I'm 70 years old, happily married, partially retired from orthopedic surgery and I have my own island.
The island actually belongs to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, but they are kind enough to let me look after it for them, what you might call the "island keeper" (they call it a steward). NCC even provided me with a baseball cap with their logo.
My (our) island is named Swishwash and, although completely wild, it is located in the middle arm of the Fraser River only 15 kilometres from downtown Vancouver, 300 metres from Richmond, B.C., and one kilometre from the south runway of Vancouver International Airport.
In 1895, a salmon cannery was built on pilings on the island, which was mostly sandbar and marsh. The cannery soon became economically nonviable and was purchased and consolidated into British Columbia Packers Ltd. The buildings burned down but the pilings remain protruding above the water, except at high tide, where they lurk awaiting my kayak.
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In the 1950s, when the Fraser River was dredged to facilitate oceangoing traffic, the dredgings were piled upon the sandbar, putting it 3 to 4 metres above the highest tides. In 1999, B.C. Packers donated the island to the NCC.
I had kayaked and windsurfed around Swishwash for several years when I learned it had been given to the NCC. I enquired if they needed a caretaker and they kindly allowed me to be its steward.
Swishwash's 29 hectares are divided into eastern, central and western portions by tidal flooding of lowlands. The island and its surrounding estuary are home to a wide diversity of waterfowl, including some 50,000 snow geese that spend the winter or migrate through on their way from Alaska and Russia to points south. A family of bald eagles spends the winter hunting from a tall cottonwood tree. The reedy tidal waters are also temporary home to millions of juvenile salmon migrating down the Fraser, where they spend months acclimating to the salt water.
Mammalian life includes a group of 100 or so harbour seals, a family of river otters, several coyotes, an occasional raccoon and one lone beaver who, as near as I can determine, made a brief visit, found insufficient trees to his liking and departed.
My main duty is to try to control the non-native or invasive species of plants growing on the island and plant native trees, mostly Sitka spruce, western red cedar, Douglas fir and cottonwood. Controlling non-native species sounded like a fairly straightforward task until some modest effort brought me face to face with the two most prolific and pervasive plants nature has yet devised: Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry.
For starters both are travelling with forged passports. Scotch broom actually originated from around the Mediterranean Sea and Himalayan blackberry from Armenia. The story of the transport of broom to North America is somewhat controversial. The principal culprit seems to be an Englishman who brought it from Hawaii to the Pacific Northwest to decorate his garden with its abundant bright yellow flowers.
The blackberry's journey is a bit more obscure. It was introduced to Europe in 1835 and North America in 1885 because of its sweet black fruit. Unfortunately, when turned loose on poor, unsuspecting North America, its survival and proliferating skills were too much for the fertile soil and abundant rainfall, especially on the west coast, and they can now be found on most patches of untended ground in Southwest B.C., including "my" island.
One broom plant can produce 50,000 seeds per year, which are ejected 3 metres when the pod "pops" and hide in the soil for up to 60 years (waiting for me to die) before germination. Blackberries can reproduce three ways: by seeds within their delicious berries, which make great wine; by growing rhizomes beneath the ground which, when dug up, resemble a plant from a horror movie; or by stalks or canes that are covered with sharp barbs and bend over so the tip embeds itself in the earth to start a new plant. You can see I have my post-retirement work planned for the next 50 years. I'm currently training my son and granddaughter to the task.
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The job is, for me, pure pleasure. I load my kayak, paddle, life jacket and hoe, drive to the south side of the airport and park next to the Coast Guard station. They keep their eye on the island and shoo off any visitors. The first several times I went they tried to kick me off until NCC provided me with my jaunty cap to verify my status as official caretaker.
With the hoe (sometimes shovel or rake) loaded in the kayak, I paddle the 200 metres to the island, taking care to avoid the float planes taking off from the airport's south terminal as they buzz overhead on their way to Victoria or up the B.C. coast. I often wave to them and wonder if they wonder, "What is that old geezer doing wandering around on that bushy sandbar?" And, when I arrive home three hours later, my wife asks the same question.
Dick Loomer lives in Vancouver.
Illustration by Mark Lazenby.