I remember it like it was yesterday. Driving down Riverbottom Road in Cowichan in my sister’s red Dodge Grand Caravan, rounding a corner just before Barnjum and hearing a “pop, pop, pop”.
It was this week 10 years ago, and my sister and her children, then five, three, and one, were visiting me from the Lower Mainland.
I’d been assigned to go take photos of the Western Toad migration out in Sahtlam and thought, what the heck, I’ll bring the family; it gets us out of the house and the kids might even see a toad or two.
I had no idea how prolific the toads would be.
We didn’t immediately realize that the popping sounds were my sister’s tires literally popping tiny toads trying to move from Wake Lake across the road to their new homes in the bush, but when it became clear, boy did we feel bad.
It turned out, though, that we weren’t the only toad squashers.
Looking down Riverbottom Road, toward Barnjum Road, the street was speckled with little black dots — each representing a Western Toad that, thanks to vehicles, didn’t quite make its destination.
It was horrific and fascinating all at once. We learned a lot from the volunteers on site that day.
Despite living here for a number of years prior to that day, it was one of the earliest memories I have of the Cowichan Valley being a place of such natural wonders. Almost every year since that day a decade ago, I’ve returned to witness the toads’ attempted crossings but it’s never been quite as prolific.
BC Frog Watch tells us that Western Toads are listed as a species of special concern in Canada and that Western Toad breeding sites are rare on Vancouver Island so they need to be protected.
I don’t know if the numbers are dwindling, if climate change is an issue, or simply if I have just always seemed to have poor timing, but it’s never been as awe-inspiring as it was the first time.
Over the weekend though, was a close second.
The day before my family and I were in Lake Cowichan for an assignment and opted to drive back the long way and have a picnic lunch and a swim in the Cowichan River at Stoltz Pool. I only tell you this to explain why we were out on Riverbottom Road in the first place.
Anyway, on the drive home from the river we noticed a sign posted alerting motorists to the toads. We took a second to look but couldn’t see any of the tiny hoppers so we thought we’d come back the following morning before the heat of the day and try out our luck.
When we returned the next day, we noticed there were black spots all over the road. That made me sad. Not wanting to add to the collection, I pulled over. Before I could turn off the car, I saw the first toad hopping along a line where the shade ended and the sun began. And then another. And then another. And so on.
“There they are!” I cried! “The toads are out! I see them!”
I was met with “Where? Where?” as my kids pulled at their seat belts trying to get out.
What followed was a good half an hour of toad spotting and helping the little adventurers get across the street to relative safety.
It was a full-circle moment for me, being there with my own kids, who are quite similar in age to my niece and nephew all those years ago.
Yes, this time we did, again, have to address the fact that tiny toad carcasses were littered about the roadway but the kids seemed to understand that this is what sometimes happens when humans and nature mix and that the goal was to prevent that from happening even more.
My four-year-old daughter jumped right in and picked up as many as she could and carried them across the street. My six-year-old son… well, he stood behind them and directed them with his feet while yelling some type of gibberish at them with the belief that scared toads would move faster.
I’m not sure whose method helped more toads but both groups got across safely.
Either way, it was a better fate than those who ended up under the tires of the passing vehicles… despite (to my horror) my son stepping out into the road and trying to stop every car that went by.
So, to all those drivers on Barnjum Road who slowed down and were nearly stopped by my crossing guard son, thanks for the smiles, waves, and nods. I am most certain you knew why we were wandering around in the middle of the street.
“How’d I do?” called a motorcyclist after weaving his way through the busiest crossing spot.
He’d done well. And so did my kids.
In a time when so many people are thinking of just themselves, it was nice to see my kids jump up, eager to help a creature who could give them nothing back — knowing the reward was simply feeling good.
If you’re curious about the toads, they’ll be migrating until around mid August. There are no guarantees you’ll see them but if you go, please do watch your step.
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