Millions of fine Pacific sand particles skip along Wickanninish Beach on any given day. They roll and collide with fellow particles and some of them drift on the ocean breeze. Those are the ones that annoy me the most when I’m trying to change my camera lens. One such particle landed on my camera’s sensor recently, so a tiny shadow now appears in the lower-left portion of my photographs. Luckily, there’s Photoshop to fix that until I can get my camera properly cleaned.
I learned a great deal about the large and small sand dune systems, and about the unique plant species that inhabit them, while on a guided walk with Estelle with Parks Canada. I highly recommend going along and even taking your children. It’s a fun and educational way to spend an hour, plus you can take your new-found knowledge to the larger sand dune system afterwards and explore as I did.
Sand Dune Formation
Much of this fine sand comes from Florencia Bay. It is part of an ancient glacier deposit. Ocean currents have been carrying it to Wickinninish Beach for thousands of years where a beautiful natural phenomenon is taking place, the coastal sand dunes.
The wind helps all of this sand move inland through three processes including creeping, when sand particles roll along the beach never losing contact with the ground; saltation, when particles jump and collide with each other as they move forward; and suspension, when particles are carried high through the air.
The wind and sea are still actively building Wickanninish Beach’s small and large sand dune systems today.
Why are sand dunes important?
Sand dunes create a natural barrier that protects inland areas from damage caused by wild winter surf and harsh storms. Not only that, but they create a unique habitat for some very special plant species.
Into The Dunes
Estelle explained so much to us as we walked along Wickanninish Beach and ventured into the smaller of the two sand dune systems. Further to the process of sand dune formation, she showed us different varieties of native dune plants which are stimulated by the constantly changing conditions.
Native Dune Plants
This plant has a thick central taproot to absorb as much water as possible. Its leaves are thick, fleshy, and even edible! This peppery plant tastes like arugula if you are into artisan salads. It is from the mustard family. Estelle handed me a leaf to try and I must admit it was very good and I ate the whole thing. I would certainly add it to a salad or to the top of a pizza!
Yellow Sand Verbena
This plant was easy to spot with its beautiful clusters of bright yellow flowers, however, its close relative, Pink Sand Verbena, is scarce. It’s endangered due to the predominance of European Beachgrass, an invasive species of dune grass.
Parks Canada has been growing Pink Sand Verbena in greenhouses for ten years and is reintroducing it to certain areas of the park. Apparently, there has been a positive shift and these plants are beginning to take root although I have not yet spotted it.
This plant is part of the carrot family as the name suggests. I learned recently that if you were to crush the seeds between your fingers you would smell the aroma of a fresh garden carrot! It is also used as a herbal remedy to treat a cough.
This plant sprouts brown spiky heads and has a rhizome system. You can see how they grow in rows. A rhizome is essentially a horizontal stem that sprouts upwards and roots downwards.
This low ground cover plant produces bright red berries late in the season. They stay throughout the winter and are popular among the bears. They are dry tasteless berries but can be mixed with water and oil to soften them up.
The First Nations people also used to dry the leaves and mix them with tobacco for smoking. The word Kinnikinnick means “smoking mixture”.
I was surprised to discover that this plant is a Huckleberry bush. It produces black coloured berries late in the season.
Previous to this day, I had only known of the Red Huckleberry which usually grows in decaying stumps. I used to raid those bushes and stuff my mouth completely full of berries, even between my lips and teeth, before chewing. It was the best sweet-tart burst of flavour I’ve ever experienced!
Our Native Dunegrass helps to stabilize the shifting sand so that other plants can grow.
Sand Dune Enemies
Enemy #1: European Beachgrass
Not all dune grass is good. European Beachgrass, an invasive species, was brought in and planted here to stabilize the sand dunes and stop them from expanding. Unfortunately, it was just way too good at it. It spread like wildfire and overtook other plant life to the point that some are now endangered.
This grass is hearty and has a robust rhizome system which helps it to retain water and spread. Also, the grass blades are curled inward to help it retain water.
Nowadays, efforts are being made to rid the dunes of European Beachgrass. It’s easier said than done though. Heavy equipment excavation was used, but it threatened other plant species. The best approach has been through volunteerism. Even you can get involved and help pull grass after one of the guided walks (Thursdays and Saturdays only)!
Enemy #2: Log Booms
Did you know that the silvery driftwood that characterizes our west coast beaches is not a natural occurrence? These trees didn’t just fall into the ocean. Nope! They escaped from log booms and washed up on shore with the high winter surf. Before logging existed, these beaches had much less driftwood.
But, I suppose if we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t get to build driftwood shelters!
Enemy #3: Our Rainforest
The West Coast Rainforest is very diverse and abundant with many species of trees such as the Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, and Sitka Spruce. You may have noticed that the trees lining the beaches seem to have a windblown appearance. Those are the Sitka Spruce which can withstand harsh winter winds and sea spray.
Low lying foliage, such as the salal berry, evergreen huckleberry and others, are also abundant here. This is all great. After all we and wildlife enjoy and thrive in our beautiful rainforest!
However, if you were a sand dune trying to expand, perhaps you’d not like the barrier so much.
At the end of the guided walk, I followed Estelle, Carina and Tamara to a spot where European Beachgrass was taking over.
I spent a good hour with them digging in the sand to find and pull the whole rhizome out of the ground. Take a look at the rhizome Estelle managed to pull!
This was a fun and almost meditative experience for me. It felt good to help get rid of an invasive species in order to preserve our native ones. Even more, these women were fun to work with!
Estelle, who leads these walks, sure knows her stuff and has a wonderful way of showing and telling about these dunes and plant species.
As we worked and conversed about life stuff we decided that all of us were “Multipotentialites”, amazing women with many potentials! We are “renaissance women”! Thanks Estelle! I felt empowered after that!
A WWII Connection
An interesting tidbit about these dunes is that they used to be a training ground for soldiers during WWII. You’ll see signs posted warning of UXO’s (Unexploded Explosive Ordnance). The signs warn that there is a slight chance that you could find an unexploded fragment of a bomb or grenade.
After the war ended, efforts were made to clean up the area. Some bigger fragments were still found in the 1950’s and 1970’s when the dunes were checked. In 2012, a live bomb was found and removed. The area was closed during that time. Today, it’s still possible to find bullet fragments.
Did the sign stop me? No. There are many human prints in the dunes so they seem to be well frequented however, enter at your own risk! If you do explore in the large sand dune system and come across a rusty piece of metal and don’t know what it is, don’t touch it and be sure to contact Parks Canada.
The Large Dune System
Following our grass-pulling efforts, I was excited to explore the large dune system and what a view from the top!
I was able to name many of the plants that I learned about earlier as well as a couple shown on an identification chart that I had with me.
I also discovered footprints of varying sizes and shapes and wondered if any could be wolf or cougar. They do live in these parts but don’t usually come out midday. Be sure to keep your dog on a leash though. There have been reports in the park of wolf encounters with dogs.
I’m not sure what kinds of creatures made these prints, but there is a way to find out! Parks Canada also puts on a guided walk called Tracking the Wild where you learn about and go looking for animal tracks, such as cougar and wolf, on the beach!
The guided walk in the small sand dune system was an educational and relaxing way to spend a bit of time. I felt like an explorer afterwards as I ventured into the large sand dune system!
Find the Dunes!
If you walk a short distance past the “E” lot entrance of Wickinninish Beach you’ll find the large sand dune system. If you happen to be vacationing in the Pacific Rim National Park, it’s worth taking a look!
I highly recommend taking the Parks Canada guided walk to learn more about the dunes, the plants that call them home, and about the threats facing them.