By Willows Beach at Ebb-Tide

In this article Connell reminisces about his early visits to Willows Beach in Oak Bay and how the area has changed since those days. He then takes a close look at some of the wildlife encountered there, concluding with a short walk through Uplands Park.


From the Victoria Daily Colonist, March 12th, 1939.

As I strolled down Bowker Avenue the other morning I was strongly reminded of the changes that have taken place in the vicinity of Victoria during the past thirty years or so. Now, the houses succeed one another almost without a break; then, the avenue was a country lane leading to the entrance to the Bowker home. Few people went down it to the sea. No suburban streets with their lines of poles and network of wires covered the level meadows. A few scattered houses there were, chiefly near Cadboro Bay Road, but the Willows Beach lay Summer and Winter almost as quietly and peacefully as it had done since its shoreline first rose above the sea thousands of years ago.

Bowker Avenue at Cadboro Bay Road over 100 years ago. BCA Image.

The street cars came only as far as the Willows Hotel and the Agricultural Buildings. On my first visit to this part of Oak Bay I drove down Bowker Avenue one late summer afternoon and was greatly surprised to find two other visitors on the long stretch of sand. With all the alterations on the land, the long straight beach remains the same. The same scenery of headland and island meets the eye. The tides come and go and the sea-birds are here in agreeably dutiful succession to their ancestors. The creatures of the salty world still attend to their business, whether perambulating or sedentary, and the seaweeds are carrying on as ever in their red and brown and green tissues the same construction of organic substances out of inorganic ones as their relatives on land.

Oak Bay by Robert Connell, Feb. 25th, 1939.

Rocks Offshore

The Spring brings us ebbing tides in the daytime, and today the rocks just off-shore at the foot of the avenue are accessible across a narrow stretch of sandy mud interspersed with pools. Plenty of shells are scattered about, nearly all of them empty bivalves. The exceptions are a few plate-limpets that have attached themselves to the derelict valves and are with them left up here temporarily by the retreating waves- no great hardship for a limpet whose ability to cling closely is not only proverbial but a literal security against atmospheric drying. One of the largest of the shells is Saxidomus nuttallii, sometimes called “butter clam”, which has been used by two species of brown seaweed whose holdfasts still remain, one on each valve. A pair of very shabby looking plate-limpets have fastened themselves to the same valve and inside there are two colonies of bryozoa, one still retaining very perfectly its form, though its cells are empty of their builders and occupants. This group is about the size of a nickel and there are about 2000 cells in it, all so arranged alternately that they make a pattern of crossing curved lines. In addition there are a number of little round twisted shells which are the homes of what has been called in English the crooked-worm mollusk, but is a true shell-building worm with the charming scientific name of Spiroglyphus lituellus, which means “spirally curved little horn.” As the largest one is only three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, there is an obvious disparity between the size of the name and the size of the creature.

White Sand Clam

Here, too, is a shell of chalky whiteness but with a part of its transparent epidermis still adhering to it like a coat of varnish. It is another “clam”, the white sand clam or Macoma sectum, the specific name referring to the apparently “cut-off” straightness of the posterior end. It is a thin shell with the right valve a little more swollen than the left. The basket cockle, Cardium corbis, is here, and also the hard clam, Paphia staminea. The most noticeable feature about it is the pattern made by the crossing of the fine concentric growth lines by fine radial ribs. Its scientific name in its generic part means “belonging to Paphos”, the city in Cyprus noted for its temple to Venus, and this connects us with the fact that the shell under the older classification was placed in a group of which the type was the Venus shell, Venus paphia. The older name of our hard clam was Tapes staminea, the generic name here meaning “tapestry” or “carpet”, while the specific name means “threaded”, so that the older name is more descriptive than the present one. Here, too, is a fine fresh specimen of the straight horse-mussell, Modiolus rectus, its interior snowy white and its exterior a fine dark brown, shading from chestnut to almost black. Just a trace of its beard remains near the umbones; for the rest it shines with the varnish-like surface of its epidermis. Its length is five inches and only a single crack mars its perfection.

Paphia staminea (aka Leukoma staminea), the Littleneck clam.

