SṈIDȻEȽ (Tod Inlet) Restoration

by Zoe Cilliers

I am a student at the University of Victoria, studying something called Restoration Ecology. This is something I can explain in a complicated way. I can take each word and break it down into little bits and explain one and then string them all back together. Or I could explain it simply.

I could say that I am learning to listen to the outside world.

I am doing this because I have heard, like some of you, that the world – the one outside our windows, which includes not just you and me but everything (forests, mountains and oceans) is not doing well. Maybe you have heard about climate change, or the problem of ocean plastic. Maybe you have smelt the smoke from forest fires in the summer, or seen creeks that used to flash full of spawning salmon each spring now sitting empty and still.  

I do not speak the same language as the forest, or the ocean. I cannot ask the ocean, even in my best wavy, whaley warbel what it needs to get better. But I am trying to learn, and the best way to do that, I think, is to listen.

Sometimes we listen with our ears, but other times we listen with our eyes – we look and observe and notice changes. Sometimes we listen with our noses – we notice smells that are new, or different. That make us wrinkle our nose or tilt up our chins.

As a restoration ecology student, I work in a place called SṈIDȻEȽ. It is a place with lots of stories, some of which are happy and some of which are sad. 

In the language of the WSÁNEĆ (Saanich) peoples, SṈIDȻEȽ means “the place of the blue grouse”. Blue grouse are small, round birds with short little legs and fancy tail feathers that they can fan out like a deck of cards. A place where blue grouse live is a quiet and sheltered, which is what SṈIDȻEȽ used to be. The forests were deep, and the trees—firs and cedars and maples, tall and wide. They grew on hillsides surrounding an inlet which curved around like a little finger, protecting its shorelines from winter storms. For thousands and thousands of years the W̱JOȽEȽP (Tsartlip) First Nation came to SṈIDȻEȽ in the winter months for the same reason that the blue grouse did, because the forests and inlet offered food and shelter.  

Just over 100 years ago, a man from Ontario came to SṈIDȻEȽ and decided it would be a good place to build a cement factory. He looked under the hillsides and found a kind of rock called limestone. Limestone is soft – if you hold a chunk of it in your hand it feels smooth, almost slippery like soap. If you blow it up with dynamite and heat it in a big oven, it can be turned into cement powder. Mixed with water it can be made to concrete. The man planned to use the concrete to build his own roads and factories and then ship it to other places, so that other people could do the same. And this is exactly what he did. 

SṈIDȻEȽ before restoration (June 2016)
SṈIDȻEȽ after restoration (February 2017)

The forests were filled with the sound of explosions, and the dust from the ovens and their tall chimneys settled onto the leaves of the trees. The Tsartlip were not able to return to their home, and the blue grouse left. SṈIDȻEȽ was no longer a quiet place to live. Even after the limestone was gone, and chimneys from the ovens started to crumble back into the forest, very few animals returned. Especially in the water.

Almost 80 years after the factory stopped working, friends of mine went scuba diving in SṈIDȻEȽ’s waters. They told me that it was like scuba diving on the moon. There were no fish in the water and the ocean floor was murky and dark.  Nothing, not even the smallest baby barnacle, was living on the shoreline where the cement factory used to be. 

The presence of animals can be a sign that a place -an ocean or a forest or even your backyard – is healthy. Animals generally come to places where they feel protected, where they can find food and shelter. If one kind of animal, for example a blue grouse, can’t find food because the trees are covered in cement dust, it will go some place else. And then the other animals that depend on blue grouse as a food source – for example raccoons or mink or hawks – will also leave. This is how small changes, things that might only affect the creatures at the bottom of the food chain, can grow into bigger ones, affecting other animals. 

For many years the cement factory dumped its garbage into the water of the inlet. At low tide you could still see it – bits of wire, old bricks, the fine, smelly muck that was a mixture of sand, gravel and concrete dust. In the ocean, animals at the bottom of the ocean food chain eat seaweed. Along shorelines those animals are the little grazers – the snails and limpets and chitons that eat up the greeny-brown seaweed film that grows over the rocks and make the beach slippery. Because of the pollution from the cement factory garbage, the seaweed had stopped growing. No seaweed meant no snails. No snails meant no food for small fish, or crabs. This meant that larger animals, like seals, salmon and seagulls, went elsewhere too. 

My friends, the same ones who when scuba diving, were worried. They knew the inlet was sick because it was empty. They dreamed of a future where the abundance of life and food that SṈIDȻEȽ used to have would be possible again. 

Four years ago, on one very snowy day in February when the beach was empty, a big barge came into SṈIDȻEȽ. The barge had sand and gravel from a gravel mine in Seashelt – from all the way across the Georgia straight. While the barge came in excavators on land worked to dig out as much of the shoreline in front of the old factory as possible. They removed the pollutants,  as well as the bricks and wire. The sand and gravel from the barge went in its place – creating a new beach on top of the old one. This is called capping –  putting in a protective layer to stop toxins moving from one area to another. 

This cap provided a fresh layer for the beach. At first, it was much the same as the old one – quiet. There were no barnacles or snails, just loose gravel that would roll under your feet when you walked down at low tide. But after the first summer we saw the greenybrown seaweed film growing on the rocks. The year after that we dug down into the gravel and found tiny clams and mussels – smaller than your pinky nail. One year I even found a sea cucumber hiding out under a few inches of pea gravel. Though, to be honest, they looked just as confused as I felt. 

‘Don’t you think it’s a bit early for you to be here?’ I asked the sea cucumber. The sea cucumber might have replied, but I did not hear it.
I am, after all, still learning to listen.

Zoe Cilliers

Zoe Cilliers is a former employee of Seaquaria Ocean Education, a seaweed geek, and a passionate believer in the importance of building relationships with the natural world – including the coastlines of the Salish Sea! She is currently working on a thesis project with SeaChange Marine Conservation and UVic’s Restoration of Natural Systems Diploma program. As part of this work she draws on her experiences as an educator as well as her background in the arts – combining storytelling and science communication with the hands on work that restoration requires. Her goal is to empower people of all ages to connect with their local environments.