The Secret Side of the Courtenay River Estuary

When I do the regular Aipark Lagoon loop with the kids, I’ve often wondered about the far side of the Courtenay River which can be seen from this popular and well used walkway. The opposite bank has a wild and abandoned look, which is anchored by the empty Field Sawmill site. There’s no obvious access point, so there doesn’t seem to be any way to actually get over there and explore. And from the Airpark side it doesn’t look too inviting or that interesting—a line of tall dark trees ending in a grassy point which eventually becomes a muddy tidal marsh.

Earlier this month, Jocie visited the far side when she joined a guided Keeping it Living/Comox Valley Nature estuary walk as part of the Experience the Estuary awareness program. At the end of a very rough path through the woods, there are several places to access the wetlands at the tip. I walked out recently and was stunned by the sheer number of flowers in comparison to what can be found on the Airpark side of the water.

Courtenay Estuary Meadow
Paintbrush, common camas, and pretty shootingstar fill this part of the wetland meadow near the mouth of the Courtenay River.

Common camas (Camassia quamash) was in bloom at the relatively higher edges of the estuary meadows. I normally associate this plant with the drier habitat of Garry oak meadows and was surprised to find it here in such numbers. Many of the flowers were were still in bud.

Common camas (Camassia quamash)
The bright yellow stamens of Common camas (Camassia quamash) were brilliant against the rich blue of the tepals.

Also along the edges and slightly higher ground were groups of paintbrush (Castilleja sp.). There definitely seemed to be at least two different species, with both common red paintbrush (C. miniata) and Unalaska paintbrush (C. unalaschcensis) recorded here. The colour variation ranged from deep orange-red through to pink and creamy white. In addition, I noticed that there were two different leaf shapes on plants with similar looking flowers. Some were entire, while others were deeply lobed.

Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.) – a number of different shades of colour and leaf shapes were noticeable in the plants in the meadow.

In the wetter areas, the aptly named  pretty shootingstar (Dodecatheon pulchellum) was common. This truly is a spectacular flower and one that is seen on both sides of the river. The delicate, downward pointing flowers with swept back magenta petals do look like shooting stars.

Few-flowered Shootingstar (Dodecatheon pulchellum)
The prolific Pretty  Shootingstar (Dodecatheon pulchellum) favoured the wetter areas in the meadow but could also be found mixed in with the other flowers as well.

Being out in this part of the estuary gives you a sense of how it must have been before the Comox Valley was developed. It is an isolated place, and even though it is so close to both the Comox Road and the Airpark, it somehow seems like a quiet secret garden.

This is a very sensitive area so visiting it on foot isn’t recommended. Consider renting a kayak and observing the wildflowers from the water. Many of these flowers can be observed on the Airpark side of the river as well.