Welcome To The Wilderness!

Strathcona Wilderness Institute has spent more than 20 years providing interpretive programs and information services in Strathcona Provincial Park.

School Group exploring Paradise Meadows in Strathcona Provincial Park.  Photo: Krista Kaptein
School Group exploring Paradise Meadows in Strathcona Provincial Park. Photo: Krista Kaptein

The SWI celebrated its platinum anniversary in 2015 with a host of interpretive programs, and even though there were still a couple feet of snow on some of the circle trails in early June, SWI volunteers were already planning an encore for 2016.

The park is 245,000 hectares of alpine wilderness in the Island Mountain Range mountains between the Comox Valley and Campbell River. The SWI provides information and interpretive services to the estimated 20,000 summer visitors who come to enjoy the beauty of Paradise Meadows.

The non-profit society might be 20 years old, but it is still pertinent to park preservation and education. “I think it’s more relevant than ever before,” said Steve Smith, who recently retired from the SWI Board after serving as a director since its inception in the mid-1990s. “There’s less money in parks. The pressure is on the Park from industry, from tourism and there’s more park as well.”

The dynamics of the Park have varied since it was established in 1911: there was a mine at one time, and logging, and a dam. “Now sensitivities have changed, people are really appreciating the wild areas,” Smith said. “We get people in that little Visitor Centre from all over the world.”

The Strathcona Wilderness Institute formed in 1995, and they began with a small hut near the entrance to the Park at Paradise Meadows. Since 2010 they have had a proper building that shares a parking lot with Raven Lodge at Mount Washington, and they easily see 100 people a day during the height of the summer season (about 10,000 people in a typical summer). There is also a visitors’ hut at the Buttle Lake entrance to the park.

The SWI’s members are all volunteers; passion for Strathcona Provincial Park and preservation of the alpine meadows drive them from year to year.

Smith and his wife began their association with the Park with Friends of Strathcona, and that led to the formation of the Wilderness Institute. The Friends organized a conference at Strathcona Park Lodge north of Campbell River and invited BC Parks staff and government officials; they all discussed the best way to protect the Park.

“One of the things that came out of that conference was education,” Smith said. “We decided we needed to start an education arm.”

Strathcona Wilderness Institute promotes awareness, appreciation and stewardship in the Park, and is separate from any political activism.
Twenty years on, the message is still strong, Smith said. Young people are losing their connection to nature, which is why preserving parks such as Strathcona  is vital, he said. “If there was ever a time our parks need help, it’s now,” he said.

When BC Parks stopped all park programs in 2000, SWI stepped up and created its own programs with guidelines from BC Parks. Volunteers take visitors on guided hikes and there are special talks planned throughout the season. The SWI has cultivated a strong core of Park Stewards through its volunteer program, and they were rewarded with the Volunteer of the Year award in 2011 from BC Parks.

Comox Valley photographer Krista Kaptein spent a lot of time in Paradise Meadows, so much so that she spent a few years with SWI as Coordinator of the Wilderness Centre (she stepped down last spring when funding for her position concluded).

Stewardship in the Park was integral for her. “Paradise Meadows is at the edge of the wilderness. It spans diverse user groups,” she said. “The more you learn about the flowers and what they are, for example, you learn some of them are rare. 

“It’s a special eco-system up there. It’s not the same as walking through an area that has been logged and regrown.” The advantage of taking a guided tour with an SWI volunteer, is that you learn the names of the plants and their role in that alpine eco-system, she said.

Walks and talks are put on by members of the Comox District Mountaineering Club, the naturalists’ society, SWI members and sometimes guest experts such as the Marmot Recovery Centre or Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society.

Topics are often suggested by park visitors, and trending activities like geocaching. “My own experience is even though you make think you know a lot, you come away with a lot more appreciation and more attachment to the place,” Kaptein said.

For summer program information and trail conditions, please visit the SWI website at www.strathconapark.org.