I've lived in Port Alberni for most of my adult life. I worked as a professional forester until a few years before retirement. I specialized in silviculture; that is the regeneration and tending of young stands of trees, and in forest inventory. I have spent an awful lot of time in the old and young forests and in clearcuts on Vancouver Island, in all kinds of weather. I have always watched birds and been interested in the natural world that sustains us. And toward the end of my working like, I spent a few years showing people how wonderful this part of the world is.
Six kilometers south of Port Alberni, just past the shop yard where logging machinery is repaired, there is a trail head. There is no sign announcing it; just a turnout in the road to Bamfield. A big yellow gate. bars access to a road that leads into a big gravel pit. There are no signs that tell a person which, of a myriad of tracks, leads to a very impressive waterfall.
The hike to China Creek is perhaps 25 minutes, Ten to get to the junction at the creek and another 15 to climb up to the Falls. The last part of the trail is steep up onto a bluff overlooking the creek, and then there is a very steep scramble to get a view of the falls from bottom. The trail goes a bit further upstream for a view from the top.
Hiking downstream is very easy and fun. You come across three clear beautiful pools to loiter by for a picnic a swim or to just skip rocks. You might find swimming a little bit cool as the water comes from snow melting up high. In mid April you’ll find an impressive show of Pink Fawn Lilies (Erythronium revolutum for the naturalists).
The path along the creek ends where the McFarlane Creek joins the main stem. From there a path heads uphill toward the gate where vehicles park…I think! I have never explored that one.
The post about the Beaver Ponds received a surprising about of attention; 2,500 views in 2 days and several requests to keep people informed. So I thought I would follow up with another post to do just that.
First I tried to find out who owns the property. After paying a small fee, I got a BC Company Summary that told me that a numbered company owned it, and that the last annual report was last June 1st. It also gave a street address on Argyle St. It did name a local realtor as director though. So I went to see him. I found out that the information for that company is out of date, he is still a director, but not the one that should be listed and that the property was sold recently.
I also spoke with Scott Smith, the Director of Development Services. He said that he had not received any development proposals for this property. I took that to be a good sign in that nothing will happen on the property until it is approved by the city. A property cannot be developed and built on until there is a Building Permit in place. And a Building Permit cannot be issued until there a Development Permit is in Place. Currently, in the Official Community Plan (OCP), there is no Development Permit over this property. So nothing will be built without going through City Hall. Before any construction a change to the OCP, is required.
So that means any suspicious looking company with only a number for its name will not be showing up unannounced and clearing the land. The City is involved. And there is a process that insures that the public has a say.
Also, Smith reports that “the City of Port Alberni has not received any development application for the property.” Informally talks may be going on. Although that is pure speculation, I’d imagine that it would have to occur in the process of creating an application that meets all the requirements set down in law, and the provincial regulations and City bylaws. That’s normal.
Smith also reports that they are well aware of the issues. They have been getting calls from people.
So maintaining the diversity and the ambience of the place comes down to applying the regulations and biological opinions of professionals in an appropriate way. Of all the creatures in and around the ponds the Western Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii ~ Pacific coast population) is the one of most concern because it is listed as a Species At Risk under the federal Species at Risk Act. The City of Nanaimo has had previous experience with Western Painted Turtles and have directed a developer to modify their project near Buttertubs Marsh.
As everyone beavers are also present in the ponds. Because of that consideration must be given to the amount of habitat that is available for foraging and maintaining their lodges and dams as well as maintaining a wildlife corridor for them to travel to other populations.
There are nesting Mallards Wood Ducks, and Hooded Mergansers that nest in the area. I have seen a female Wood Duck entering and leaving a certain hole in a dead Douglas fir on the lower pond. However as long as there enough pond life the Wood Ducks and mergansers can get by if nest boxes are provided.
So at this point we just have to see what is proposed, when the application shows up at the City. Then we will see what measures are proposed to account for the concerns we all have and we will also see who the owner(s) of the property is.
Here’s an interesting illustration of what underplanting is. Not all trees can germinate and grow in shade cast by the overstory. Douglas fir is an example. But cedar and hemlock and can. These cedar were planted along the Log Train Trail at the Burde Street Entrance. About 8-10 years ago Frank Stini’s crew planted them. Port Alberni resident, Dave Jarret says he was one of the ones who helped plant them; he’d know exactly when they went in the ground.
