A strong wind had kicked up, and it was spitting rain as I stepped out into the open flats of estuary, through a lush meadow of knee-deep sedges and swathes of yellow, blue and red wildflowers. I walked slowly—I could hardly see my feet beneath the thick vegetation, and there were hidden channels, dips and muddy spots that I could easy stumble into. I didn’t want to venture too far, just far enough to get a feel for this place.
Finding an old log to sit on, I spent some time there, taking in a view of Goose Spit and studying the plants around me: a spike of arrow-grass by my right foot, and over to the left a tall white bog-orchid with a sweet scent. Further over, there was a mass of paintbrush and camas in bloom, tangled with yellow buttercups.
The colours of the paintbrush were surprisingly variable—yellow-cream, orange and red, some pale and some intense. The camas is one of the most striking of our wildflowers with twisted buds of an unreal-looking turquoise colour that open into bright purple-blue flowers. En masse, they put on quite a show. Back in May, these same flats were coloured pink from the blooms of shooting stars. There is more to come too—soon there will be purple spring-bank clover, and tall pink spikes of Henderson’s checker mallow, a hollyhock-like plant.
I have to confess that for years I never took much notice of the estuary. Even now, life gets busy and I haven’t been out here or looked at these flowers for quite a while. Like most of us, I drive from Courtenay to Comox along Comox Road and make passing-glances at the estuary without really engaging with it.
It was a different perspective, to sit out here. The sounds of the human world, the traffic and airplanes were constant, but I began to tune them out. I found myself listening to the piercing call of a yellow warbler, and the sound of the wind riffling through the sedges. This small pocket of wildness, really just a remnant, had an element of timelessness. The sights and sounds of today, the camas, paintbrush and buttercup and the warbler’s song were likely much the same a thousand years ago. In a world of constant, bewildering change, this simple fact is reassuring.
Here, I had a direct link to the past, and I could begin to imagine what the estuary was like when it was wild, and when ancient peoples lived here. Further out on the mudflats, there are thousands of wooden stakes, some over a thousand years old that were used to capture then-plentiful salmon. The plants around me were a source of food and medicine. Camas bulbs were dug up, steamed and eaten every spring. Perhaps I romanticize, but I often wonder what it was like to live so intimately with the land, and to have a deeper connection to/knowledge of the landscape and all of its creatures. Today, briefly out of a modern context, I tried to forge my own connections—or at least acquaint myself with this ancient piece of the estuary that has endured for a millennium or more.
The Courtenay River estuary is highly regarded; it is one of eight class-one estuaries in the province. Though it has been severely altered by humans since the 1860s, the estuary is still a rich place for wildlife, supporting 145 species of birds, 218 species of plants, 29 species of fish and countless intertidal creatures.
Protecting and restoring our estuary is a huge task, and there is much work to be done. Many organizations work tirelessly on behalf of the estuary and the rivers and streams that feed into it. Salmon enhancement, restoring original habitat, invasive plant removal, garbage cleanup, public education, monitoring birds, and land acquisition are just some of the activities and goals of these mostly volunteer-run societies.
The population of the Comox Valley has doubled in the last 20 years, putting increasing pressure on our lands. Sensitive habitats and agriculture fields continue to be usurped for development. Though parts of the estuary are protected, there is still much that is unprotected and threatened. We have to work hard as a community, to look after this beautiful, special place that is a key part of our cultural and natural heritage.
The Keeping it Living (keepingitliving.ca) campaign, launched by Project Watershed, has greatly increased awareness of the Courtenay River estuary. Visit projectwatershed.ca for upcoming public events in the Experience the Estuary series: next up is a beach seine on Saturday June 16 at 9:30 at the Comox Road viewing stand.
There are several places with fine views of the estuary. Take a walk around the Courtenay Airpark, or stop at the viewing stand along Comox Road. Kayaking and canoeing are also great ways to explore the estuary up-close.
Jocie Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org