A Walk at Maplewood Flats – Part II

This blog post is a continuation from Part I.

Origins of a Field Trip

For a course in sustainability I took last semester, one of my assignments involved a wetland field trip. We could pick any aquatic system, so I visited Burns Bog first, as this is the most famous bog in BC’s lower mainland. After a bit of trekking around, and being frankly bummed out about the highway being so close, I decided to choose a place closer to home and a bit further from the beaten path (or so I thought).

A wildlife biologist friend of mine at work suggested I check out the Maplewood Flats Conservation Area, which is a little park in North Vancouver along Burrard Inlet. Located just east of the Second Narrows Bridge, Maplewood Flats supports great views and many trails, but not many people outside of local residents and birding enthusiasts know about it. I had not even heard about it myself, but when I went there on a Sunday evening (October 6, 2013) to see if it was a good fit, I saw the sight in the picture below and knew this was the patch of mud for me.

West view from flats
I found out that I could plan my field trip to correspond to the timing of a nature walk hosted by Al Green, of the Wild Bird Trust (WBT). Every second Saturday of every month they lead a free interpretive guided walk through the park. (Yes – free! They also host free 8 am birding walks once a month that you can find out more info on at the WBT link above.)

But before I headed out to the field, I needed to do my homework.

Field Prep: Digging into the History

A good field trip starts with a solid desk study. Though there isn’t a lot of material easily available on the history of the Maplewood mudflats, once I got started, the research trail led me down a rather long rabbit hole into a past that I didn’t fully expect.

Maplewood Flats is the largest intertidal estuarine marshland on the North Shore, and all that’s left of a wetland system that once pretty much circled Burrard Inlet. The casual user of the trails through the 75 acre park would not guess that the all the lovely trees and vegetation are actually the result of the reclamation of an old brownfield site that is still undergoing restoration.

Lovely pathways

We in Vancouver are used to thinking of Burrard Inlet as home to some substantive industry and shipping routes due to the Inlet hosting the many trade activities of the Port of Vancouver. All the industrial effluent discharge and shipping activity in the Inlet has also led to poor water quality that is of concern due to, among other things, high PCBs in sediment in many areas, which thankfully seem to be declining. The pictures below show some of the current urban settlement and industrial activity around the Inlet.

Urban development to the east of Maplewood Flats.

Petrochemical plant on south shore of Burrard Inlet in Burnaby.

Petrochemical plant on south shore of Burrard Inlet.

But it wasn’t always this way.

First Peoples  

Tsleil-Waututh art. Click on image for source.

Before European settlers came to the North Shore—bringing their industries with them—the Tsleil-Waututh, trans. “People of the Inlet”, inhabited the area that is now home to the mudflats.  The Tsleil-Waututh, who are also part of the wolf clan, are one of many different groups of Coast Salish peoples who first inhabited the Pacific Northwest. Some people may recall their symbolic wolf logo to the left, which was prominent at the last 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

I have a small percentage of First Nation ancestry mingling with my largely English, French and Scottish heritage (my Aboriginal background is alleged to a great-great-great-great (and so on) grandmother way back on my mother’s French side in a time that’s shrouded in family mystery); however, I wouldn’t consider myself qualified to say too much about the history of the Tsleil-Waututh and their lands around Maplewood Flats. So I would encourage you to click the links above and below to learn more from the band itself about their history and vision of where they are headed.

The forward thinking Chief of the Tsleil-Waututh is now Justin George. Chief George’s grandfather was the Canadian icon, Chief Dan George – check out this CBC footage of him and Dustin Hoffman from 1971, and his moving Canada Day speech to the nation in 1967.  Justin George’s father, Chief Leonard George, is also locally well known for seeing some challenging projects to fruition, like the Raven Woods development, which has helped  bring positive transformation to their band.

A map of the Consultation Area of the Tsleil-Watuth shows their asserted territory running as far as Langley in the southeast to Alice Lake and Garibaldi up past Squamish in the northwest. During the time when the band traveled freely across these lands, they had a saying, “When the tide went out, the table was set.

A clam shell, some green algae and driftwood at the mudflats.

The Maplewood mudflats were once one of the many coastal wetland systems that were hosts to a veritable marine feast. Sadly, this is no longer the case. An overall gradual decline in the abundance of species, as well as toxicity factors leading to food safety issues of seafood in Burrard Inlet in general has meant the flats have closed shop for human consumption. The frequently posted harvesting prohibition warning signs (such as the one I saw during my trip below), are a brash reminder that it is definitely no longer safe to eat shellfish gathered from the flats.

An unfortunate sign of the times at the Maplewood Mudflats.

Personally, looking around at the waters in and around the flats, I wouldn’t really want to eat anything from this area these days either.

Green algae and detritus in the water column at Maplewood Flats

In my next post I explore some of the local colonial and industrial history that led to the state the flats are in today. Stay tuned…

A Walk at Maplewood Flats – Part I

Mudflats panorama

Panorama shot of the Maplewood Flats Conservation Area showing the wide mudflats at low tide.

A Story about Mud

Mud. Amorphous. Contradictory. It’s equally gross and disgusting, and equally the stuff of exclusive rejuvenating spa treatments. In nature mud forms a strange territory. It provides a  dark interface where the geosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere come together.

It’s a concept that’s easier to fall in love with in theory than in practice…

Maplewood Flats Mud

When the tide is out, a lifted rock reveals lug worm tracks through the mud at Maplewood Flats in British Columbia.

Land. Water. Life. Co-mingling in the muck.

When the above elements come together in the matrix of mud, things happen. Living things fall down into  mud and are broken down to to their inorganic form. And, at the same time, in the very same primordial ooze, that which is abiotic gets pulled back again into the humming cells of life once more. In this way, mud is also the substance of transformation from life into death and back again.  Even if you know a thing or two about biology, how life manages to sprout up again and again from the mire is one of the perennial mysteries. Like the lotus that rises up from the depths of the rank rank ooze at the bottom of a pond, the quintessential symbol of life making the best out of what we typically think of as garbage.

Mud is also the substance of story. And the keeper of secrets, which it reveals rarely, like the tale of an ancient man preserved in the peat thousands of years ago. You never know what you will find if you take the time to dig into the depths of a good section of mud.

This is a story that stems from a patch of mud in British Columbia, Canada that I decided to do some digging into.  Now called Maplewood Flats, this coastal mud patch was once part of a much larger network that apparently covered the shores of most of Burrard Inlet, but now, Maplewood Flats is the only remaining coastal wetland in the region.

And it almost wasn’t so.

This is the Part I of a longer story that I’ve broken down. Continue reading Part II...