Exploring the Nanaimo River Estuary

Posted by Gerry Thomasen on Thursday, February 21st, 2008 at 10:02pm.

The Nanaimo River Estuary is just south of downtown. The clean, rushing water scatters all kinds of sediments into the ocean to form a wide delta loved by gulls, eagles, oysters and log booms.

Three of us took to a canoe and a kayak, and explored this beautiful desolation on a sunny Sunday in February. Here's a satellite image of where we went:

Nanaimo River Estuary satellite

We started on Maki Rd by Southgate Mall, putting into the water in a narrow canal cut into a marshy area. We could see a lot of gulls congregating at the other end of this canal, so we figured it emptied into the ocean. Turns out we were right, but, not in the way we imagined.

Deploying boats in a drainage canal

The canal came to an abrupt end, narrowing into a culvert that ran under the hillside. The culvert was large enough that we were able to take the boats through!

After the culvert, we emerged in that landscape where even elevation is washed away, and the occasional hardy tree looks embarrassed to be seen there.

The water was clear, so we could see the white speckles of infrequent barnacles on the rocks three meters below. Huge stumps, smoothed by their long journey down from Mt Moriarty and Mt Benson, were strewn about on the banks.

Stump in Nanaimo River Estuary

We spotted a train bridge off to the side, where the Chase River runs out from behind The Bold Knight and the Calico Cat Teahouse. It's a cool little bridge, an extension of the same line (the "Wellcox Spur") that crosses above the highway by Southgate Mall.

Chase River estuary trestle from below

After the bridge we turned south, upriver. The current was gentle against us as we pulled past the Living Forest Campground and its pretty cliffs. Eagles shared the air with screaming seabirds, and there were signs of old industrial activity on the shores, including a huge old wheel-shaped artifact of the shipping industry.

We paddled upriver for 1km, then turned back to the ocean via a new artery of the delta. Some very interesting little rapids got my adrenaline up, in my little canoe. After all our planning and my resolve not to take my eyes off the boiling waters, I experienced an interesting distraction. There was something in a little logjam on the side of the stream, almost at eye level as we shot past. It looked like a dead beaver or something, with soaking wet fur. We careened onward, and I kept staring at it, trying to figure out what it was. Turns out it was a dead bald eagle. We hit a rock. My canoe's okay.

Coming back down into the flats, we saw some cool stuff. Check out this fence post that's been exposed by erosion.

Fence post exposed by erosion, Nanaimo River Estuary

There were also amazing views of Nanaimo and Protection Island, Duke Point, and the coastal mountains. You can see mills, too, like the one by the Duke Pt ferries, and south of downtown.

You have to watch the tides in the estuary; a channel that was two meters deep on your way in, might give your keel only a few centimeters on the way out. We canoe riders found several routes to be impassable, forcing us to get out or to push down hard on our paddles to make us lighter.

View of open water from Nanaimo River Estuary

The log booms are very interesting, or rather, the huge metal pilings are – the ones they're tied to. These mammoth posts are lined up in very straight rows which made me think of whoever placed them, so many decades ago. The posts are hundreds of meters apart, but because of their size, you can see down the whole line as you paddle by. They definitely have that feeling I like to call "industrial gothic". The whole estuary does.

The other great presence in that big space is the memory of native activity (not all of which is a memory – a lot of Nanaimo's aboriginal population still fishes and recreates in these waters, which run past part of a reserve). There are shellfish and the kind of fish that swim, ducks and geese, seaweeds, berries, rosehips and much more. I can imagine hunter/gatherers loving this shallow estuary and its bounties, and indeed, there are photos in the museum archives of Snuneymoux people collecting harvests in the estuary.

Nanaimo River Estuary with Mount Benson in background

When we returned to where we first emerged into the waters of the estuary (out of that culvert), we found the fallen tide had made return impossible by that route. So, we carried the boats up to the train bridge, did a photo shoot, and then followed the tracks to where they run parallel to Haliburton St.

It was a great little adventure. I will definitely return to the Nanaimo River Estuary again, to explore more. I think it would be a great place to go in the summertime, wearing nothing but a swimsuit and carrying a fishnet sack to carry treasures in. You could explore all the way to Duke Point and back, with cool mud under your feet and the occasional deep channel to swim cross.

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