athleen Burton

athleen Burton

Society provides sanctuary for endangered eco-systems

Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary a retreat from urban lifestyle

On a map, Swan Lake looks like a pale blue puddle on green matting placed in the midst of the Patricia Bay Highway, McKenzie Avenue, Saanich Road and the Lochside Regional Trail.

But Swan Lake is more than just a location. It is the feeling of suddenly being far away from society and its stresses, without having to leave it, at least not physically.

One moment, you are zipping along a major thoroughfare, passing high-rises and shopping malls. The next moment, you are standing on the floating boardwalk that spans the lake, spotting aquatic birds.

Kathleen Burton, executive director of the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary, knows this feeling.

“When [people] stumble upon this, they think, ‘This is right in the middle of it all,’” she says. “It is not on the outskirts. You don’t have to drive two hours to get to this. We are 15 minutes from pretty much anywhere in Victoria.”

Preserving this feeling is the purpose of the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary Society, whose official history began in 1975. More than a decade earlier, the District of Saanich started to acquire land around Swan Lake and Christmas Hill with the aim of “retaining the area in its natural state, for the use and enjoyment of the public.” According to the available records, the district paid about $230,000 for much of the property around the lake. It could not have been in worse shape.

When ocean waters receded from the area some 8,000 years ago, it left behind a fresh water lake said to be about 34 hectares in area – almost four times its current size.

Effluents from homes, farms and other businesses that had sprung up in the area following the arrival of European settlers had given Swan Lake the reputation “of a large cesspool, shunned by anyone with a sense of smell,” according to its official guide.

The expansion of sewer services started to ease, if not eliminate, the environmental damage and Saanich eventually embarked on an ambitious project to create a nature sanctuary that would eventually encompass Christmas Hill, several additional properties around Swan Lake, the floating walkway and the current Nature House, where the society maintains various natural displays and hosts events designed to educate the public about the rare and endangered flora and fauna in the sanctuary.

Christmas Hill – connected to Swan Lake by a trail – alone counts among one of the few mountaintops with significant Garry oaks.

Some 60,000 people visit the Swan Lake sanctuary each year and the society is in the middle of fundraising to replace the sanctuary’s floating boardwalk through a clever “Give a Sheet” campaign that encourages donations towards its replacement, a project estimated to cost some $800,000, with $300,000 already in the bank.

This effort points to an ethical dilemma that confronts all organization that that try to preserve ecosystems: by making them accessible, they expose them to the most invasive species of them all — humans — thereby undermining the very agenda of preservation.

Burton is aware of this dilemma and sanctuary has a code of conduct to preserve its plants and animals. “It is not like that they are trying to hurt things,” she says. “More often than not, they are not aware [of damage they might be doing]. As you soon as you say, they are ‘oh, my gosh” and they are feeling very remorseful for it.”

The bridge and other improvements also present teaching opportunities.

“That is a way for us to tell our story more,” she said. “It is a way for people to get out in the middle of lake, where they wouldn’t normally be able to be and get a different view and often see a lot of different things that they wouldn’t be able to see. But it is also for educational programming.”

The Swan Lake Christmas Hill Sanctuary Society has charged itself with the preservation of an object subject to complex natural processes, many of which lie outside the society’s control. Preserving and maintaining Swan Lake Christmas Hill Sanctuary Society also lacks a definitive end goal and requires a commitment that cuts across generations.“It’s not just about you and I,” she says.

Burton says volunteers are the key. The society has some 400 names in its database of volunteers and among its core group of 100 volunteers, some have been with the society for decades.

“They are pulling ivy, pulling blackberry and planting as well,” she says. “So they are removing the invasive plants and helping to re-establish the native plants. Some of those people have come to us for the last 20 years.”

Education plays another important part in the long-term mission of the society. “In terms of protecting the land, through our educational programs, that is a big piece of why we do what we do,” she says.

Burton says these words sitting in her office from where she can survey Swan Lake. Society with all of its distractions, but also its achievements lies just beyond the trees that rim the lake. Burton is confident that is where it will remain for the foreseeable future.

The district is committed to buying nearby homes as they become available, according to Burton. In fact, the district already owns several homes that will eventually become part of the sanctuary.

“So it’s not going to be like the sanctuary is going to be encroached upon, she says. “The sanctuary will actually expand over time.”