Anyway, look at them now! A new forest is developing as the older trees, the Alder, are getting toward the end of their life. Within 20 years, less than a lifetime. Most pf the alder will have died and the cedar will be free to grow.
More likely though, this path could be lined by a housing development in the same time period.
However, there is another part of the city where this kind of environmental enhancement would be appropriate: the Roger Creek floodplain. The pathways that were built along the banks of the creek have revealed a large area of old and dying alder. The understory is full of salmonberry. Within 20 years all that will remain will be a jungle of salmonberry, unless some planting is done. Primarily that should be cedar, except where there is enough sun for Sitka Spruce or Douglas Fir.
These trees would be long lived, provide shade to Roger Creek, the droppings from the trees, branches leaves bugs and larvae would provide habitat for the fish in the creek. Eventually when they die, they can provide provide coarse woody debris (logs, branches, and root wads) for fish to hide under. They would also absorb carbon in a location that would be secure for many generations.
It’s a bit of a pipe dream though, isn’t it? Maybe not. Perhaps some resourceful organization will step forward and secure some grant money and get it done.
There are two unique ponds way up Burde Street by the Log Train Trail. I think most local people have heard of them. They are unique for several reasons. Being just off the Log Train Trail, they are very accessible and because of that they get an enormous amount of visitors, particularly since the pandemic started. These ponds are an ideal location for students, and the public to watch wildlife and learn the basics of the natural world. They have beavers in them, a variety of colourful ducks year-round, and Western Painted Turtles. These turtles are listed as endangered by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) because of major loss of wetlands and a rapid increase in roads, development, and people. The lower one has an additional unique feature in that a ring of Yellow Flag, or Iris grows around the edge of it. The Yellow Flag is highly invasive. But it provides a spectacular display of colour in May. Beside this pond is a spot with a wonderful wrought iron bench is chained to a root and provides a relaxing view of the pond. My thanks to “Frank”, who must have placed it there. He tells us to enjoy the pond in a note written on the back of it.
The property around them was once considered semi-rural. But since the city extended their boundary to end of the road, a lot of houses have been built on the other side of the street, with more under construction.
I spoke to a real estate agent about the property. He seemed to know something about it. But he said he was bound by confidentiality in being able speak to plans for property. However, he was able to say that he was impressed that the owners are looking to develop the area in a greener manner than has ever been tried here. He further said that they would be announcing proposed plans for the property, along with another property west of the Log Train Trail soon.
The beavers in the ponds have been there for years and years. Being the headwaters of a creek known locally as Wolf Creek, the beavers likely followed the creek up from Roger Creek. Two beaver dams are located where the upper pond empties into a creek that feeds the lower pond, that in turn, empties under the Log Train Trail, where more dams are located. When they moved in and built them, the beavers raised the level of the ponds. As a result, large trees died around the edges providing homes for a variety of, first, woodpeckers, and then swallows, starlings, Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks. It is the beaver that maintain the water level of the ponds with their activities. If they should be so disturbed by development that they leave, or die for some reason, the dams will eventually break and the water levels will drop significantly.
The north edge of the property is the City Limit. Beyond that is the Hupacasath’s Woodlot Licence. It provides older forest and a wilder habitat connection to both ponds, particularly the upper pond, because the pond extends about 50 meters into the Woodlot.
From a regulatory perspective, the entire property except for the ponds and a small area around the lower one is proposed for Future Residential in the City’s Community Plan. And the Zoning map shows low density multiple family residential around the upper pond with lower density single family residential being further away from them. To reduce the activity around the ponds, it should be the reverse with the multiple family residential being further away. In fact development between the two ponds should not occur. And to that end I suggest that part of this property could be subdivided and offered to an organization such as The Land Conservancy of BC, or Ducks Unlimited for safe keeping. A community campaign to purchase the property could support the offer.
Being modestly more remote, the upper pond is the more sensitive of the two. It is where the turtles live and where the most ducks spend their time. This zoning map shows how fragile the future wildlife in the ponds is.
