Foley, and the three worked together to create trails and concoct plans to connect the ones that existed already.
At town hall, Peter Dunbar was the senior staffer in charge of trails when Christie first returned to Collingwood.
Dunbar said Christie reached out almost immediately after moving back to Collingwood to say he wanted to help build a trail network.
“George was one of the five or six community members who kept on pushing the edge for council to give more money to parks and recreation,” recalled Dunbar of the decades in the early 90s working with Christie.
It was “integral” work at the time, according to Dunbar, since there used to be resistance to adding pedestrian trails in new developments.
“George was aggressively chasing down all the little connections he could help with,” said Dunbar. “What he did for me in the community was he was that solid engagement with the public. He organized members of the public to phone their council members and ask for a trail in their area.”
Christie and other volunteers started creating trail maps once every two years, and getting advertisers to support the printing costs.
“People started getting jealous if they didn’t have a trail in their segment of the town, and that was important to help flush out trail supporters,” said Dunbar.
Christie still builds most of the map boxes at the 125 locations around the Collingwood area where trail maps are kept. He’s assisted by a team of volunteers who helps keep the boxes stocked. Others act as trail ambassadors, visiting a portion of the trail once a week or more to make sure it’s in good shape, and cleaning up when they have to.
“I so appreciate the volunteers for doing the jobs they do,” said Christie, himself a trail ambassador prone to collecting bags of dog poop he calls “land mines” from the sides of the trail and branches of trees.
He also always carries a saw in case he spots a downed branch while out on his e-bike.
“He’s a little dangerous to get behind because he’ll stop without warning,” said Marley. “It might be because he spotted a lady slipper, or because he found a branch that needs cutting.”
On a hike of the George Christie Nature Trails, Christie interrupted an interview several times to point out a toad or a snake, or to show off the latest work of the trails committee to install a culvert or widen the path.
The Seatbelt Trail, explained Christie as he walked by the sign marking the side trail, was named for the seatbelt discovered in a tree when volunteers were clearing the path. The seatbelt is still there, though few but Christie can point it out.
“He knows every inch, every blade of grass, every town operator,” said Marley.
His passion, dedication, and persistence is still appreciated by the town staff in charge of trails.
The current manager of parks for the town, Wendy Martin, is a Mr. Trails fan.
“We wouldn’t have anywhere near the trails network we have now without George,” said Martin.
She said it’s because of his work and that of other volunteers like him that trails have increased enough in popularity and demand that the town mandates developers to install trails in new build areas.
“He’s a fantastic person, very valuable,” said Martin.
More people than Martin claim the trail system wouldn’t be what it is today without Christie.
“Well, that’s not far from the truth,” is all Christie will admit. “Certainly not a week goes by that I don’t have some trail activity in one way or another.”
He wants to see upgrades to the existing network, widening trails and more maintenance to keep them in pristine condition.
“It’s a real gem for the town,” said Christie, adding he knows of at least two doctors who moved to the area and set up practice in Collingwood, drawn in part because of the trails network.
“It certainly has been a great asset for the town.”
Christie, however proud he is of the trails now, keeps on dreaming.
“He’s always got a vision of something new,” said Marley. “He’s not ever going to rest.”
He wants to see an off-highway connection to Wasaga Beach, a safe bike path from Collingwood to Blue Mountain, and maybe one day a little ferry to take pedestrians from Hens and Chickens Island to the Collingwood harbour.
Christie continues to advocate for all new subdivisions to be required to link to the current trail system.
And in the meantime he keeps building map boxes and travelling the trails on his e-bike with his saw close at hand.
“I guess I enjoy it or I wouldn’t be doing it,” said Christie. “I know people enjoy using the trails. Collingwood has become famous for its trail network. Is that an incentive? I hope so. It’s just a good thing to do.”
Doing good things is a Christie family tradition, according to Dunbar, who continues to keep in regular contact with George.
“The Christies have always had some involvement in the community in a positive manner,” said Dunbar. “They’re really sort of like model citizens.”
A series of nature trails was named the George Christie Nature Trails in honour of Christie’s work to get the town’s trail network to where it is today. He’s also been made an honorary member of the Trails and Active Transportation Committee after he maxed out on the number of allowable terms. He attends every meeting.