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Knowing Nature . . .

Hornby Island's Unique Character

September 29, 2006
Jocie Ingram

Helliwell Bluffs
Helliwell Bluffs
hoto © Dave Ingram

All of the islands along our coast have a unique character, and Hornby Island is no exception. Visitors can enjoy the white sandy beaches of Tribune Bay, the spectacular cliffs of Helliwell Park, or the fine views from the top of Mt Geoffrey. The arts flourish on the islands, and the many artisans are undoubtedly inspired by the landscape. Naturalists are lured to the island by the richness and diversity of life that it harbours, including an abundance of birds and many rare plants.

Last weekend we found ourselves on Hornby, taking in all that the island has to offer. It so happened that our visit coincided with the Hornby Island Fall Fair. Locals gave us directions to the farm where the fair was held. This spot is the sort of property one dreams about. Broad, golden hay fields sloped down to the ocean, studded with magnificent maple trees.

We wandered around the fair for quite a while, eating blackberry pie heaped with whipped cream, and admiring some of the most stunning arrangements of vegetables I had ever seen. Everyone seemed happy and relaxed and I couldn’t help but feel I’d stepped into a Utopian dream.

After taking in Hornby culture at the fair, we decided to hike around Helliwell Park. John Helliwell donated the 69-hectare property to the province in 1966. A small plaque at the entrance states that Helliwell was officially made a park as of September 16, 1966. The day of our visit, September 16, turned out to be the park’s 40th anniversary.

The trail begins in the forest, but soon opens onto grassy bluffs atop sandstone and conglomerate cliffs shaped by thousands of years of waves. We noticed how dry everything was, after a summer of virtually no rain. Grasshoppers jumped at our feet and non-stinging sand-wasps buzzed about the sandy trail.

At different seasons, this scene is very different. In April the bluffs are flushed with green, and flowers such as spring-gold, blue-eyed Mary, and pink sea blush colour the landscape. In the winter and early spring, the waters of Lambert Channel may be thick with birds such as Scoters, Widgeon, Harlequins and Long-tailed Ducks.

If one is lucky, it is possible to see Pacific white-sided Dolphins or Killer Whales off shore. More common are the seals and sea lions that frequent the area.

Helliwell is home to many rare creatures and plants. The Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly, a rare, brightly patterned butterfly, has been spotted here. Many unusual plants cling to life on the bluffs, including the diminutive red maid, and popcorn flower. The only cactus found on BC coast, the prickly pear cactus, favours the dry rocks of the bluff edge.

Arbutus Berries
Arbutus Berries
hoto © Dave Ingram

Noticeable to the visitor at any time of year are the charismatic trees that grow at the top of the bluffs. The Arbutus, or Madrone tree, has distinctive peeling orange-brown bark and shiny green leaves. In the spring, the tree is covered in creamy white blooms, and in the fall there are clusters of bright red berries. The name Arbutus means “strawberry tree” in Latin, in reference to the berries. The tree has a southern, exotic look, and its range does not extend much further north than Campbell River. Arbutus grows in association with another remarkable tree, the Garry Oak. Some of the oaks, with twisted trunks, are dwarfed due to the wind and exposure of the bluffs.

Rarities aren’t limited to land, as the waters around Helliwell are rich in marine life. Flora Islet, off the tip of St John Point, is one of only two places worldwide where divers can see the rare six-gill shark. This primitive shark of the deep seas rises to the shallows surrounding the islet. Flora Islet was added to the park in 1997 as part of the Pacific Heritage Marine Legacy.

Evergreen Huckleberry
Evergreen Huckleberry
hoto © Dave Ingram

The Helliwell trail ends as it began, with a walk through the woods. These aren’t just any woods, but monumental, old growth Douglas-firs. Thick slabs of bark protect these trees from fire. The under story consists of familiar plants such as Oregon grape and sword fern, but an unusual shrub also grows here, known as the evergreen huckleberry. This native shrub, celebrated as garden ornamental, has small evergreen leaves with toothed margins, which grow in a flattened arrangement along the stem. In the spring is has pink, bell-like flowers and in the fall through to winter it produces small blue-black berries. First Nations peoples used to harvest the berries every fall.

Concluding the five-kilometre Helliwell loop, we stopped in briefly at Tribune Bay Provincial Park. The sandy, crescent beach was tempting for a swim, but a cold wind reminded us that fall is here. There is so much to enjoy on Hornby Island, at any time of year, that I know that we will be back to visit again.

To reach Hornby Island, drive to Buckley Bay (20 km south of Courtenay). A 10-minute ferry ride takes one to Denman Island. From Denman it is a 15-minute drive to Gravelly Bay, where a ferry connects to Shingle Spit on Hornby Island. To Helliwell Park, follow Shingle Spit Rd to the Co-op, turn left and follow Central Rd to St John's Point Rd and continue to the park.

Click on a link below to view the CVNS newspaper column.

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