Swamp Tails: a late-March visit to the Snk'mip Marsh Sanctuary
Greetings, marsh fans. We recently beat our way through the crumbly corn-snow down to the Snk’mip Marsh Sanctuary at the north end of Slocan Lake (in beautiful British Columbia). Everything is surging back to life and what a glorious spring it is this year.
Shrubs are budding, the sky is clear of jet contrails, the roads are quiet, the air is clean and the natural world is shaking off a snowy winter.
Imagine the delight of our bird and animal relatives to find there is clean air and clean water and space for them this spring because humans are staying put in their homes for a while. Two families of swans were comfortably settled on the shoreline of the lake, including one group with two adults and four grown young (cygnets). Line after line of Canada geese soared overhead, clacking and calling, some dropping down to rest on the far side of the marsh. Several flocks of Mallard ducks were heading for the marsh to rest and feed on their way north. The bushes were alive with tittering birds. Brown creepers searched tree bark for tasty morsels and black-capped chickadees sparred with junkos over the choicest seeds and tiny bits of food on branches. Moose, elk and deer pellets were everywhere on the ground, proving what an important refuge this area is for ungulates in winter. It has been a hard winter and shrubs such as red osier and maple were heavily browsed. We hope the 1,000 new shrubs that were planted last year will grow strong and sturdy and provide more winter food for these ungulates in the future. We weren’t able to get to the bear rub-tree we found at the north end of the property last year but we know that soon black and grizzly bears will be emerging from their winter dens to resume their use of the marsh area. Right now, a hungry Mrs. Bruin is likely pondering ending her hibernation to search for springtime delicacies. Perhaps she’ll emerge from her den with a couple of baby cubs seeing the world for the first time. L’archie, a giant larch tree that we had put a huge amount of effort into saving (we call it the spirit tree of Snk’mip Marsh) was doing fine, soaring above its restored base of logs, gravel and organic soil planted with native grasses and shrubs. This beautiful old tree towers above the marsh, it can be seen from the rail-trail at the gravel pit area. It is estimated to be more than 500 years old. This veteran tree had been badly undercut by gravel extraction activities to the point that about half of its roots were sticking out in mid-air. We corrected this by placing many truckloads of material under the exposed side of the tree and covering its roots with topsoil.
From compacted road to wetland...
We were curious to see how the recontoured areas that were created with last summer’s wetland restoration work looked, now that they’ve had a chance to settle and absorb a winter’s worth of moisture. Curious to see how the more than 1,000 trees and shrubs that were planted last fall (with the help of the Central Kootenay Invasive Species Society and students from Lucerne School) have taken hold. Curious to see whether the riparian native seed blend that was spread by hand was sprouting new green growth. We were hoping for a wonderful “reveal” but of course nature has her own ideas… it’s all a snowy/muddy mess right now (to our human eyes, that is). But to an amphibian, let’s say Freddy the Columbia Spotted Frog, what is there is heaven. Freddy needs to warm up a bit more before he will venture out of his winter hibernation. He’s likely still burrowed in the deep soft mud around the edge of the wetlands but when he and his friends emerge from their winter sleep they will find plenty of new habitat that wasn’t there a year ago. Freddy will be able to move into his choice of new little pools with gently sloped beaches and a few logs that will allow him to bask in a variety of temperature gradients. Our restoration work has provided Freggy with sunning spots on logs that were carefully placed in and around the pools, providing shelter from aerial predators and habitat variety. Best of all (if you are Freddy) there are no fish in those new ponds and pools. Fish eat frogs eggs and thus these new fish-free small pools will be a boon to the amphibian population. We were also keen to see how the reclaimed road along the eastern perimeter of the marsh looked. This road of compacted gravel had been built right IN the wetland by the previous owner of the property. From nature’s point of view, a road is a sterile and biologically unproductive area with heavily compacted soil that favours alien invasive plants such as knapweed. Given that the objective of the VFE’s restoration work is “maximum ecological uplift” (a fancy way of saying “do the best possible thing for nature”) this road was completely removed during our restoration work last summer. What was a road has been returned to natural forested-wetland habitat. First, the sterile road surface was scraped off and trucked back to the gravel pit from whence it came: to do this we removed the equivalent of 190 tandem dump-truck loads of fill from the wetland! Then, careful deep-decompaction work was done with an excavator. This fluffed up the soil to restore its permeability and its ability to sustain plant life —the trees and shrubs that were planted in the fall. Hummocks and divots and small ponds were created, mimicking the natural topography that would have been there before the road existed. Seven small limestone springs buried under the road were restored by removing the compacted road gravels, in these areas we shaped pools and spillways into the marsh. Slope stabilization work was also done, placing fill and topsoil into the toe of the slope to make it less steep and to shore up the rail-trail pathway above. Then dead trees and logs (coarse woody debris) were strategically placed like giant pick-up-sticks to provide variety and texture and to stabilize the whole shebang. These trees enhance the stabilization of the slope and provide perches for birds and shade and habitat for amphibians and reptiles. They will gradually rot and provide nutrients to the soil, just as would happen in a natural forested wetland. So, how did the restored east perimeter of the marsh look this spring?
It looked as though it had always been the verge of a wetland. It looked like the ragged, jumbled, living, breathing, natural edge of a swamp. It certainly did NOT look like a road. It’s a bit early for green-up but once that happens we expect a surge of fresh new growth in this area on all the lovely loose topsoil that was dug up. In total, more than 1,000 trees and shrubs (Saskatoon, mountain ash, red osier dogwood for moose browse and berries for bears and birds, Nootka wild rose, black cottonwood, paper birch and Douglas maple) were planted. We hope to see good growth as they take hold. All areas that were decompacted and replanted will be carefully monitored for invasive species which will be promptly removed to ensure the desirable native species have the greatest possible opportunity to colonize the area. Removal of the east road on the Snk’mip property last year reclaimed some 3,440 square metres of wetland for nature — that’s a substantial gain. Our planet needs all the wetlands it can get as they are vitally important for birds, insects, reptiles, plants, amphibians and all manner of endangered species. They also provide many ecosystem services that benefit humans (e.g. water filtration, flood control, carbon sequestration, climate change mitigation).
Perhaps most importantly right now for us humans, Snk’mip marsh is a place where all is right with the world.