In 1959, the Province of British Columbia purchased Mitlenatch from the Manson family estate and in 1961 it was designated as a Provincial Nature Park. Mitlenatch was once owned by the Manson family of Cortes Island, who raised cattle and sheep on the island. Cattle were butchered on the island and the meat rowed to Comox; sheep were ferried to the island in spring and removed in late autumn. To discourage “mutton pickers”, the family lived on the island in a driftwood cabin during 1892. Today, nothing remains of the Manson’s activities.
Mitlenatch is an Indigenous word with a number of meanings. In Coast Salish it has been translated to mean “calm waters all around”. Perhaps the most descriptive meaning comes from the Sliammon language where “metl” meant calm and “nach” meant posterior. Calm (waters) behind is an apt description of the island during stormy weather. To the Kwagiulth people “mah-kwee-lay-lah” meant “it looks close, but seems to move away as you approach it”.
Rocky grassy islands provide ideal nesting sites for seabirds and this park is home to the largest nesting colony in the Strait of Georgia. In addition to Glaucous-winged gulls, pelagic cormorants, pigeon guillemots and black oystercatchers also return to Mitlenatch each spring to breed. 3,000 pairs of Glaucous-winged gulls choose to nest on Mitlenatch Island. This large pink-legged gull with grey tips is the common seagull of Georgia Strait. Adults start arriving in April to take up a breeding territory, which will be held against all comers until early August when their young depart. Eggs begin to appear around late May with the first young hatching in late June. The incubation period, from the time the last egg is laid, is 27 days.
Almost as soon as the young hatch, they can move around. Instinctively they peck at the red spot on their parent’s bill to induce feeding. Adults will then regurgitate food as a warm partly-digested meal. Everything from fish to garbage may be on the menu. For the patient observer, this ritual can be watched from the bird blind. By the end of August, most young gulls have left the island. Banding studies indicate these grey-brown juveniles will winter within 100 kilometres of Mitlenatch.
The shallow dry soils of Mitlenatch are not well-suited to trees. In the meadow, strands of shore pine are expanding their hold. In the upland area of West Hill a large strand of trembling aspen is a rather unusual feature. This species is not at all common on the coast but is very frequent in the British Columbia Interior. Arbutus, Douglas fir, bitter cherry, Scouler’s willow, black hawthorn and red alder are also present here.
From late April onwards, the parade of colourful flowers on Mitlenatch is quite impressive. Blooming of many species continues as long as sufficient moisture remains. Once the surface moisture is used up these species quickly seed. Other plants like prickly pear cactus, harvest brodiaea and gumweed, which have different strategies for retaining moisture, then come into bloom.
All sedentary marine life, including abalones, scallops and sea cucumbers are fully protected within this zone. Some of the largest garter snakes in BC reside here. These harmless snakes may grow to more than 90 cm (36 inches). They are often dark gray with black markings. These snakes are frequently encountered along trails and in beach and tide pool areas, where they feed on small fish such as sculpins and blennies. This park is a favourite haul out for harbour seals, Northern & California sea lions. The sea lions are generally present from late autumn to late spring. River otters, killer whales and harbour porpoises are often sighted offshore.
Seabird colonies are very sensitive to disturbance. The following “rules” must be observed:
- Visitors must stay on designated trails
- Pets are not permitted on the island
- When approaching the observation blind, KEEP THE PARTY TOGETHER AND MOVE SLOWLY. This will reduce the gulls’ anxiety and allow you to observe their behaviour and “family life” more easily. Remain quiet while in the blind. If the blind is occupied, please remain well back on the trail until the blind is vacated.