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Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary celebrates 40 years

New executive director Kathleen Burton has big plans for urban sanctuary
Kathleen Burton

Kathleen Burton wanders thoughtfully along a stretch of worn boardwalk, its aging wood bouncing under her feet.

The pedestrian pathway, part of the 300-metre network of floating boardwalk and wharves surrounding Swan Lake, is a passion Burton now shares with a dedicated group of volunteers, naturalists and biologists at the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary.

“So many people are still saying to me, ‘What’s Swan Lake?’ And I’m always surprised,” says Burton, who became executive director with the non-profit society earlier this month. “But in celebrating our 40th anniversary this year, it’s a chance to say, ‘Look what you’ve got in your own backyard.’”

The delicate boardwalks – installed in 1991 – are billed as a “naturalist’s tool to bridge people to nature.” Burton will now oversee fundraising for the estimated $1.1-million boardwalk replacement with updated, aluminum structures.

“The aluminum is still beautiful and doesn’t detract from the setting,” says Burton, as she nears the end of the north wharf for a panoramic view of the lake. “It’s also environmentally friendly, so it won’t leak anything from treated wood into the water.”

Burton has a long and local history in leadership, public relations and fund development and was most recently executive director at Mount St. Mary Hospital Foundation. She’s also a board director to the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce and the Victoria Esquimalt Harbour Society, and volunteers with communications for the Saanich Police Department.

“I tweet for Ace the Mascot,” a secret she shares with a smile.

The sanctuary appealed to her deep love of nature, as it provides an impressive line-up of outdoor classes for children, adults and seniors and is used by many home-schooling parents as an education facility. (Burton’s own children grew up participating in the programs.) Classes range from birding tours for seniors to kindergarten classes on resident ducks, frog and bird habitats.

Christmas Hill, which sits north of McKenzie Avenue near the Pat Bay Highway, is still mostly covered in gnarled Garry oaks and serves as the second pillar of the nature sanctuary. Both properties are owned by the District of Saanich and maintained by the Nature Sanctuary Society through a 1975 land management agreement. Saanich provides about 50 per cent of annual expenses – about $340,000 this year – while the remainder is made up of donations, memberships, program fees and fundraising events such as the annual plant sale this weekend, where 4,000 flora varieties will be available for purchase.

“Christmas HIll and Swan Lake are two very different habitats, but it’s very interesting to showcase both of those natural habitats within the city,” Burton says.

Close to 19,000 people took part in sanctuary programs in 2014, said Joan Cowley, board chair. A dedicated network of more than 100 volunteers contributed over 7,500 hours last year doing everything from site restoration and gardening to bird walks, nature house reception and assisting with the many education programs and special event activities.

“We also have a group of quilters who volunteer their time to make and sell items in our gift shop,” said Cowley, who began working at Swan Lake in the mid-1990s overseeing volunteers.

“There’s something going on all the time. If you drop in during the week, you’ll see school groups, naturalists guiding people through the area,” she said.

Cowley and Burton are both busy preparing for the sanctuary’s plant sale this weekend, and the anniversary celebration happening May 23 at the nature house (3873 Swan Lake Rd.).

“My first week on the job I hiked up to the top of Christmas Hill and I was in awe,” Burton says, as she climbs the stone steps from Swan Lake to the nature house. “It is such an honour to have this opportunity to guide the sanctuary.”

For a list of programs, to volunteer or for more information, visit