Friday, January 13, 2006


It is the middle of winter and I just had the pleasure of walking in one of the rarest ecosystems in Canada. Clusters of bright red berries hung off the abundant Arbutus trees, with smooth orange bark and twisted limbs, fully covered by lush green leaves. Amongst the living trees stood the occasional stark black tree stripped of all its colour by a blight that has killed many Arbutus trees on Vancouver Island in the past decade. The array of colour was further dampened by the gray bark of the Garry oak which are bare except for bright spots of moss and hanging lichens. Most of the ground was covered by leaves with patches of exposed yellow grass, and in between the trees the green of sharp leafed Oregon Grape in such profusion that I can not recall every seeing that much of it anywhere else. A black-tailed deer popped out of the woods but disappeared after taking one look at me.

Both the Federal and Provincial Ministries of Environment have identified the Garry oak ecosystem as rare and red-listed them as endangered. They are considered to be on the brink of extinction. While a plant community is identified by its most dominate species, the entire ecology is dependent upon the other parts that make up the whole. Many bulbs and smaller plants die out if the trees that protect them from the elements are removed. The BC Conservation Data Centre concluded: “At least 694 species, subspecies, and varieties of plants have been identified in Garry oak and associated ecosystems in British Columbia. Garry oak ecosystems are home to more plant species than any other terrestrial ecosystem in coastal British Columbia.”

Ecosystems that are associated with the Garry oak include maritime meadows, coastal bluffs, vernal pools, grasslands, rock outcrops, and mixed transitional forests. All of these appear in small areas around the Nanoose peninsula. The Notch of Nanoose is that big hill many of us see from a distance as we drive to Nanaimo. The top of this rocky hill and the southern exposed slope is home to a ecosystem known as Garry oak/Arbutus while the gullies in between are Garry oak/ Oceanspray, and the northeastern face, as well as most of the rocky Nanoose point, is made up of Douglas-fir/Arbutus. All three of these distinct but closely related plant communities are present on the Nanoose peninsula.

Over the years I have seen many rare plants on the Notch, in particular flowers that grow only in close proximity to the Garry oak. I have also seen rare birds like the Turkey Vulture which was once considered extinct in these parts. A Golden Eagle allowed me to view it for 20 minutes as it perched on top of a stunted old growth Douglas Fir looking at the open field below for small mammals. The distinct golden feathers on the nape of its neck and fully feathered legs were proof of its species, then it spread its giant wings gracefully and soared away with the breeze. Even in the winter I have heard flocks of Chickadee, Pine Siskin and Kinglet feeding on the many seeds, berries, cones, and insects found amongst the trees.

I have been hiking along the windy paths of Nanoose for over thirty years and still enjoy walking in this rare and endangered ecosystem. I started hiking over this rocky terrain before Schooner Cove or Fairwinds were built. In those days the trenches gauged out by the passing of the glacier were flooded most of the winter but turned into bog wetlands in the summer drought. Dams have changed all that and now the water is held back to supply the golf course with water. Rock has been blasted and crushed to make way for roads and building sites. Its true that the entire area was logged over fifty years ago but in those days the rock outcrops would have been ignored because they had only stunted trees which were no good for lumber. Today those same spots are prized for the view they provide. The delicate balance of water, rocky outcrops, forest, meadows, and wildlife is constantly encroached upon by people.

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