The circling back of Kus-kus-sum
Throughout its history, the Courtenay River Estuary has lived in constant flux. And now, a renewal comes once again.
*This story also appears in Compass Magazine.
The Kus-kus-sum site on the Courtenay River estuary is accustomed to change. As the liaison between ocean and river, estuaries live in constant flux—a ritual of ebbs and floods but also a centuries-meandering as the river forges new pathways through its delta. However, the Kus-kus-sum site hasn’t always existed in an estuary, nor above sea level.
Take a holiday to Vancouver Island 14,000 years ago, and you wouldn’t lack for ice. You’d find yourself shivering on an ice sheet that’s over one kilometer thick in places. This is not a quiet place. Chunks of glacier creak, snap, and splash as they break off into the sea.
Where would you find the Kus-kus-sum site on your visit? Well, that’s difficult to untangle explains Jerome Lesemann. The Vancouver Island University Earth Science Professor completed his PhD on glacial landforms and is interested in reconstructions of ancient environments.
At that time, major ice sheets began to melt across the globe. You can think of the glaciers as big storage containers for water, and as they melt, “the glaciers shrink, and water goes back into the ocean. So, what we tend to see is sea level rising.”
Another effect of ice sheets comes from their weight on the Earth’s crust. “They actually depress it,” says Lesemann. “They basically create these huge divots in the land and regress the crust downward.” Over time, the weight on the crust lessens.
Given these two interacting factors, one raising sea level and the other raising the land, pinpointing the site’s elevation at this time is difficult, but around the Comox Valley, “the total amount of depression was probably roughly 150 meters,” putting the Kus-kus-sum site somewhere underwater.
As the centuries and millennia past, braided glacial rivers roiled and boiled grey blue. They forced sand, gravel, and stone downstream to collect at sea level. As the glaciers receded further, the Kus-kus-sum site emerged from underwater around 8,000 years ago.
The site has looked more or less the same for the last 5,000-6,000 years. Around this time, the North Coast Salish established permanent settlements across their territories.
“When we start to talk about that connection to water, that’s the importance of the [Kus-kus-sum] site from a KFN perspective.”
Visit the Kus-kus-sum site before European settlers arrived, and you might have heard the soft cadence of the Pentlatch River Song rippling along a gentle moving estuary. Richard Hardy is a member of K'ómoks First Nation (KFN) and sings the Pentlatch River Song to me over the phone. He picks up the beat. When the rains come and the river’s flow picks up, so does the song’s timing, explains Hardy, who is also a KFN Councillor. “Even our songs are reflective of that area and the end of that River.”
Today, KFN represents the formerly separate tribes of the Sathloot (‘sath-loot), Sasitla (sa-‘seet-la), Ieeksen (eye-‘ick-sun) and Xa’xe (‘ha-hey) and the culturally similar but distinct Pentlatch. The ancestors of KFN occupied the extent of their territories which supported thousands of people who built a sophisticated and rich culture.
Hardy explains that KFN’s priority is water. “Water is so important. When we look at water from an Indigenous perspective, there’s the spirituality side of things. With water comes all the various animals that we have in our songs and dances. When we start to talk about that connection to water, that’s the importance of the [Kus-kus-sum] site from a KFN perspective.”
The entire estuary surrounding the site was a land of plenty and significant to KFN. “The Kus-kus-sum site was our gathering place for harvesting food,” says Hardy. But also a place where they placed mortuary boxes in trees, “so there’s a spiritual connection there.”
A man named George Mitchell was the first white settler to arrive in the estuary area sometime in the 1850s. He acquired a large waterfront acreage between the present-day location of the K'ómoks First Nation and the Kus-kus-sum site. According to Land of Plenty, A History of the Comox District, he finally pre-empted the land in 1862—a total of 150 acres.
More settlers arrived to pre-empt the best land, a naturally treeless area described by early European explorers as a “prairie,” along the Courtenay and Tsolum Rivers and on the east side of the Kus-kus-sum site. While they did not farm directly on the site, farmers did change the landscape around the estuary in the form of dikes and ditches to control the flow of water.
In the late 19th century, “a number of K'ómoks chiefs finally got the opportunity to meet with different Indigenous commissioners to start finding areas of interest for a reserve,” says Hardy. “That was a priority site for our chiefs at that time. And unfortunately, the property never did come back to K'ómoks.”
