A walk through memory lane to Carrington Lagoon and Grandmother Grove with George Sirk

George Sirk explained some of the history and wildlife that he and Kim and their friend Janet Gemmel recently explored during a walk to Carrington Lagoon and Grandmother Grove.

“Janet Gemmel came to visit us for a week. Her husband, Jim Palmer, died last December. He had a very rare lung cancer.”

“Jim and Jan lived out in Carrington, at the Reversing Rapids, in the 80’s.  So Jan wanted to take the ashes back and release them there, but she forgot to bring them from Courtenay.”

Image credit: George Sirk on one of his expeditions to  in Lancaster Sound, Nunavut,working with Cruise North Expeditions as a nature guide – submitted photo

“She brought me my little box, which I have. It’s a very cute little box and it’s just part of him that is in there. Jim is my oldest friend, 60 years I knew him. We did a lot of stuff together. We lived in the Charlottes (Haida Gwaii) together. We went to Panama together when we were 20 years old and then came to Cortes.”

“Jan wanted to take the ashes back, but then she just wanted to go back anyway. So Kim, Jan and I went in July. Jan said she and her daughters will bring the ashes another time.”

“People used to come to Carrington because Jim and Jan ran a welding repair shop. People would bring all kinds of equipment out there.” 

“Now, of course, it’s just got the rave stage. Jim and Jan cleaned it all up when they left about 30 years ago.” 

“They have been in Courtenay for 25 years. Jan and Jim were really involved with salmon enhancement and the creation of the Morrison Creek headwaters. They basically got the money and got all kinds of agencies involved  in buying up the Morrison Creek Headwaters. Jan’s a super salmon expert.” 

“Anyway, that’s why we went for the walk and did the whole giant loop.” 

“When one goes out to Carrington, one either bicycles or you take your car or whatever, but there’s no sign that says Carrington Bay.” 

“It’s one of those great places where there are no signs. I love places where there’s no signs. It makes it quite interesting. Like, is this the right place?” 

“It’s just a little track going off to the right on the last bend before you drop down to Coulter Bay.  You pass the turn off to the ferry and drive almost a couple of kilometres. The track is on your right.” 

“We leave cars at the road itself. In the winter, the ruts in that track are mud – 18 inches deep.  People like to take their 4×4’s in.  Everything in July, of course, was like cement, completely dry.” 

“We walked in and then passed some old cars.  It’s this old car graveyard. I want to do a calendar for Cortes, ‘the cars of Cortes’ – the ones that have been abandoned deep in the bush, trees growing through them and all that.”

“You pass the cars and  get to a clearing on your left after about 15 minutes. It’s called the orchard.  I’m trying to remember the name of that orchard, is it Cowan’s Orchard? Anyways, a baby was born there in about 1983, to a young couple from Quebec, in a teepee tarp thing over an old log house. It’s all collapsed because back in the 1920s people had homesteads out there. There are apple trees, a Transparent and everything. There were quite a few people living at the orchard. A lot of French Canadians came and it was actually quite a community.” 

“The closest human habitation would be Blue Jay Lake Farm, that’s close to where Peter Police’s place was. The chestnut tree  grows there.  I remember  it was an orchard.  He eventually moved to the western end of the Gorge. He was quite a famous character in his day. I think that was in the 1930s and 40s.” 

“You pass the orchard, and then the road – really it’s a four wheel track –  gets to a couple of places where it’s like, ‘do I make a left here or not?’ Then you finally get to a place where, obviously, the vehicles can go to the left. It’s not just a walking trail. After about 15 minutes past the orchard,  you take that track and that leads you right over a bridge which has water flowing under it.” 

“We’re on the north end of the island with all those big trees that hold off the heat. There’s a big watershed . I think maybe that’s what they call ‘the Children’s Forest.’ We stopped at that bridge and were looking at the water.  Not a lot of water:  three feet wide or so, maybe six inches deep at the most.”

“There was a Red-legged frog.  I got a picture of that frog peeking out of the water.  It was about 2 – 2½ inches long. I love Red-legged frogs. I used to keep them as pets, when I was a kid in Vancouver. We’d get them up at the Beaver Pond in Stanley Park. They’re great eaters,  and it’s good to have a pet that loves to eat. Then we would let them go.” 

