I heard the river call my name

Stoltz Pool on the Cowichan River

Yesterday, as part of the University of Victoria’s Restoration Institute, it was an honour to spend the day with a number of restoration specialists and restorationists in the Cowichan River valley near Duncan, north of Victoria, BC. People who do this kind of work are just plain nice, caring folks. Melissa Noel, Coordinator of the Coastal Invasive Plant Council of BC, planned and organized the field trip.

Red-breasted sapsucker by the Cowichan River

As we began our walk along the river, we were joined by this spectacular fellow on the right, a red-breasted sapsucker. Judging by the number of holes in some of the trees and snags, these Northwest coast specialty birds are abundant here.

We spent the morning exploring the Stoltz Pool area of the Cowichan River Provincial Park with our guides: BC Parks staffer Don Clossen; Coastal Invasive Plant Committee chair Jeff Hallworth; Ken Elliott of Ken’s Native Plant Nursery, the Cowichan River Hatchery and the Cowichan Tribes; and Project Manager/Fisheries Specialist James Craig of the BC Conservation Foundation. In the afternoon, Ken showed us around the Hatchery and his native plant nursery.

The river's banks are constantly changing

Many of us–including me–used to think that a river is set in its ways, and that a flood is a disastrous, unnatural thing. But people used to understand that rivers changed course naturally, and that a flood plain was there for a reason. Ken Elliott described how in his young days, houses in the village at the mouth of the Cowichan River were raised on redcedar blocks, the local form of “stilts”, to protect them when water levels rose.

While change is constant, one unwelcome change in the Cowichan Valley is the appearance of introduced plants, which–if left to their own devices–may become invasive and choke out native plants. “Hot Spot” crews from the Coastal Invasive Plant Committee have been working to control these unwelcome guests, although cutbacks to those who cut them back threaten the gains already made.

Knotweeds quickly grow taller than a basketball player and choke out native plants and animals

Along the river, Bohemian knotweed (a hybrid cousin of Japanese knotweed) is a bamboo-like “escaped ornamental” that spreads by underground rhizomes or even tiny fragments of crown or stem, choking out native plants and  threatening spawning salmon. Note how high it is, even relatively early in the season.

On the bright side, gains have been made. Ken explained how Cowichan ancestors fished along the river, making their way up to Lake Cowichan, and stopping about halfway at the Stoltz Pool area. In recent years, meadows have been cleared of Scotch Broom and other unpleasant introductions, revealing “gardens” of First Nations food plants including Camas (for the bulbs), Nodding Onion and Yarrow (for tea).

Close-up of native honeysuckle by the Cowichan River in June

You can also spot cheerful native honeysuckle at this time of year. It’s bright orange, fragrant, extremely healthy, and beloved by the hummingbirds.

We also spent time exploring the Stoltz Bluffs. While they’re natural, human interference and “development” over the past 70 years or so have worsened the impact of the sediment they release on the river’s fragile salmon fry. A few years ago, community groups, government and industry combined their forces in the largest restoration project in British Columbia–stabilizing the bluffs. It looks good so far. Scientific results of the effects will start trickling in this summer.

The Stoltz Bluffs erode naturally but some human intervention is helping salmon on the river

After a chilly but enjoyable picnic lunch by the river, we joined Ken at the Cowichan River Hatchery and his native plant nursery near the mouth of the Cowichan River. (You can find some video clips of Ken speaking on the Non-Timber Forest Products educational site at UVic here.) Ken told us how his life changed and he heard the earth call him after a serious vehicle accident. He has dedicated his life to the salmon of the river and the native plants of the Cowichan Valley ever since.

Coho salmon fry at the Cowichan Hatchery

We got to see some rearing pens with some very healthy coho salmon fry that will soon be released into the river, whence they’ll make their way to the Salish Sea and Pacific Ocean, hopefully to return in a few years. We walked along the river nearby to view the habitat restoration projects that Ken oversees. Many school and community groups have been involved in planting, as Ken values community involvement and ownership. That said, Ken will be responsible for watering 600 newly planted trees during the upcoming dry season!

(L to R) Bigleaf maple, Douglas maple, Ken Elliott

Our region’s Bigleaf maples are hard to miss, with their massive trunks and leaves bigger than a celebrity’s head. Ken pointed out the much more modestly sized Douglas maple as well. In this photo, the Bigleaf is on the left, while the Douglas is on the right closer to Ken.

Ken displays wapato tubers--note the disk shapes

Here, Ken shows off a wapato tuber. Also known as arrowhead, arrow leaf and by its scientific name, Sagittaria latifolia, it’s a traditional food source. Ken’s experimenting with growing it commercially as a food plant.