We’ve only seen them up close once, though most years when we go out to Reifel Bird Sanctuary, ever hopeful, we hear them, their squawking, quacking, chattering discussion a far-off wailing cacophony filling the sky. Come closer I think to myself. Come closer so we can see you! Like that time you all landed in the field right by the road. Come closer!
But all we get is their distant insistent conversation teasing us, and occasionally see groups of them wheeling high overhead.
But this year they are here where we can see them!
They come from Russia. Thousands of them. Every year they soar along the Pacific Flyway from Wrangel Island, Siberia to spend the winters here on the wide fallow fields of the Fraser River delta south of Vancouver and down across the US border in the Skagit Valley.
On a bright blue-sky day late October when the fall colours are at their most brilliant,
we head out to Westham Island in the delta. Let’s go see if the snow geese are there! We’re hopeful but realistic. We go almost every year but it’s only been that once that there has been a crowd of them feeding in a field right by one of the back-country roads; feeding in a field where we can actually stop and watch them.
Westham Island is one of the bigger islands in the delta and is reached by an ancient one-lane wooden bridge, a swing bridge that has been in service for over 100 years. We creak over it. Immediately after crossing the bridge there’s a disconcerting sign that feels like something out of the Wild West: the island is protected by the Westham Island Gun Club. Okay then. We don’t know what it means. We’ve never run afoul of them. I don’t think anyone has. It’s one of those strange anomalies, especially in Canada where vigilantism is frowned upon, and of course illegal. Maybe it has meaning for the farmers, but just leaves us city folk a bit nonplussed. Are they allowed to do this? Really? Are they hiding behind trees? Behind farmhouses or outbuildings? Ready to jump out, guns blazing, at the slightest infraction?
We ignore it as usual and drive on past the farms. Halloween is coming; it’s a party of pumpkins!
We see people picking them, dotted in fields against the deep blue backdrop of Vancouver’s ever-present mountains
but we continue on. We’re on a mission to find Snow Geese.
In the Fraser River delta there are more than twenty-five thousand of them. They spend winters here, and as far south as Mexico. This is their homeland. They’re native to North America, but their breeding grounds are in various places north of the tree-line in the Arctic tundra, and in the case of the Fraser/Skagit group it’s Wrangel Island.
As we drive further along, around a wide sweeping corner, and then around another, we hear them getting louder and louder. And then we see them! In a field right by the road! Screeching squawking honking, their relentless conversation, a continuous call and response, makes their presence plain. In groups they suddenly take flight for no discernible reason, the buffeting of their wings and the commotion of their voices filling the air.
And over and over more come in to land, seeming to flutter down, floating white tissues highlighted against the dark forest,
until the ground rises to meet them and the landing gear comes down.
Feet first they land amongst the crowd, unerringly adept at finding a spot in amongst the melee.
The Lesser Snow Goose grows to a height of about 70cm (27in) and can weigh as much as 2.7kg (6lb). The wingspan can be as wide as 165cm or 5.5 feet! They spend three months (July through September) in their far north breeding grounds. The rest of the year is spent in more southern areas or on their long migration (as long as 4800km or 3000 miles). During the migration large flocks band together and fly very high along very narrow corridors. The breeding population exceeds five million.
They cover the ground in a restless snowy blanket,
and I find an opening at the edge of the farmer’s field where I can creep closer, not caring about the mud, or the trespass (though I doubt the farmer would mind).
We watch for a long time taking in this spectacle of nature, this fiesta of unfettered wildlife, until we’ve had our fill.
It’s time to check out the pumpkin party!
Westham Island is a tiny island a short drive from Vancouver, and the westernmost island in the Fraser River delta as it flows into the Salish Sea. It is home to a world-class bird sanctuary, farms and farm stands, waterfront bike trails, and acres and acres of pumpkin patches.
Crossing the bridge to Westham is entering another world. The suburbs, the highways, the strip malls are all left far behind. It’s farm country. All kinds of berries are grown here, and leafy greens, and potatoes. And, of course, squashes. The fields are full with bright orange squashes.
First we see the workers, way off in one of the fields, in a relentless farm-hand conga line filling a trailer for market.
Soon after we see patches close to the road crawling with pumpkin pickers, focused, searching, debating, looking for the perfect one, or filling a wheelbarrow with all the pumpkins they can manage.
It’s a Halloween family specialty – a visit to Westham Island to pick your own pumpkin.
We move on, headed back to Vancouver. At the bridge we line up and wait. The swing has been rotated to allow a boat to pass through. The swing portion of the bridge is operated electrically these days, but I like this remarkable story: a one-armed gentleman operated the bridge manually until the age of 71. He finally retired when the electrical mechanism was installed.
While waiting I snap this shot between the bridge railings of one of the many float homes dotted around the marinas in Canoe Pass. I’m so curious about float homes. I have a friend who lives in one, and it’s beautiful. I think I’d enjoy living so close to the water.
With the boat safely through, and the swing back in place we crossover once more back into the big metropolis, along highways, past strip malls, through suburbs and so back to Vancouver. Weary, full, satisfied, we’ve reached the end of a sweet and memorable day.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.