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Water’s Edge: Mud, marsh and ‘menace’ seals from Wreck Beach to Steveston

Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun, May 11, 2016

I awake to the sound of a gull and crows scrounging through my gear for food.

The gull thinks it has something, but it’s just a plastic baggie containing my pocket matches.

“Get out of here,” I scream. It obliges by flying away with the matches and landing out on the salt chuck.

So much for morning coffee. Then I discern activity at the distant end of Wreck Beach and find University of B.C. geography student Sanjay Carter-Rau with two of his friends. They’ve had a chilly, minimalist night in sleeping bags and blankets, but they do have a cigarette lighter to loan to kickstart my burner.

“It was freezing cold, but a bonfire kept us warm for most of the night,” he says, tossing a stick to this golden lab, Layla.

Carter-Rau is a Canadian citizen but grew up in Southern California, in San Bernardino, and views Wreck Beach as a form of field research. “I study people and places. I spend a lot of time around here.”

On the way back to my tent I pass an unholy mess of garbage left by another group of young people partying last night — an unfathomable act in the midst of so much natural beauty and a reason why the beach is officially closed after sunset.

By 8 a.m., people are already starting to stream down from the University of B.C. with their coffees and headphones to greet the day in style.

Although the winds have intensified, whipping up whitecaps on the Strait of Georgia, my paddle route up the north arm of the Fraser River is protected by a rock breakwater and log booms.

It is an ebb tide and already the muddy shallows are visible near the marshy shoreline.

A middle-aged man with an English accent walking two dogs on a trail shouts that he can’t recall seeing a kayak here before, certainly not at this time of the year.

“You’re like a robin, the first sign of spring,” he says. I hate to nitpick, but robins are around all winter in flocks, dispersing by February-March to become more widespread and visible.

Captain Vancouver

When Captain George Vancouver passed the mouth of the Fraser River in June 1792 during the spring freshet, he made no direct mention in his journals of B.C.’s greatest waterway, which would have flowed wildly at its own discretion. He does describe a “very low land, apparently a swampy flat, that retires several miles” and features “two openings” (the north and middle arm of the Fraser) navigable only by canoes and strewn with “logs of wood, and stumps of trees innumerable.”

Today, as people shed their clothes at Wreck Beach, the region also sheds its skin. This is a demarcation point, where the urban oceanfront gives way to a more rustic foreshore of mud and marsh beating to the timeless rhythm of the Fraser River.

Richmond boasts 443 oceanfront properties, according to a review of BC Assessment information by Landcor Data Corp. They include 264 residential, 86 commercial, 66 parks and green spaces, and 27 industrial, with a combined value of $2.7 billion.

I proceed along the wooded southwest corner of Point Grey, past forests of bulrushes. Among the waterfowl I flush up are hundreds of common mergansers, a fish-eating duck normally seen in small numbers but known to gather before moving to inland streams to breed. (Rob Butler, a retired senior bird researcher from the Canadian Wildlife Service, later confirmed it to be a new discovery along a rarely visited stretch of the Fraser. “An amazing number,” he said. “Your observation is significant.”)

Paddling against the current becomes a slog as the river narrows. Still, this is a better route than venturing out into the Strait of Georgia to navigate around both the federal 6.7-kilometre-long north-arm jetty and Metro Vancouver’s publicly accessible Iona jetty, which extends four kilometres and parallels a sewage outfall pipe from the Iona treatment plant.

With ever more mudflats ahead, I paddle across to the Richmond side where Iona Beach Regional Park offers the potential for a haulout. These are the roughest waters encountered yet: lots of pleasure and commercial boat traffic plus standing waves created by the winds butting heads with the river current.

A tug boat slows down, but still creates a wall of water that could easily capsize an inexperienced paddler, especially in a canoe.

I pull ashore for lunch on the south shore for 90 minutes, watching flights come and go at Vancouver International Airport, until a flood tide makes it easier for me to continue upriver. While paddling alongside an empty barge I appreciate how easy it is to die on the water. If I were to capsize and be carried by the current underneath the curved bow of the barge, I might never be seen again … until my neoprene booties float shore with my feet a couple of years hence.

I eventually paddle into a protected boat launch at McDonald Beach Park, a popular area for off-leash dog walkers. Curiously, one man keeps his dog on leash while swimming it around the perimeter of the dock.

This is an ocean expedition, not an exploration of the Fraser River, per se. So I transport the kayak by truck another day to the next continuation point, the middle arm of the Fraser, just downstream from No. 2 Road Bridge and the Olympic oval.

Peter Teoh is walking past on the dike just as I am hauling my kayak down to the water’s edge.

“That’s an adventure,” he says of my trip. “Meet a lot of people and see a lot of things.”

Teoh came to Canada from Malaysia in 1979 and owns a Tim Hortons franchise in Richmond. He adopted his two rescue dogs from Seattle eight years ago.

“We had a contact and they said, ‘Oh, you should do the right thing instead of buying from the animal farm.’ (The dogs have) been good.”

The winds and tide push me swiftly downriver past float planes next to the south airport and the Flying Beaver Bar and Grill.

Natural habitat

A dozen mallards poke around next to the rip-rap rock shoring up the dike. Wigeon ducks take off almost vertically at my approach, compared with the low-level clumsiness of the cormorants.

Swishwash Island — one of the finest remnants of undisturbed habitat left in the lower Fraser — is on my right at the shallow mouth of the middle arm. BC Packers turned the 29-hectare island over to the Nature Conservancy of Canada in 1999 and it remains off limits to the public. It remains an intertidal habitat for juvenile salmon, a breeding, resting and feeding site for more than 100 bird species, and home to aquatic mammals such as river otters, beavers and muskrats.