I know I am not the only one who is concerned about the effect of future development in the area. I have heard rumblings from various people. And the real estate agent I spoke to added verification to it when he acknowledged that he has heard them too. Here we are playing with the headwaters of a highly endangered fish creek that drains into another highly endangered fish creek, Roger Creek. The area is also very popular with the public as it is part of a highly developed network of trails and is used for walking dogs, woodland running, and childhood adventures. City council needs to reconsider its planning for this area before considering any plans put forward by a developer.
A couple of weeks ago, several staff from the City met with Lyman Jardin and me at the footbridge over Roger Creek to discuss possible routes to create a path from the “bridge to nowhere” off the end of the Scott Kenny Trail, to Roger Creek Park. This route has been promoted as part of a pedestrian system through the city.
City CAO, Tim Pley introduced the new City Engineer, Rob Dickinson, and Rob Gaudreault before heading off. We climbed down from the railway tracks to Roger Creek observing the obvious signs of potential slides and slope failure, and then hiked through the brush along the south side of the creek. We got as far as the proposed bridge crossing that would bring the trail to the south side. It has to cross the creek, as there are big gravel cliffs and old slides along the north side just downstream. There is no possibility through the upper part of the north side.
Of course we talked the entire time. Eventually it was determined that there are three possible routes:
The South Side Riparian choice seems to be the one preferred by the city staff. They were pushing it during the conversation. Dickinson remarked that you can build anything if you have enough money. You can’t argue with that. But there are some issues with this choice. It is the one that will have the biggest impact on the Salmon left in Roger Creek.
It still is a fish creek, despite many habitat damages along it besides logging. But it is a shadow of what it once was in former times. A land fill was located on its bank. A storm water drainage pipe empties into a settling pond behind the fair grounds. There are now 5 bridges across its lower reaches. The Scott Kenny Trail has opened up the forest along its banks exposing the creek to dangerously elevated temperatures in the summer. Side channels for rearing and overwintering salmon, and settling pond for the storm water runoff were constructed at the same time as the trail. This opened up a large area to the heat of the sun. But all of them are stagnant, unsuitable habitat for salmon. A reforestation reforestation attempt was done clumsily, and a crucial part of it around the rearing channel failed. A number of vehicles were pushed over the rime and are there still. And over the last few years someone has been dumping fill into the creek near the mouth of the creek.
Yet still, it is considered a fish creek. There are 9 kms of suitable habitat before a waterfall barrier prevents further habitat use upstream. Signs are up in Roger Creek Park telling them about salmon and the salmonid habitats of the creek. In 2017 during construction of the Scott Kenny Trail, a settling pond and rearing channels was built, as well as 2 other side channels further down. And I have photos of Coho parr from 2014. And there have been other efforts as well to enhance habitat and restore fish to it.
All that aside, the most contentious part of the proposed path is the 100 meters just upstream from the Roger Creek pedestrian bridge. Here the rail trestle crosses the creek. And the cement support columns stand at the very edge of the creek. Every fall and winter the base these columns are washed by the flooding creek. There is no place to put a path under the bridge unless it is elevated above the highest water mark and supported by one of these columns; or unless the city gets special dispensation from Fisheries and Oceans.
The South Side Riparian route also follows the base of a very steep muddy bank with a recent slide scar on it and plenty of other signs of slope instability. At the bottom of the bank is Roger Creek. There is a very high probability that any construction at the base or along the bank (such as cutting trees and brush), would cause a slide. And again any path constructed would infringe on the creek itself because there is so little room below the bank. Can we take that chance on a salmon run that is in such a precarious state?
The Lower North Side, follows a route similar to the South Side Riparian Route, but after half way the path would cross the creek and go under the column on the north side of the creek. Again it would infringe on the creek as it is as wide as the columns. However the slope stability issues are not present. In their place though is the fact that the path would impinge on the private party of an influential citizen who has made it clearly known that he would not permit this to happen in his own back yard.
The third possibility that I like is to climb the ravine from further upstream and connect either to the north end of Glenwood Drive, or follow the edge of two properties where there is an existing rough and sketchy trail to the railway tracks. This route eliminates slope stability issues. But near the top it is steeper and may require steps near the top.
