This article is also available in audio format. Listen now, download, or subscribe to “Hakai Magazine Audio Edition” through your favorite podcast app.
Thirty minutes’ drive south from the glassy condos and clogged thoroughfares of Vancouver, British Columbia, finds me near the end of a narrow dirt road flanked by farmland, where the Fraser River delta meets the sea. It’s 6:00 a.m., barely dawn on the last day of April, and alongside the road the Fraser’s south arm runs fat and sleek in its spring freshet, a bright ribbon snaking across the still-shadowy fields. I park beside the two scientists I’m accompanying for the day. We greet one another in hushed voices, close our car doors gently, fumble into hip waders. I pocket my notebooks and camera; the scientists shoulder backpacks and hoist coolers. The road ends in a grassy bank that marks the extent of all but the very highest tides; we’ve come as the tide is falling so must cross a final half kilometer of mud before reaching the actual Pacific Ocean. It will be a slog. Mudflats usually are; they’re not the most welcoming ecosystems. For humans, anyway.
We leave the road and clamber over massive tree trunks with time-softened edges, some of which are speckled with so much snow goose shit, pungent as ammonia, that the air reeks like oven cleaner. The driftwood yields to muck that sucks at our heels, then to shockingly green eelgrass swirling in pockets of seawater, and finally to bare mud that slips threateningly beneath the soles of my unfamiliar hip waders. We approach the crowd we’ve come to meet: the tens of thousands of western sandpipers that blanket the exposed mud.