I round the corner and watch the shoreline homes give way to green space and public trails, including the 14-hectare Terra Nova Rural Park. Vast marshes vibrating with waterfowl portend Sturgeon Bank, a 5,152-hectare provincial wildlife management area critical for birds and juvenile fish spanning the west side of Richmond.

Two immature bald eagles perch on a large red circular wooden structure, a shoreline radar reflector from a bygone era. Several trumpeter swans swim in the distance. And a deafening flock of a few thousand snow geese flies directly overhead, soon to begin its annual migration to nesting grounds on Wrangel Island in Russian Siberia.

I keep about 100 metres offshore to avoid grounding out in the mud and wrestle with headwinds along my exposed route.

Sturgeon Bank may seem untouched compared with the pace of development in west Richmond in recent decades, but the area is suffering its own unique problems. Research by Environment Canada scientist Sean Boyd shows that some areas of the marsh have receded by up to 500 metres during more than two decades, even as those off Westham Island to the south have remained relatively stable. One theory is that dredging of the lower Fraser along with the jetties have pushed more sediments out into the strait and starved the marshes — or have increased salinity levels beyond plant tolerance.

The port dredges about 2.5 to three million cubic metres of sediment annually.

Another thought is that rising nitrogen levels, perhaps due to urban run-off, municipal sewage and agriculture, may be putting the marsh plants at risk. It’s also possible the die-off is simply a natural cycle.

Federal and provincial officials are working together on further research, since the implications are serious for birds, young fish and people. Loss of the marshes would allow rising sea levels to hammer away at exposed municipal dikes.

“During large storm events, there’d be nothing there to attenuate the wave action,” said Brent Gurd, a biologist with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. “You might need more maintenance of the dikes.”

Residential housing begins again at Blundell Road, south of the Quilchena Golf and Country Club — mostly modest-looking homes despite assessed values of about $1.5 million to $1.9 million, followed by rows of townhouses at closer to $1 million.

There is also a relic farm here owned by Harold Steves, the veteran Richmond councillor whose great-grandfather, Manoah, settled the community in 1877.

The farm is about four hectares: one zoned residential, the rest outside the dike and zoned agricultural but also within an environmental reserve in which farm buildings are disallowed. He grows heirloom vegetable seeds, 22 apple varieties, Saskatoon berries and raises chicken and cattle. The farmhouse turns 100 next year and is being restored for heritage designation.

Steves has led the fight for agricultural preservation since the early 1970s and is now concerned about the impact of increased port development and the planned bridge to replace the George Massey Tunnel between Richmond and Delta.

He also has a lesser-known past in the fishing industry. Across the river off Westham Island, he used to fish in a “14-foot clinker-built boat” distinguished by overlapping hull planks and used nets cut in half lengthwise that fished only half as deep. “When they had the big salmon runs, they’d become trapped between two jetties,” Steves recalled. “With small boats and hand-pulled nets, it was a bonanza. They were sitting ducks.”


My paddling route becomes murkier as I approach the village of Steveston on the main, or south, arm of the Fraser River. The mudflats continue to grow on the receding tide and the federal Steveston jetty, extending 8.5 kilometres in six sections into the strait at Sand Heads, blocks my immediate passage.

I call Vancouver Whale Watch on my cellphone and owner Cedric Towers advises me to paddle up a small opening leading to Scotch Pond, the former site of a Musqueam village and commercial cannery operation, near Garry Point Park.

It’s a tough slog against the current flowing through the confined channel, but I eventually wend my way to the Fraser’s shoreline and pull my kayak up onto a sandy beach affording close-up views of the fishing fleet heading out for herring.

Denis Roumiantsev is practising ground manoeuvres on his paraglider. Garry Point is the perfect place because it is exposed to winds from any direction. “Other places, in the city, are blocked by the buildings; it’s gusty.”

The weather is also likely to be better than the North Shore. He’s from Russia, but has lived 16 years in Vancouver, paragliding for 12 of those.

“It’s the cheapest way to fly,” he asserts.

At Oceanside Fisheries, dock worker Rob Clarke advises of the dangers lurking just offshore.

“It’s deceiving; the river runs pretty good down the channel,” he warns, adding that I should beware of the largest ships. “You get one of these car freighters that come in here all the time and they make a huge wake, a rush of water.”

History oozes through the Steveston mud: the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, Britannia Shipyards, London Heritage Farm, and, just upriver, the rustic community of Finn Slough.

Forgotten history

There is one piece of history that has been buried by the sediments of time — until now.

Jerry Vernon, president of the Vancouver chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, provided me with a copy of the official logs of RCAF Sea Island No. 133 fighter squadron for May 25, 1944, one year before Germany’s surrender to the Allies in the Second World War.

It was a different time: harbour seals were persecuted as a “menace to the fishing industry” and the military offered a helping hand. Kittyhawk fighters flew out to a sandbar about six kilometres south of the Steveston jetty. According to the logs, two fighters dropped 100-pound delayed-fuse bombs, while two others “followed up the bombing exercise and strafed the seals as they hit the water for protection. The results were considered very good.”

Harbour seal populations were heavily depleted by the time the Canadian government afforded them protection in the 1970s. Today, they are back in healthy numbers — 40,000 or so in the Strait of Georgia — helping to boost populations of mammal-eating transient, or Bigg’s killer whales.

Their story illustrates the continuing power of the human hand to shape the destiny of the globally significant Fraser River delta and all it benefits — for worse or for better.