“Unlike the Tree frogs, they live in streams that never dry up. They’re not in the diurnal ponds, where Tree frogs lay their eggs and then the babies come out 2-3 months later. With Red-legged frogs, I believe it takes them two years for the tadpole to actually come out as a small frog. I could be wrong there. They need those wooded streams. That’s why they got blue listed in some parts of British Columbia.

“We crossed that bridge. You can see where a vehicle crashed through and a couple of the logs are broken.”

“Then you go down and down and down until you get to a gate. There’s also a sign which Mosaic, the logging company, put up. It stated, ‘We request your cooperation. Please refrain from having campfires or smoking in this area.” 

“This green metal gate defines the border of Carrington Bay Park. It’s locked and it’s a really serious gate, so no more vehicles can go down there and have their raves and stuff. It’s really quite odd to see this big metal gate in the middle of the forest, the first thing you’ve seen in an hour’s walking that resembles anything that’s modern.  We continue walking  right down to the rapids and there’s an area there where there’s still a stage for past raves. I guess because future raves they’ll have to come by boat. It’s all very tidy. There’s an outhouse there too and everything’s all cleaned up, it’s not a big horrible mess.” 

“We looked  where Jim and Jan had their home for about 10 years. They built the floats,  welded them together. They got Bob Thompson from Whaletown to tow in these big steel water tanks. I mean, we’re talking 4-5 foot diameter water tanks that are about 20 feet long where they cut them  and then welded lids on them. They made two sets of these things that they could slip under their house, which is up on pilings.”

“There was quite a community living there. John Moore, I think is his name was, with Cecile was more out by Jane Island, at the mouth of Carrington.  Jean Fontaine, carpenter extraordinaire, builds all the fancy houses, great fellow. He had a walled tent on the other side of the rapids. Al Murray was involved there too. We’re talking Hippieville here, right?”

“Everything is gone, but at the rapids – and they call these the reversing rapids – there’s a brand new bridge. Before you used to be able to just walk on the logs across this channel that’s cut into the granite.”

“The channel is  maybe 12 to 15 feet wide, and maybe 50 ft long. My understanding is that it got blown up in the 1920s, when the loggers wanted to float the logs out of the lake that would have been the Carrington Lagoon. They couldn’t get the logs out. So they just blew it up   and made a channel. Now when the tide is high, the ocean goes into the lagoon, and  low tide comes out of there. So they’re reversing rapids, the water goes both ways.  The lagoon is brackish, but salty enough  to support fish and starfish.”

“So we went there, had our little picnic and then we went to the bridge and looked into the water. It’s easy to exaggerate, but the whole bottom of this channel is completely covered in starfish, or sea stars as they call them now. The purple ones, except they’re  more a dark burgundy black instead of purple. I don’t know if that’s the brackish water making them a different colour, but they’re not purple anymore. They’re all next to one another, a solid mass of them. As the tide comes in, they move up the walls of the channel and eat mussels because of course there’s millions of tiny little mussels lining  the walls of this area. The starfish don’t need to go very far. They just need to move a few inches, crawl over each other, and get at these mussels. They don’t have to find clams.”  

“If people want to know where all the starfish went, well, they’re all in Carrington. We are talking about thousands and thousands of starfish, not just 50 starfish all grouped together. So that is quite interesting. I thought that was amazing, actually, to see that.” 

“When we left there, we wanted to go to what they call Grandmother Grove. You come out of  the rapids area, go up the hill, cross that gate because you’re going backwards and it’s the first turn on your left.” 

“The little map I’m using is the one that they call the Cortes Island Trail Map. If you can’t get a copy of it, go inside Manson’s post office , it’s up on the wall. You can see the little red markings for the trail network of Carrington. That’s really good to have a little map like that because it’s a nutty bunch of trails in there.” 

“As you’re coming out of the rapids, after about a 10 minute walk, the very first trail on your left, drops you down into what they call Grandmother Grove. The trees there are just beautiful. They’re good sized, 3 and 4 foot diameter spruce which, of course, prefer wetlands. They can out-survive other trees in soggy areas. There are also cedars and firs, a  gorgeous, gorgeous area.” 

“That little track takes you right back to the water again. You’ve moved up like maybe half a kilometer up the lagoon. There’s a stream that comes out there.” 

