Julie Leffelaar points to the right, through the thick green underbrush crowding the dirt path we’re walking on.
“The wetland is just through there. You can’t see it now. In the spring though, during runoff, it’s a lake,” she says. “And in the summer, it stays wet and green. Nothing’s going to burn in there.”
Leffelaar knows this trail well. She’s been walking it pretty much since she moved here 25 years ago, and raised her family beside it.
“My kid lived in here when he was growing up,” she says, as we wander along the path. “He was an outdoor kid. Every year he’d build a new fort somewhere through here.”
The kilometer-long trail, called the Waterline, winds along a narrow valley uphill from Kinnaird Park, just off 14th Ave. in South Castlegar. It connects up with other trails in the area, creating nice recreational loops.
With high rock bluffs on one side, and the wetland in the middle, it seems like a quiet wilderness refuge, and a perfect playground for outdoors types. Indeed, rock climbers use the Waterline Walls regularly, and anywhere from 50-80 people walk, run or bike the path daily, Leffelaar estimates.
“It is pure nature: quiet, undeveloped,” she says. “It’s part of the neighbourhood — you walk along here, you see all your neighbours.”
Leffelaar thinks it would make a great park. And a City of Castlegar study 25 years ago identified the area for its recreational potential.
There’s just one problem. It’s all private property — and anyone on the trails is technically trespassing. The owners, however, don’t seem to mind the activity, and haven’t taken steps to block the path for all these years.
But when a “For Sale” sign went up in the fall on one of the two properties that divide the valley, it set off alarm bells for Leffelaar.
“At first I kind of ignored it,” she says. “Then a new company took it up in May. They were aggressive, were doing advertising. It made everyone go ‘uh oh’.
“If Joe Blow buys it, sticks a house in middle and says ‘stay out’,” she says. “Then the whole idea is shot.”
The “idea” is to buy the 80-acre property — the owner is asking about $350,000 — and preserve it for the public.
So Leffelaar, who’s been active in many community groups and drives, got to work.
She formed a group, the Castlegar Wetlands Team. It’s got a couple of dozen members now, and over 100 supporters on Facebook. She contacted the city to see if the area might make a good addition to the city’s park inventory. She brought in a biologist to check the system ecology (among other things, he found an endangered snail living there). She inquired if any international conservation organizations would buy the land.
“I tend to be a bit of a bulldog when I get my teeth into something,” she says.
But while the response has been generally sympathetic, there’s no pool of money out there just waiting to be spent. And with the property on the market, time is not on Leffelaar’s side.
So Leffelaar’s hoping for an angel investor to swoop in and save the land she loves.
“Someone to say ‘I’ll put down a lump of money, you guys get busy and reimburse me when you can,’” she says. “There are government grants for recreation, for environmental projects, but they all need time to apply for. They take a lot of time and work.
“This [sale] could happen tomorrow, it might not. We are only interested citizens, and we only have so much energy. We can’t work on all the different issues all the time.”
Today, on this walk we’re on, she’s brought along Yann Troutet, a member of the The Association of West Kootenay Rock Climbers (TAWKROC) board.
TAWKROC has thrown its support behind The Wetland Team’s idea. They own a significant piece of the rock bluffs at the south end of this little valley, the Kinnaird Bluffs. (The land purchased, it so happens, in just the way Leffelaar hopes — an angel investor putting up the cash, and the organization paying it back over time.) Creating a park could help make the whole area a climber’s pardise.
“We have no position on the Waterline property, but we can totally envision the TAWKROC property being one of the pillars of a recreational corridor,” says Troutet.
So Leffelaar is doing what she can, hoping no one wants to buy a swamp in Castlegar in the meantime. She met this week with the city’s planning commission, hoping for some indication the city is willing to add another plot of land to its park inventory.
But after talking to the Nature Conservacy, the World Wildlife Fund, and a dozen other potential land steward groups with no immediate interest in buying the land, she’s pinning a lot of hope on one investor who might be persuaded.
“But if we lose this last interested person, I am not sure what we can do,” she admits. “Maybe the city. The city owns land, they could swap them property downtown instead of this. It’s not like they’d have to cash out.”
It’s time to return to our vehicles. On the way back a hummingbird starts dive-bombing us, trying to make us move off its territory. Much smaller than the forces it faces, but no fear when it comes to protecting its land.
Sort of like Leffelaar.