I’ve been wanting to visit the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC) Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve since we moved here, but as an endangered ecosystem it’s not open to the general public. We’d wandered the (short) boardwalk that protrudes a few hundred meters into the preserve from Maple Bay Road, but it wasn’t the same as being down in the grass, the gnarled trunks of the oaks winding above you and the scent of pollen in the air.
This weekend I finally had a chance to get beyond the boardwalk, as the NCC held their annual In Bloom Wildflower Festival – the one day of the year that the place is open to the public.
The Garry Oak ecosystem stretches from the Comox Valley in the north down to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. On Vancouver Island, less than 5% of these ecosystems remain, many of which are isolated and fragmented due to agricultural and urban development. This means that the species that call these ecosystems home are also at risk.
The Cowichan property is a 52 acre parcel that was purchased by the NCC from the Elkington family in 1999, part of a larger property that the family had owned since 1884.
NCC has worked to return the ecosystem to a more ‘natural’ state by introducing wildfire to burn the understorey and provide much-needed nutrients while removing some invasive species, and by relying on volunteers to help remove invasive species by hand. Restoring this Garry oak ecosystem has also been instrumental in bringing back the western bluebird, which was considered locally extinct for almost 20 years, as the preserve is one of their summer grounds (though this year some of them decided not to migrate over winter…). While most of the oaks are 200-250 years old, one has reached almost 700 years old, a testament to their longevity and resilience.
Luckily I’d signed up for an early morning photography workshop, so was able to experience the preserve – and soak up the atmosphere – before the crowds came.
Unfortunately many of the wildflower species native to Garry oak ecosystems had already finished blooming, as the event was scheduled a week later than it had been in previous years. But there were still lots of camas and other colourful flowers (my flower identification skills are limited!) to make it a worthwhile photography field trip. Plus there was the opportunity to photograph the Elkington farmhouse up close – a place we’d only ever seen from the road.
I used my trusty macro lens, to which I’m thoroughly addicted. But I also tried a wide angle lens, in an attempt to learn something new and broaden my horizons (pun intended).
It was a peaceful morning in a t-shirt in the sun, focusing on photography and listening to the wind in the grasses and the bees buzzing around the camas flowers. Watching puffs of pollen drift off the grass seed heads, and looking at the patterns of the twisted oak trunks against the sky.