Skip to main content

A member of the media is shown details of a portion of the Challenger map on display at the RCMP Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit office in Richmond, B.C., Oct. 5, 2009.Jeff Vinnick

For more than 10 years, its whereabouts known only to a few dedicated preservationists, one of the world's largest relief maps and perhaps the province's best example of folk art languished in a series of dusty warehouses.

Now, the famed Challenger Relief Map, or at least a portion of it, has resurfaced as a centrepiece in, of all places, the headquarters of the RCMP-led Integrated Security Unit for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

A large chunk of the 55-year-old map, familiar to generations of fairgoers at the annual Pacific National Exhibition, is being used to familiarize visitors and security officers from other parts of the country with the intricate, geographical contours of the Olympic security zone.

"Not only is this a unique piece of B.C. history, our security challenges are evident with one glimpse of the map," ISU head Bud Mercer said Monday, at an official ceremony marking its new pride of place in the spacious entrance hall of unit headquarters in Richmond. "It reminds us of the scale and scope of the task before us."

The section on display portrays the delta flatlands of Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, the soaring, jagged peaks surrounding them, including the spectacular mountainous terrain around Whistler, and both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.

This is the first time a portion of the map, spruced up and freshly painted, with small lights to pinpoint individual Olympic venues, has been seen in public since its home at the PNE was demolished in 1997.

No one wore a broader smile than Joanne Challenger, granddaughter of George Challenger. The legendary forester spent seven years - with the help of his family - meticulously constructing the relief map in the basement, cutting out and gluing together nearly a million individual pieces of plywood to recreate the province's rugged landscape. All told, the map covers 3,500 square metres, about 24 times the size of the portion at ISU headquarters.

"My grandfather always wanted the map to be useful. When they were building the Coquihalla Highway, surveyors used the map to help find the best routes," she said. "Now the Olympics are using it for planning purposes. This gives us hope the rest of the map will see the light of day."

The majority of the map, carved into 196 sections, is housed in an Air Canada storage facility at the airport, waiting for the funds and space to return the much-loved work to public view.

In the meantime, the ISU is glad to have what they have.

"We had some visitors from London, and they stood here for 15 minutes," said Corporal Bert Paquet, gesturing towards the map. "One look and they know why security is such a challenge for us. You can also see the proximity of the U.S. border and why they have to be involved in Olympic security conversations."

Corp. Paquet singled out his own personal landmarks: "There's the Richmond Oval, and there's where I got stuck in traffic for an hour."

Al Clapp, the visionary 79-year-old who has spearheaded efforts to save the map as the latest of his many community projects, hailed the ISU's embrace of George Challenger's masterpiece.

"It was first seen for the British Empire Games here in 1954, and here it is, the same thing for the Olympics in 2010," Mr. Clapp said. "I think that's pretty neat, and it looks great."

Joanne Challenger said she remembers her parents' stories of the length and difficulty of constructing the Challenger Map, piece by piece, like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. "My grandfather was so dedicated [to the project] and they all worked hand in hand to finish it."

Ms. Challenger was born after the map was completed, but it still was a constant presence throughout her youth. "The very bottom levels of the map were taken up afterwards, and used around the house," she said. "The back of my closet was the Arrow Lakes."

Interact with The Globe