Mussells and Stones

In the centre of the sandy crossing where, though the water does not cover the surface it plentifully soaks the ground, there are quantities of the common edible mussel, Mytilus edulis. They are not growing attached to the bed-rock, as is the habit of their larger relative, Mytilus californianus, but have formed clusters by using their silky beards to join to gather masses of pebbles so that mussels and small stones make up groups about two handfuls in size. The cementing strength of the byssus, as the beard is called, is well illustrated by a story told of the use of mussels in the construction of a twenty-arch bridge at Bideford, in Devonshire, many years ago. The waters to be spanned were those of the Torridge, where the river is tidal and the force of the tides such that the mortar of the bridge was in continual disrepair. The corporation therefore had recourse to the plan of hauling mussels by boat and filling the attacked interstices with the living shell animals. These, by their beards, attached themselves so firmly to the stonework of the bridge that they made it completely resistant to the tides, and it was made a criminal offense punishable by transportation to remove the mussels except in the presence and by the consent of the corporation trustees.

         Fronds of Seaweed

Crossing over to the rocks we find them all around their sides covered with the delicate fronds of the seaweed which the Chinese so assiduously gather for food. Technically it belongs to the red seaweeds, and although much of it here has a dark grayish color its real color is purple. Seaweeds are divided into three great groups: the green, the brown, and the red. Although the scientists give them Greek names these nevertheless represent the three color divisions. The green are the lowest in the scale in organization, the red the highest, with the brown occupying the middle place. The variety favored by the Chinese is known as Porphyra, from its typical color. In the rock pools of which there are a few on the irregular surface of the rock, there is another red seaweed of a decidedly brown color known as Prionitis lyalii. From its central flattened stem numerous narrow leaf-like branches grow somewhat after the manner of a fern. It is a tough little plant making clusters like little forests in which many of the small animals of the sea find a measure of protection. Another red seaweed is very easily overlooked because it lives in crevices of the rock and now that the tide has withdrawn and the plants are exposed to the air they have dried up for the time being and look just like clusters of dead moss or lichens, black and unattractive, often less than an inch high. I say “for the time being” as when the tide turns and the little plant-clusters are again submerged their fronds will open out as fresh and stinging as ever. Only a very few of our seaweeds have popular names for the very simple reason that people generally are unfamiliar with the great majority and always have been. Popular names are born out of familiarity of use or observation or both. This particular alga is called botanically Endocladia muricata, the specific name referring to the tiny thorn-like spikes on the branches.

A species of Prionitis seaweed photographed by Jeffree Cunningham near the Oak Bay boathouse in 1957.

The small pools contain besides seaweeds a number of shells chiefly, or at least most conspicuously, those of the blue top-shell, Calliostoma costatum, or ribbed calliostoma, all of which are occupied not by the original owner but by small hermit crabs. Most of them are sufficiently worn to display their beautiful iridescent colors, chiefly bluish but with green flashes too.

Observant Gulls

The flat topped rocks are largely occupied by gulls who find there both a resting place and an observation post from which every now and then one rises and goes off on an individual venture. A pair of baldpate ducks [American widgeon] rise suddenly, but the scaups go on with their diving and feeding quite fearlessly. The so-frequently-met-with flock of turnstones is there, sixteen in number, with a pair of sandpipers bearing them company and not easily distinguishable from them a little way off except for the slightly smaller size and the longer bill. Flight, of course, makes the difference extremely evident, for no other bird shows in flight the complex black and white pattern of the turnstone. Offshore there are the customary scoters and grebe, with little flocks of scaup and probably other ducks too far off to be distinguished clearly. The constant activity of bird life along the shore is one of the great attractions of a ramble by the sea and contrast strikingly with the comparative quiet of the forest.

Diverse bird life photographed off the Oak Bay waterfront by Jeffree Cunningham in 1955.

Walking north, a long bed of mussels is passed parallel to the shore and between the sand proper and the sea at its ebb. It must make a very unpleasant spot for bathers or waders; mussels compete well with barnacles as enemies of bare feet. Very little debris lies along the beach, for the sea has been quiet of late. Shells and seaweed are alike almost wholly absent; occasionally a brilliant little patch of green shows the presence of a washed-up plant of eel-grass, that strange denizen of the salt water allied to our fresh water pond weeds and arrow grass. It is curious to find a true flowering plant living its life and producing its seed beneath the waves, but the true eel grass or zostera and the false both do that with their floral parts carefully protected in cases that suggest cellophane in their transparency. Perhaps the chief interest of a stroll along this part of Oak Bay lies today in the pebbles, many of which are very bright and curiously marked. Agates used to be fairly common around our shores, and today I pick up one of the largest I have seen locally.

