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TSAWOUT NATIVE RESERVE - SALT SPRING ISLAND

Story and photos by

We had never heard of Garry oaks until we went hiking on Salt Spring Island, between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia (BC) mainland. Tsawout Native Reserve Land is located in southern Salt Spring, near Fulford Harbour.

Salt Spring Island map. BC Gulf Islands.
Salt Spring Island map. BC Gulf Islands.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Our guide was Michael Dunn, who works for the Canadian Wildlife Service, the Institute of Ocean Sciences and the Pacific Wildlife Research Centre. One of his projects is preserving the endangered Garry oak ecosystem.

Garry oak

Dunn opened our eyes to the ecological significance of Garry oaks and dozens of species associated with them. Without his astute observations, we would have traipsed past rare and critically important plants and animals, blithely unaware of their significance.

We followed Morningside, a quiet Salt Spring Island road, to the Tsawout Native Reserve Land. Along the way, Michael Dunn pointed out flaming torches, wild purple foxgloves and white Himalaya blackberry flowers, which resemble wild roses.

"Watch out for stinging nettle," he warned, as we edged into roadside grass to photograph a California quail and her baby. "It can cause rash and stinging. Dock, which usually grows nearby, is a good antidote. Nettles can be nutritious greens, if you steam them first, to destroy their stinging properties."

Flower-lined road to Tsawout Native Reserve Land
Flower-lined road to Tsawout Native Reserve Land
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Dunn held out his hat, brimming with wild strawberries. "Try some," he said. The tiny ruby fruits exploded with flavor, as we popped them into our mouths.

Both good and bad plants share the roadside. "This lemon balm is great in ice tea," noted Dunn, "but this yellow-flowered Scotch broom is an aggressive non-native invader that threatens shade intolerant plants. Settlers tied the branches together to make brooms. Now, we're trying to eradicate the shrubs."

Tsawout First Nation

Before we entered Tsawout Native Reserve, Michael Dunn explained that Coastal Salish people originally inhabited the land. When white settlers arrived in the Gulf Islands, in the mid-1800s, the displaced First Nations people moved to this Salt Spring Island location.

A sign, posted on a cedar tree, read: "To our friends: This land has been used by the Tsawout People from time beyond remembering. It is the only piece of Gulf Islands property left to us. Its name in our language is Wen, na', nec.

Hiking past red alders and red cedars
Hiking past red alders and red cedars
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"You are welcome to walk upon it. Please enjoy its beauty and tranquillity, but please respect our wishes about its use. These are: no fires, no camping, no garbage, no shellfish harvesting and no digging for artefacts. Thank you."

Coast Salish

As we walked over the spongy mulch and pine cone-covered forest floor, Michael Dunn pointed out middens where Coast Salish Native People dumped shells after eating butter clams and other shellfish. Shells were especially evident in one clearing, where middens surrounded dwelling pits.

Dunn showed us how to tell the difference between the deeply furrowed bark of Douglas firs and the vertically lined bark of the equally tall Western red cedars. "Carpenter ants love red cedars and pileated woodpeckers love carpenter ants," he said, showing us their rectangular excavations.

He carefully avoided stepping on a tiny but beautiful spotted coral root orchid, as he picked up an insect. The forest millipede was jet black with a yellow edge.

"This millipede processes and absorbs fir and pine needles. It exudes an almond scent, but don't sniff it," he advised. "It's cyanide gas."

Garry oak ecosystem

"If Garry oak trees don't survive, dozens of plant and animal species, dependent on them, are also at risk," said Dunn, as he patted the trunk of a gnarled Garry oak.

"Tsawout People harvested food and medicinal plants from Garry oak meadows. They ate wild onions and roasted camas lily bulbs. By using controlled burning, they kept the camas beds free of weeds and brush."

A natural grocery store surrounded us. "You can eat this miners' lettuce," he said, pointing to a plant with tiny white flowers.

"Douglas firs and onion grass also live in the Garry oak ecosystem. The bulbs at the bottom of onion grass taste like macadamia nuts."

The scent of salty air replaced the woodsy fragrance as we reached the Salt Spring Island coast. We climbed down to a gently curved beach, and rested on some driftwood logs.

Hiker overlooks beach where First Nations people pulled up their boats 100 years ago.
Hiker overlooks beach where First Nations people pulled up their boats 100 years ago.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Coast Salish People drew up their boats on these flat beaches, 100 years ago," said Dunn. "Over the years, measles, smallpox and other diseases, brought by settlers, decimated the First Nations population."

Pondering the loss, we listened to the lapping waves, the calls of black oystercatchers and the haunting echo of a BC Ferry. We silently hoped that it wasn't too late to save the Garry oak woodlands on Salt Spring Island.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Salt Spring Island: www.saltspringtourism.com

Tourism BC: www.hellobc.com

Tourism Vancouver Island: www.vancouverisland.travel

More things to see & do in the BC Gulf Islands:

BC Gulf Islands Romantic Getaway

Galiano Bike Tour

Saturna Island Vacation

Ruckle Park Hiking - Salt Spring Island BC