It also means dealing with two private property owners. However, these owners may be more sympathetic to the cause. One of them is JW Berry Trucking who has already acknowledged that there is a lot of foot traffic along the back of his property by building a path of his own. The other property is owned by Heatherington Battery. And they keep porta-potties inside a tall chain-link fence. The existing “trail” is at the very top of the ravine, at the top of the very unstable slope. Tim Pley made a remark that gave me the impression that Hetherington might be amenable to selling a ten-foot strip along the north end of his property, enabling a safer path to be built away from the top of the ravine. That would get the route to the right-of-way of the railway tracks.
The right-of-way is owned by the Island Corridor Foundation. Pley was doubtful whether the Island Corridor Foundation would be amenable to permitting pedestrian traffic to cross the railway lines. After all their purpose is to restore the rail line. There may be a possibility of constructing steps down from the Hetherington property and under the tracks between the south column and the approach embankment. There is a fairly level spot there and then more steps will easily take you down to the approach to the south end of the footbridge. All of the proposed routes will cross the right-of way of the Island Corridor Foundation whether over the tracks or under them.
Of course it all comes down to money. Pley says that the City is able to write a proposal for a million dollars that will enable them to get the money. However, they still haven’t consulted fisheries for their opinion/conditions, or a geotech about slope stability. Nor has any engineering been done. I understand that some of the grant money will go towards that. And what’s designed will be contingent on what fisheries and the geotech has to say, as well as the Island Corridor Foundation’s permission.
It should also be contingent on a decision that the city must make about the level of access that is desired. Is the path going to be wheel-chair-accessible, or accessible for cyclists? Or will it be accessible to pedestrians able to climb steps. From there plans can be made and estimates of cost after that. I hope that this third alternative, the one along the top of the ravine, is not dismissed and left un-costed. Then we will see whether the costs of each alternative are reasonable or whether this trail will even be built, period. Personally, I think this is ambition to have a trail continue down Roger Creek to the park is a tough nut to crack if the City Council demands gentle grades for this trail.
Today I stumbled upon a very interesting historical document in the clutter that is my office. It was written by a former Manager of Public Works in the City of Port Alberni in 1993, five years after he retired. It’s called City of Alberni Water Supply Systems 1890-1993. And Although Hole-in-the-Wall is not specifically mentioned dams upstream and downstream of it are. And three those dams are still there. The lowest one by the railway trestle is gone. I tried scanning the document into a PDF. But sadly my technical skills aren’t up to doing that. So here are 3 JPGs that I hope are legible.
There is a debate in town about whether this place should be a tourist attraction. Some say it already is. Others say “keep it as is”. And other issues swirl around it. The actual location of the hole is on land owned by the City of Port Alberni, but getting to it is on land controlled by Mosaic Forest Management. They are not known for welcoming people on their property without due notice. And there is more stuff too. Here are a few shots of it to illustrate what else is there.
I was surprised to see a majority of people responding negatively to the Alberni Valley News poll on making the Hole-in-the-Wall a tourist attraction. A convincing majority are against it. But a poll on something like this is mostly answered by people who haven’t given the issue any thought, or looked into the issues. Still, it is daunting. Something needs to be done whether the majority is against it or not.
I Googled Hole-in-the-Wall to see how many sites promoted it. I stopped counting sites mentioning Hole-in-the-Wall at 50. They include, the Chamber of Commerce, a three hiking apps, Trip Advisor, Flickr, several blogs, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, and many, many more. There is even a Chinese language site featuring it. Word-of-mouth is also an important factor in the popularity of the site. Closing the attraction without notifying all these sites would result in a lot of unhappy visitors, and damage to Port Alberni’s fragile reputation for tourism.
Crowds start in April and go into October at both entrances. They are regularly plugged up with vehicles, with the overflow going into Coombs Country Candy. Erosion, trampling and garbage are also an issue.
Ask the RCMP how many accidents, near misses, and incidents have happened around Coombs Country Candy, and the Black Powder Range Road. Then there are the people who find no parking and park at the candy store. Then they scamper across the highway, some taking chances with the traffic because of their impatience.