On Fiddle Reef

Ahead lies Cattle Point and among its creviced and contorted rocks I find a sunny corner for lunch. Looking out to sea I have on the left of my view the lighthouse on Fiddle Reef while Emily, Many Tod and Harris Islands space themselves across the opening, with others of the Chain group behind. Over all rise the Olympics, their peaks and ridges under fleecy white clouds that in places rest upon the mountain tops and shadow them. Then one into view as a quite temporary and accidental feature the boats of the Fisherman’s Protective Fleet after their sojourn at Esquimalt. It is a pretty sight to see the little vessels singly and in twos and threes threading their way among the islands and reefs, but I find myself wishing they were under sail as I think of fishing fleets seen long ago before the gas engine had superseded canvas, not only across the world but in these very waters.

Some of the Islets of Oak Bay as depicted by Josephine Crease in 1905. BCA Image.

Boy and His Dog

And now comes a small boy and his companion dog. He is out after the treasures of the sea in the little pools about the rocks, so I join forces with him for a little. The pink and green sea anemones cluster in sandy corners, their tentacles meekly closed. In among the pebbles the little hermit-crabs scuttle along with their adopted dwellings protecting their soft bodies and, when disturbed, still further guarding themselves with their larger claw drawn across the shell’s penguin as a temporary operculum. Little fish dash into dark corners where their dinginess of color hides them successfully, the sand lances slipping under the larger stones or burying themselves in the sand. Wrinkled purples are here, splendid specimens covered with frills from turreted top to the canal beneath the mouth that declares their carnivorous nature. Their wrinkled shells tell of the rough seas that break on Cattle Point. Shining calliostomas elbow dull-colored periwinkles or littorines, and plate-limpets of all sizes almost defy detection in their resemblance to the rocks to which they adhere so pertinaciously. Hosts of shore-crabs are revealed at the moving of every boulder or cobblestone, waving white claws as they retreat to another shelter. Their instinct is shown in the manner in which, if you put your foot in the way, they promptly seek refuge under sole or shank.

Towards the Uplands

But the land calls, and making my way to the old raised beach that forms a terrace above I take my way across country towards the Uplands. About the base of one large table-like exposure of rock I find the smooth, roundish leaves of the common dodecatheon, or shooting star, well advanced, and little clusters of the bi-coloured lupine’s leaves, purplish-red in their infancy. Here the work of the glacial ice is well shown in a hornlike gouge in the rock about four feet long, now the basin for little pool of crystal clear water. The song of the meadow lark rings through the air, but no sound of the skylark can I detect.

The landscape of the Uplands as painted by Samuel Maclure c1900. BCA Image.

The boulder heaps that mark the site of an old Indian burying place are then passed. Some of them have evidently been rifled years ago, but one or two appear to be intact. Next I find myself among oak trees, some of them of large size and good shape, others- a younger generation sprung from these- standing by themselves. Near by is wet swale where aspen poplars flourish, their trunks green with the promise of Spring. Young cottonwoods rise straight and sturdy by themselves, and willows are covered with catkins already yellow with bursting anthers. Below is a dark purplish thicket of Nootka rose, where scarlet berries still linger on the leafless stems, and banks of dead oak leaves tell of whirling Winter winds. The way gets increasingly wetter, and clumps of shining green rushes break the open spaces. In the midst a red hydrant comes with a note of surprise. And then when another stretch of boggy ground has been traversed, I find myself among the golden gorse now at its very loveliest, its rich bloom against the dark branches of concentrated prickliness. Here I wait for the street-car, and while I wait a riding party passes along one of the bridle paths at a canter into the oak glades and so out of sight.

      

A group from St. Margarets School riding thru the Uplands in the 1920s. BCA Image.

Published by Ben C. Baker

The best stories, I think, are those that connect us to place, and as an historian this is the focus of my interest and work here in Victoria, BC, Canada.

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