“Jan Gemmel, being a really knowledgeable person on salmon and young salmon, said. ‘That’s a Coho.’  It was about four, maybe five inches long.  She said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s got the orange-red on its tail.’ It has little white tips on its fins as well.  Being that size,  it’s not a Pink or a Chum because they leave the rivers when they’re only little tiny fry. They’re only there for one year, but Coho apparently stay longer.”

“Wow! Baby Coho – I’ve never seen baby Coho on Cortes, so that means they’re coming through that channel that was cut through the rock. Maybe they always went there in the past, worked their way through the rapids before the loggers made the channel, but they found Grandmother Creek and went up it.”

“The trail basically follows that creek up, up and up, and it’s heading towards McCoy’s Gravel Pit. That’s the area way up high there where the stream originates, several kilometres away.  This stream is maybe 12- 15 feet wide and maybe 6 inches deep. So we’ve got beautiful running water, which is what the Coho need.” 

“Along that walk, the trees are just gorgeous. The moss is all hanging down, real spooky, spooky stuff. It kind of looks like the Charlottes or something.  We’re at the northern habitat of Cortes Island. I don’t want to exaggerate about the trees, but they are fantastic in size,  several feet in diameter of Cedar, Fir and also Spruce. The whole time that we’re walking, the stream is below us, so it’s quite neat.” 

“On the trail, standing right there –  I guess they’re sitting – are these beautiful Red-legged frogs. I got a picture of one and it just sat there. It’s the same colour as the ground all around it. It’s totally immobile, even though our feet are like two feet away from it. I’ve already walked past this frog, and it’s just doing its perfect camouflage, and not giving itself away, just sitting there.” 

“Any other predator coming along wouldn’t see it unless they looked at it. I don’t know if raccoons are good enough to spot a red legged frog when it’s not moving. Maybe they can smell them too.” 

“Anyway, this frog was approaching 3½ to 4 inches long. Such beautiful frogs, they’re kind of a cinnamon colour on the back – cinnamon brown on the back – like the leaf litter around it, and the legs are bright red underneath.”

“When it jumps, of course (if anything is trying to get it), suddenly there’s a flash of red,  like some birds have a flash of red to scare other creatures away.  So we got to see three more frogs in this walk. We got four of them.  I was really excited when you think, ‘Oh, it’s a drought, everything’s dried up and shrivelled up, but not up there in the forest and next to these streams. You’ve got this micro habitat supporting the frogs.’” 

“Then you keep going and then suddenly you get to what’s obviously a roadway. It’s still in the forest. it’s gravel, but obviously vehicles can get to there from another place, which is, of course, from the gravel pit, but that’s a restricted area. You can’t just drive in from there because it’s a private gravel pit. We don’t go to the left where the road goes back to Gorge Harbour. We continue going up the track, which is ‘really four-wheel-drive-impossible’ and get us back up, up, up, up, up and back to the orchard where we started.”

“So, a bit of history and a bit of nature. Birds are scarce: a Pileated Woodpecker, one Hairy Woodpecker, a little bit of Chickadees, maybe one Winter Wren. It was already like the third week of July or so,  all the nesters are quiet, like all your Warblers and Vireos  and Flycatchers in the trees. They’re there, but they’re silent, so it’s very difficult to spot them because  they sing when it’s spring, when they’re nesting. Once they’ve finished nesting and they’re young and fledged, they’re quiet. You don’t want to attract attention to yourself. So in a sense, the forest is spooky that way because it’s silent, but hey, nothing beats silence.”

 “It’s a big loop. Then, of course, then continue back past  the old car museum  and then back to our car.” 

“That whole walk took us about 4½ to 5 hours because we dawdled. We took our time identifying all these different amphibians.  I got stung by a wasp, yuck, right by that Spruce tree. Then, of course, taking time to have a picnic and spend some time there at Carrington. So  we dawdled, which is a lovely way of doing it. It’s always good to dawdle and you can lift your head up and look up and around you and everything.”

“There’s a lovely little loop.  I wouldn’t recommend it for small children.  It’s far too far,  you’ll be ending up carrying them, but anybody 10 years and up would be okay. I would make lots of noise when you’re walking to, you are in cougar and wolf country.”

Top image credit: Red-legged Frog – Photo by George SIrk

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