The site remained mostly unchanged from its natural state as seen in an aerial photograph in 1931. In 1947, brothers Ron and Roy, and their father, Clarence, started a sawmill on the site of today’s Arden Elementary. By 1949 they had striped the timber from the Kus-kus-sum site on the Courtenay River and established their sawmill there.
Over the following decades, the Fields Sawmill would change hands numerous times. As the operation grew, sawmill owners would thrust new pilings further into the estuary and infill behind the new wall to create more space.
In the 1970s the sawmill owners began to infill the site’s south side and into what’s now called the Hollyhocks marsh. Concerned residents stopped the further incursion into the estuary, and the provincial government purchased the land to become a protected area.
The mill produced lumber for the Japanese market. At one time, it was one of the Comox Valley’s top employers and an integral part of its economy. In the end, the specialization in the Japanese market would be its downfall as other specialty mills could produce the lumber cheaper.
In 2006, the mill shut its doors and the owners, now Interfor, auctioned off the equipment. The site went up for sale in 2008. In subsequent years applications to turn the site into condominiums was put to city council. Ironically, the development around the site saved it from that fate. Variances from the road and the flight path for the Courtenay airpark meant there was little room to build out or up.
“This is a prime example of reconciliation.”
Fast forward to September 2022. Where developers had once hoped condominiums would go, an orange Hitachi excavator reaches into a muddy pit and pinches a mud-covered log between its claw and bucket. There’s an odour of fragrant yellow cedar mixed with dingy soil. The site is wet, and the old sawmill’s steel retaining wall holds back the river. The huge machine struggles to pull the old-growth cedar from where it sat lodged in the mud for the last seven decades or so. With a crack and splinter, the former piling breaks free to be added to the pile of other pulled logs.
The logs and other compounding factors have slowed restoration work, explains Caitlin Pierzchalski. She’s a watershed steward, restoration ecologist, and Project Watershed Society’s executive director. Established in 1993, Project Watershed Society and its members are watershed stewards. They purchased the former mill site from Interfor in November 2020 and are holding it in trust for K’ómoks First Nation and the City of Courtenay, who will become joint title owners.
The plan is to restore the site back to natural grading. They determined the natural grading by looking at historical aerial photos and by surveying the Hollyhock Marsh. The marsh is in a natural state and also serves as an example for the types of vegetation they will plant.
“There are no plans to have a park-like setting or paths. This will be a natural site not made for humans.”
The iconic hum of vehicles rolling over the metal grate on the 17th street bridge reverberates over the piles of logs and dirt. But walk into the Hollyhock marsh area, and the noisescape lightens. The thick roots from the many Sitka spruces sprawl along a forest floor that is bare of delicate plants. At times of high water, this area floods. The river flows across the feet of alders, cottonwoods, and Sitka spruce as it has forever. This is what naturally happened at the Kus-kus-sum site as well. One third of the site will be low-lying, while the other two thirds closer to Comox Road will be slightly higher in elevation and either flat or sloping. There are no plans to have a park-like setting or paths. This will be a natural site not made for humans.
The steel wall along the river was built in the late 20th century and replaced the former retaining wall of pilings and boards. Pierzchalski says the wall removal is planned for 2024.
The site will provide climate change mitigation in the carbon catching trees. But also provide salmon habitat and habitat for other animals. The trees they plant on the site will grow and “it will slowly restore itself over the next 20 years,” says Pierzchalski.
For Richard Hardy and KFN the site’s restoration means a circling back and a chance to re-establish their ties to an area that they’ve always maintained as a site of importance. “To me,” says Hardy, “this is a prime example of reconciliation because of the close ties that we had to that area, having it taken away from us, and now, through this particular project, the ability to have it come back to K’ómoks’s hands.”
As the tide rolls in and out of the estuary one more time, this place will begin to take on its old face and look more like it has for the past few millennia. Hopefully, it can live in peace for a few thousand years until the inexorable circles back, and a new ice age renews it again.
Interested in helping out? There are several ways to contribute to the restoration, like sponsoring a salmon, donating a used car, or by e-transferring to firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out projectwatershed.ca for more information.
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