by REMY SCALZA on October 16, 2013
It’s a tiny island a short drive from Vancouver with its own world-class bird sanctuary, farm stands and acres of pumpkin patches, and waterfront bike trails you’ll likely have all to yourself.
And pretty much no one has heard of it.
Westham Island is roughly a 45-minute drive south of downtown Vancouver, past Richmond and just next door to the small agricultural community of Ladner. I checked out the island recently on a sunny fall day.
A narrow tributary of the Fraser River separates Westham Island from the mainland. To get across, you have to navigate a creaky, one-lane wooden bridge that’s been patched here and there with plywood. Sometimes the bridge rotates to allow passing boats to get by and you might find a half-dozen cars lined up and waiting to get across.
On the other side, the highways and strip malls and hustle-bustle of the Vancouver suburbs give way to flat farmland stretching away on either side of a country road. All kinds of berries, leafy greens and potatoes are grown in the rich soil here, but the cash crop this time of year is pumpkins.
I managed to find a parking spot along the road next to Westham Island Herb Farm, which was crawling with eager pumpkin pickers. A lineup of scarecrows pointed the way to the patch out back, which was studded with bright orange squashes in all shapes and sizes. The going price was $.35 a pound. Alternately – if you had serious pumpkin needs – you could opt to pay $55 to fill up a wheelbarrow with all the gourds you could carry.
After browsing the pumpkins, meeting a pair of donkeys and a shaggy cow at the petting zoo and checking out the organic kale in the general store, I got back in the car and continued on down Westham Island Road. The road, which is pretty much the only one on the island, dead-ends a mile or so later at another highlight: the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
While the Reifel sanctuary might not exactly be a hidden gem (the parking lot was filled beyond capacity when I visited), it amazes me how few Vancouverites have been there. The 740-acre, waterfront refuge – intersected with leafy, winding pathways, lagoons and quiet backwaters – provides habitat for some 250 species of birds throughout the year. Admission is $5 and you can buy a bag of birdseed for $1.
On any given day, you’ll be swarmed by hundreds (often thousands) of ducks, who want your precious seeds. Over the weekend, I also saw at least a half-dozen great blue herons perched out in the water, red-winged blackbirds, brilliantly coloured wood ducks and tiny finches that have learned to eat out of your hand.
At one point, I followed a gravel path out to a long dike on the edge of the Fraser River Estuary, where a sea of reeds stretches to the Strait of Georgia. Here I ran into the sanctuary’s celebrity residents: a flock of metre-tall sandhill cranes. The friendly birds – with long spindly legs, shaggy grey feathers and a brilliant patch of red feathers on their heads – can be lured in for a closer look with a bribe of seeds.
After leaving the sanctuary, I headed back the way I came and crossed back over the rickety wooden bridge for one last stop. I took a right turn onto River Road and followed to where it dead-ends at a set of dikes. The flat, gravel tops make perfect bike paths.
I hopped on my mountain bike and pedalled along the waterfront, with the massive cranes at the Tsawwassen Port visible in the distance. The pathway – empty except for a handful of walkers – extends out to a point and then curls back inland, tracing the contours of a farm field.
After about 15 minutes of very leisurely riding, I saw a thick white band along the shore ahead. As I got closer, I realized I was looking at snow geese – thousands of them. The stark white birds – which look like bleached-out versions of Canadian geese – migrate every winter from Alaska in enormous flocks and spend a few weeks here.
When I passed by, they took off all at once, in a whirlwind of honking and flapping. In the air, however, they were the picture of elegance – snow-white bodies with black-tipped wings arrayed in long Vs that rose high over the island.