It’s not just the Hole-in-the-Wall that is the attraction, although it is a pretty good name. Across the road we have a lookout, a trail network, downhill mountain bike courses, and a starting point for ATV adventures. Also, Coombs Country Candy is definitely part of the attraction. It is a wonderful spot to relax after any of these activities. The owner, Murray Lawlor, tells me it is very much a part of the success of his business. But he worries about the risks that people who park at Coombs Country Candy take when they cross the highway.
It is high time that the Regional District, Mosaic, Highways, and Lawlor sit down and come up with a plan. Investment is necessary. To Mosaic, I say that there may be a way to lease some property and therefore get some revenue from the land, perhaps from admission charges. Those same admission charges could also pay for the investment in parking, way-finding, and maintenance. Perhaps also, a resort developer could work with the parties to add value to the area.
It is easy to throw out ideas. Perhaps some of them will spark an idea in someone’s head, who is better positioned than I am to make things happen. Leading public opinion is an important quality of leadership. I have to trust that our leaders agree. But I think something has to change, because the alternative is increased degradation of the attraction itself.
The Estuary of the Somass River is a very special place. It has been part of the lifeblood of this valley since time immemorial. And in a time when the salmon populations in this river are at historic lows any construction activity occurring within the remaining 30% of the original estuary should of concern to every citizen of the valley, including this one. Admittedly, it is late in the game to be taking such an interest, I still thought it would be a good topic to investigate.
A week ago, Jim Wright and I met Ken Watson at the gate to the road into the wastewater treatment plant under construction on the Somass Estuary. He is the Acting City Engineer. For those who don’t know, Ken has spent most of his career with the City, mostly as the City Engineer, and Chief Administrator. After retirement he was asked to return to act temporarily as Engineer until a permanent one was in the job. So we had an experienced guide to give the tour of the new wastewater treatment plant.
After donning our safety gear, Ken led us through the process. The current wastewater from the city flows through a very large pipe under Somass River and then underground to the currently operating lagoon. From there, a new pipe will extend from the old lagoon to the new lagoon and then into the new screening building. There the water goes through a ½ inch screen. It removes the hard bits like personal products, rags and other things that inadvertently end up in the sewer system. The screened debris ends up in the landfill. The water then goes into a much larger lagoon once used by the paper mill and bought by the city a couple of years ago for this purpose. It has eight times the volume that the current lagoon has. Watson says, “The new lagoon is more cost-effective, and effective”.
Across the lagoon are a series of floating booms. These will be part of the aeration system. Hanging from the booms, there will be 485 weighted diffusers which pump air bubbles up through the water. The oxygen is used by the fecal bacteria to render the “poop” harmless. I asked Watson ‘”What happens to all the organic matter? Doesn’t it turn to sludge?” The answer I got was that very little sludge was actually produced. Even the old lagoon dredge didn’t produce much sludge. In his career at the City he only remembers it being dredged 3 times. The organic matter is oxidized, that is “burned” by the bacteria releasing the carbon as carbon dioxide.
After the aeration treatment, the water is pumped into another building where it is irradiated with ultra-violet (UV) light. This kills all any pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses, left in the water. UV radiation uses no chemicals, and little energy. So it is highly effective.
Once irradiated, the water finished treatment. it is pumped 800 meters out into the inlet. Watson is confident that the water will easily meet the current standards set down by the Province and Federal Government. The effluent will be far cleaner than the current lagoon, which has needed replacement to meet current wastewater standards for many years.
This has been a lengthy project. Construction has been ongoing for almost two years. Although it appears to be nearing completion, it is not expected to be in operation until early summer next year. Currently, the electrical power required to operate the system is being upgraded. Also 8 pylons now emerge from the pond. They are to support two pump stations needed to pump the water to the UV operation. Then the new sewage inflow needs to be attached to the existing inflow for the current lagoon. This needs to be done during a “fisheries window”, that is at a time where there is little impact on fish. That window is next spring. So by next summer after a couple of tests, it will be in operation.
The next step is deciding what to do with the old lagoon. Its construction took up highly productive salmon habitat. The obvious solution would be to re-establish it. However design objectives, methods and techniques are not as obvious. And it will cost money. Also, it is a popular place for the public to go for walks. So, some do not want to see the road access around this lagoon go away. Others want better connectivity for the smolts coming down to the ocean to linger in the estuary while they adapt to salt water. This would mean creating a gap in that road and also perhaps a defined channel for the water from the river to flow into Shoemaker Bay. There are a lot of alternatives. And the City has committed to a public engagement process before the design stage. That is expected to start in the New Year. So if you are one of those walkers, naturalists, birders or dog lovers who frequent the area, keep an eye out for public notices on this. And voice your opinion.
