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Opinion: Celebrating International Wilderness Week — Squamish style

'When we think of wilderness, we tend to think on a macro scale — of vast landscapes and iconic species like bears, elk and cougars. But wilderness exists on both the macro and micro scale — and everything in between.'
We are lucky in Squamish to be surrounded by wilderness — it’s right on our doorstep waiting to be explored: in the forest or estuary, along the river, or by the ocean. Autumn is a season of change and there’s lots to observe if you take the time to slow down and look. There is a thrill in discovering something new or different along a familiar trail, and if you make a habit of it, you may start noticing seasonal patterns.

When we think of wilderness, we tend to think on a macro scale — of vast landscapes and iconic species like bears, elk and cougars. But wilderness exists on both the macro and micro scale — and everything in between.

Bears will be fattening up for the winter and getting ready to hibernate. Give them space and respect any trail closures. Check sandbanks along the river for bear, otter, elk and deer tracks. If you have kids, making a plaster cast of the tracks is a fun activity. Western toads will also be moving toward their winter burrows, where they will hibernate below frost-line until early spring. Toads are generally nocturnal, so the best time to see them is nearer dawn and dusk.

Migrating birds are making their way south to wintering grounds in the southern U.S., Central or South America. You may see small mixed flocks feeding on berries and seeds, or you may hear their chatter.

The estuary is an excellent area for birding, as there are a variety of habitats, including forest, marsh, meadows, and intertidal channels. Move quietly and stop often. Look for raptors perched on snags or soaring over open fields. Watch for movement in shrubs or trees, or on the mudflats. And check out the channels for diving and dabbling ducks.

The Squamish Environment Society (SES) has a monthly estuary bird count where you can learn from experienced birders. Or download a birding app and learn on your own. Merlin Bird ID is a great free app for beginners and can help you identify birds by sight or sound.

How many species do you see? Where are they perched or feeding? What are they eating? As leaves fall from trees and shrubs, nests become visible in the bare branches.

Notice the different shapes, sizes and nest materials – but leave them in place.

On walks, try to also notice the micro-habitats around you: on the ground, under logs, clinging onto rocks and trees. How many different types of moss and lichen are there? Are there any tiny creatures? What has changed since you last walked the trail? If you want help with an ID, you can take a photo and upload it to iNaturalist, another free app that is a great tool for learning about all the local species and sharing knowledge.

October is mushroom month! And beyond the well-known edibles is a vast array of species, both big and small, from large, colourful russulas, to creepy bleeding tooth fungus, adorable bird’s nest fungus — complete with ‘eggs’ — and jellies like witches’ butter.

All of these perform valuable services for the surrounding ecosystem, including making nutrients more available to their host trees, pulling heavy metals out of the soil, and helping decomposition. Fungi can be hard to identify down to species, or even genus, but you can get help from the iNaturalist community — or just enjoy the diversity of colour, form, and habit.

As autumn moves toward winter, coho, then chum salmon will return to the rivers to spawn, eagles will arrive to feed on the spawning salmon, and wintering ducks will take shelter in the estuary channels. How many eagles do you see each day? What are their daily habits? It’s essential to be mindful of your impact at this time. Keep dogs on a leash and out of the rivers. Enjoy the eagles from a distance and avoid paddling in the estuary’s central channel.

SES has several projects that focus on fall-winter nature appreciation and contribute to knowledge about local biodiversity. Everyone is welcome and they are a great way to meet other nature enthusiasts:

*Monthly estuary bird counts – Generally held on the second Sunday of the month. Bird data from our counts is one of the most detailed and complete compilations in the province.

*Audubon Christmas Bird Count – A full day of birding held mid-December.

*Biodiversity Squamish – Yearround. Join more than 1,700 people contributing to this iNaturalist project. Explore on your own or connect with others in the area. Upload observations to the project to share your findings and get help with species IDs. The species list compiled from Biodiversity Squamish observations was an important part of the successful application for Átl’ka7tsem / Howe Sound to become a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.  

*EagleWatch – November through early January. Sign up to volunteer and count eagles at the Eagle Run dike.

*Brackendale Winter Eagle Count – First Sunday in January. A full day of eagle counting.

*Western Toad Monitoring Project – Send in observations year-round, or sign up to help with breeding surveys and monitoring in the spring/summer.

More information about these and other SES happenings can be found on the SES website and on Facebook at

Wilderness week is Oct. 18 to 22.

BC Parks Volunteer of the Year for 2019/2020 Rachel Shephard is an active member of the Squamish Environment Society.