Walking at the Estuary

The last few weeks I’ve been walking at the Cowichan estuary, where I haven’t been in almost a year. Last time we had Silah with us, and she went ballistic on a dog that startled her by appearing around the bend in a bushy part of the trail. We decided that narrow trails with short sightlines weren’t that great for her if she was going to act this way when startled, so didn’t take her back to the estuary again.

But now there are limitations as to where she can go—open trails with lots of sightlines and where other dogs are on leash. So we walk up and down the road. We go to the beach half an hour away. We don’t go to the trestle trail (a converted railbed trail) because there are too many dogs off-leash. She’s become a bit unpredictable—sometimes she’s fine around other dogs, sometimes she barks and lunges.

I wanted to do more than just walk up the road and back, and since I hadn’t been to the estuary in so long I decided to go by myself. I went two days in a row—the first day was in the midst of a west coast snow storm, which means snow falling but not sticking to the ground. The next day it was clear and blue, with just a bit of a chill in the air.

The estuary walk is a U-shaped trail on top of a dike built to keep the seawater out of the farmer’s field. You walk south along the farmer’s field that’s flooded in winter and tall with corn in summer, with the river on your left. Some winter mornings the edges of the ponded water are frozen, with ducks congregating in the open parts.

The trail is hemmed in by a thick mass of invasive Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry, plus wild rose, alder, and the umbelliferous, tightly closed tops of Queen Anne’s lace. In winter it’s a bit less of a walled in hedge, the leaves fallen to the ground and the rosehips bright red on the ends of their branches.

The trail curves west along the edge of the estuary, where sea grass and sea asparagus grow, and there’s a bird viewing platform that gives you an overview of the estuary. Once you start walking north, up the opposite side of the U, the trail gets narrower – fewer people brave this wilder section of trail, as it leads nowhere.

At the end of a trail is a gate, beyond which pedestrians aren’t allowed to pass. There is a faint, mossy path beyond it, from when people used to squeeze around the gate and keep going anyway. But it’s overgrown now without use, the trees arched over the mossy path like a British Holloway, which Rob Macfarlane often talks about.

When I get to the gate I always have to touch it, to make the turnaround point real, to mark my presence at this 2 km mark. When I was training for the half marathon walk, I would walk the estuary U three times to get my kilometres in, and each time I touched the gate when I reached it. A symbolic note that I’d reached the end and was now turning back. The last time I was there, a group of bird watchers blocked the gate. I considered turning back before I reached them, but was inexorably drawn to skirt around them and touch the gate before walking the U in the return direction.

On my most recent visit, two eagles flew together over the farmer’s field. They weren’t cartwheeling like they would if they were mating, but it’s that time of year and the estuary is a good place to see them at it. I also startled a flock of Harlequin ducks. They fluttered into the air from their pond on the farmer’s field, a flurry of white and black energy, before settling again two feet away from their original spot. As I walked, sparrows, chickadees, and quail strutted across the trail and in and out of the brush, brazen and unafraid of my footfalls on the path. The red-winged blackbirds, which were quiet when I was out in the snow and wind, called repeatedly in the sunshine.

I haven’t seen a heron recently, but the river has been gravid, full of water from the high tide, the surface slate grey as it undulates viscously. Perhaps the heron is better suited to lower water levels, when it can see its prey and easily reach into the water to spear it.

I’ve been trying to get to the estuary twice a week but it’s a challenge these days, as I feel lower than low and have a hard time getting out of bed. On the days I don’t go, I head up the road with Silah, forcing myself to get outside into the fresh air. Sometimes I even feel a bit better when I come back.

There is an estuary regeneration project underway that will dig out the dike that separates the farmer’s field from the estuary itself and allow the seawater to spread into the field. This will naturalize the estuary by removing some of the human activity that impacts it and make it more resilient to climate change. It also means the loss of the trail itself as it runs along the top of the dike. While I’m sad about losing this trail I’ve walked for the ten years we’ve lived here, I’m glad that the land is being restored. I’d best make the most of it while I can.

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