The following article was published in Nov 1017 in the Alberni Valley News. So some of the information is not current in this year of Covid 19.
I think Sproat Falls is one of the most over-looked tourist attractions in the Alberni valley. Despite it being less than 100 meters from the Highway 4 Bridge over the Sproat River, the falls are scarcely even visible from it and there are no signs to indicate that it is there. A million people a year are reputed to travel this highway a year. Many of them are from out of province, out of country and out of continent. It’s a big trip for them. They have all heard about the salmon migration, and whether they are fishermen or not, they would love an opportunity to see the migration in action.
Sproat Falls is a place where at least 100,000 sockeye salmon pass every year with the majority passing between mid-June and mid-July. At that time the abundance of fish is impressive. It could be very easy for the travelling public to stop for a few minutes in their headlong dash to the Pacific Rim. The fish ladder there, the cliff and the old forest perched on and around it combine to make it quite scenic. And it’s hardly even a detour.
The area should be a park of some sort. In fact, it almost is. Part of the area is designated Park Use on the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District’s Official Community Plan (OCP) for the area and it is Crown Land. But there are some hurdles, and a bit of leg work to actually make it so.
There are 5 properties involved. and possibly the Klehkoot Indian Reserve belonging to the Hupacasath. Of the five, only the two biggest properties are public lands, Seaton Park, and the pie-shaped property adjacent the Park. Seton Park belongs to the City of Port Alberni, God knows why. The other property is an isolated chunk of Crown Land. It shades Highway 4 with some nice old forest. Through both properties goes an old grade some call Brand Avenue. It starts at the end of Hector Road and ends just above the Highway 4 Bridge.
Adjacent to the Crown Land toward the bridge, are two small properties, one on each side of the old grade. They are jammed between the Sproat River and Highway 4. The one next to the highway is privately owned and has an old log cabin on it and is not likely part of what I’m proposing. The one next to the river is undeveloped and likely could never be developed because the setbacks for buildings required by the Regional District virtually eliminate any possibility for building on it. However useless it may seem, it is privately owned. Finally just before the bridge there is a smaller parcel of Island Timberlands property that also has little value for the same reason. Just past Faber Road on the right is a rough gravel road that leads down to Brand Ave. Brand Ave actually passes under the highway bridge. It would join the old Ash Main if it were not for the string of boulders across the road.
This road has been on the ACRD’s radar for a while because of the fact that is a popular spot for illegal dumping. Sproat Lake District Board Member, Penny Cote says that because Highways considers this Gazetted road, it is blocking the Regional District’s ambition to establish a vehicle-free corridor along the river, thus frustrating people’s ability to dump garbage along it. It is however blocked by several large boulders under the bridge.
So clearly, there is some legwork to be done. The owner of the private property needs to be contacted to see if could be sold to the Regional District and a price set. Another option could be through a covenant or some other creative arrangement. Similarly, a negotiation has to take place with Island Timberlands. The Regional District also needs to talk to both the city of Port Alberni and the Province. A plan needs to be drawn up for parking washroom facilities and perhaps a fence along the top of the cliff. This adds up to a fair bit of staff time. And the cost to acquire the properties and to install the facilities may not be exactly modest.
It comes down to political will. Is the current or future Regional District board willing to make the effort. They have taken some steps along the way. It is in the Sproat Lake OCP. They have established a Parks Service Review Committee. And they are exploring ways of acquiring and funding a Regional Park system. In 2015 they produced a Parks & Trails Strategic Plan where a framework for the acquisition and establishment for parks and trails was laid out. Buried at the end of Appendix A, the Public Wish List, these properties are mentioned. Clearly from a local’s perspective, this area is a very low priority. From the travelling public’s perspective it is completely unknown. That is why I say it is the most overlooked tourist attraction in the Alberni Valley.
Patti, my wife, says that people she had talks to would like to see some references about things I talks about.