A couple of weeks ago I was watching Global News at Six. A story about the future of the Squamish Spit came on. As I watched, I realised that they had exactly the same issue that we have here in our estuary with respect to Chinook salmon smolts.
In their case, a long narrow berm of fill was built out onto the mudflat of the Squamish River many years ago. It was to serve as part of a coal port that never materialized. The trouble with it is that this “Squamish Spit” separates the river that salmon smolts descend, from the estuary the estuary where they adapt to salt water. For salmon, especially Chinook Salmon, estuaries are critical habitats. Chinook Salmon more dependent on the estuaries than any other salmon species .
Conservationists have long recognised the situation and have called for the berm to be removed. But they are opposed by the Squamish Windsports society who regard their access to the winds of Howe Sound as “Canada’s Premier Kite-boarding Location. It looks like the windsports society is not going to win this one and that the spit will be breached to allow the smolts access to the rest of the estuary.
It you substitute a couple of lagoons for the spit, you have the same situation right here in Port Alberni. All the Chinook Salmon smolts have to travel out into the inlet, around our wastewater lagoons and Johnstone Island.
The Alberni Valley Enhancement Association was able to secure funds to conduct a study of juvenile Chinook use of the estuary and confirmed a similar situation exists here at the mouth of the Somass River.
From the report: “Much of the estuary’s eastern shoreline (river-side) has been hardened through industrial, commercial and residential development, and much of the western estuary (i.e., Phil’s Bench area) has been cut-off from direct river connectivity by historic diking and channel-filling practices. Salmon fry and smolts attempting to rear in central and western reaches of the estuary must now migrate around the south end of Johnstone Island (which is no longer an island), and move passively or actively back on-shore in order to find suitable habitats. Given their relatively small size and limited swimming ability, it is problematic whether a majority of naturally-spawned Chinook fry can successfully complete this journey each spring.
So the AVEA recognised this situation and secured funds to replace a part of the access road between the ponds with a small bridge. However, it was recognised that the wastewater effluent from the old pond, that currently empties into the river would then also flow into the lagoon and ruin the water quality. So a dam was built as a temporary solution until the new wastewater plant was completed. The new plant discharges underwater 800m out into the harbour.
I mentioned that the bridge is a small one. Indeed it is. It is only 4 or 5 m across. The other two bridges over flood channels to the are almost twice as big.
Unfortunately the design of the new lagoon didn’t include a longer bridge, or another bridge. There is room to build one, but the opportunity to do so has likely been foreclosed. There is some hope that some of the money set aside for the decommissioning the old lagoon could be used to ensure that water flows freely under the bridge.
It is too bad that, unlike Squamish, this community doesn’t yet appreciate the importance of restoring the only part of the Somass Estuary that is relatively intact. it is only a third of its original size. No wonder the Chinook stocks are struggling.
It’s Oregon Ash; in Latin, it’s Fraxinus latifolia. And it has a confused story. One confusing thing about it is that besides the trees on Vancouver Island, the rest are in the United States. Another is that my sources are divided on whether it is a native tree, introduced, or naturalized.
The Conservation Data Centre of BC regards it as a native tree, and has designated it S1S2 which means imperiled or critically imperiled. But it muddies the situation when the report comments “Only 2 of the populations (Port Alberni and, Saanich) appear to be of native origin.” Apparently, they can also be found in some urban landscapes around Victoria and Duncan.
In the United States, the natural range of this tree extends through Puget Sound south to Southern California.
What’s it look like, you may wonder. It’s a deciduous broad-leafed tree. It doesn’t get all that tall. It is the only native tree around here that has a compound leaf. The seeds have wings similar to maple seeds. You’ll find it around wet fertile areas where there is lots of black organic mater, not peat.
I know where there are some specimens. But because they are considered imperiled you’ll have use torture to get me to say where. But I think there are more that haven’t been discovered. So if you are out for a walk, keep your eyes open for this tree.
But don’t mistake it for an introduced ash tree in someone’s yard. There are two other Ashes that are planted around here: European Ash and Green Ash. I’m going to leave how to tell these apart for you to research.
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.