By A Nameless Stream

In March of 1943 Reverend Connell went for a ramble along what was for him a “nameless stream”- now known as Blenkinsop Creek- on what was then the edge of town. In this article he gives us a glimpse of the recent history of the area between Blenkinsop and Swan Lakes, as well as some considerations of a few of the more ancient features of the landscape.

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, April 4th, 1943.

It is with surprise that we come in some part of the city, or even of the suburbs, upon a remnant of the old topography on which the first settlers built. Old ravines appear here and there, especially as we approach the waterfront, but even these old water courses are for the most part concealed by filling-in and over building. The imagination can play about these gullies as we catch sight of them below sidewalks and hemmed in by brick walls.

Cecelia Creek on the outskirts of Victoria in the 1930s. CVA image.

To see the primeval soil of Victoria along Wharf and Store Streets sets you thinking of the days of the gold rush. In your mind you can strip away all the brick and stone and the great iron doors and the barred windows, and cover it with the tents of that mushroom city that sprung up when the gold seekers from California pitched their tents in preparation for the long journey to the Cariboo country. What strange stories lie hidden beneath the congery of ancient warehouses and stores! Beside the buildings of the main streets of today these look like a part of some Old World city, a bit even of Dickens’ London. It would be interesting to know something of their history, what men once worked in them. Henry George, the founder of Single Tax, was one, but surely in those days of the dim past there must have been others of future note. Or did Barkerville and Williams Creek see their end? How long ago it all seems! The very bricks are in many places worn fantastically by wind and weather. Long, long ago the horse drawn hacks clattered over Wharf Street to and from the old CPR wharf where the steamer Charmer came in from or set out to Vancouver, and yet it is only some 40 years ago. Would that one of the old-timers would give us an annotated map of Victoria of their young days!

A Nameless Stream

My thoughts have been led in this direction by a small and inconspicuous stream that runs across Quadra Street in its Saanich extension. I have known it a good many years. Before the street was opened through and there were but three or four houses between the city limits and Lake [Christmas] Hill and the pumping station looked out on orchards, it had perhaps a shade more importance in the picture of rural life. But at its best it never seems to have been thought worthy of a name, at least I never heard one for it. Through part of its course its valley made an easy and natural way for the Canadian National Railway and, along another draining, straightened it and in doing so deprived it of its character, destroyed the brook plants that grew about it, and reduced it to the status of a broad ditch. But from Cedar Hill Cross Road on it maintains its old style in a good measure.

Blenkinsop Creek at its northern end near where it drains Blenkinsop (Lost) Lake. Note the beautiful native red flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) in full flower on its bank at left. Ben Clinton-Baker photo.

It takes its rise quite prosaically in Lost [Blenkinsop] Lake below Cedar Hill at an altitude of just 83 feet above the sea and it enters Swan Lake at an altitude of 41 feet. Among the indirect advantages of the CNR Trestle bridge across Lost Lake (now destroyed) must be numbered its convenience for small boys fishing for rainbow tinted sunfish, a preparatory school for anglers proper. And down below its dark waters the delicate shelled swan-mussel exist abundantly. The little lake is a favourite haunt of wild fowl and across its waters resound their cries so that when among the willows and alders you are hidden from fields and gardens, houses and the motorcars, and you [feel as though] you might be by some secluded tarn in the recesses of the forest.

Over Stony Ways

Walking along the railway the other afternoon I was attracted by the sound of its waters, for in Winter and Spring the little stream is at its mightiest. I had on my right great walls of rock that had written on them pages from three chapters of their history. One page told how this rock had originally been forced up into the upper layers of the earths crust, forcing asunder the earlier rocks to make room for itself. This page was written in the character of its minerals and their arrangement. A second page appeared in certain marks running in different directions, and roughly dividing the rock into blocks of varying size. The marks were for the most part enamelled with a greenish gray coating of mineral. These markings are known to geologists as “slickensides“. They are distinguished from the marks that constitute a third page by the fact that as they are the result of rock movement along fissures, one face grinding on the other, so they are seen to pass out of sight within the rock. The mineral glaze is another characteristic feature of the slickenside. The immense power shown in these gigantic movements of rock masses slipping and grinding over each other is succeeded in the third page by the marks seen at the top of the rock where the curves and undulations caused by the glacial ice appear where the soil has been removed. So here on a bare irregular face of rock a few hundred feet long at most we have three pages written in natural hieroglyphics that tell of three demonstrations of titanic force, each millions of years apart. The first in the early Jurassic, the second probably in the lower Cretaceous, and the third just proceeding old Stone Age man.

Rocky outcroppings along the Lochside Trail (formerly CNR Railway) near Quadra Street. Ben Clinton-Baker photo.

But we have been reading the pages along the railroad track while the stream is some 20 feet below us. Slipping down this faint path in the dry bracken and among the entangling blackberry trailers you come to the stream, and the voice of the water is greater here. It is hard to find a word that describes the sound adequately. There are broken fragments of rock from above that fell down during the building of the railway, and the stream makes a sound harsher than chattering or babbling. In the first verse of [Tennyson’s poem] “The Brook” occurs the line “to bicker down a valley,” and this seems more likely the right word, for it conveys the idea of a confused clattering sound. So let us say that at this point the stream bickers over the broken rock. But the broken rock from above is the same material as the low cliff along the railway, and its history is the same, only down here the pages are not so easily decipherable, and indeed, the second page is hidden.

A Hillside Pasture

Across the stream the ground rises into a hill with trees and smaller crops of rock but, while its ascent is tempting, there lies along the stream a tangled web of rusty wire to be crossed. So returning up to the bank I take to the hill that rises above the rock wall and follow a faint trail till I am under the trees. An unusually large Douglas fir for the place stands just where the rise begins. Beyond extends an open woodland of the same species with balsam firs scattered throughout, though the situation looks rather dry for the latter. No thicket conceals the ground or makes an obstacle for the walker. The dark grey and brown trunks rise some distance apart, pillars supporting the evergreen roof in which the balsam is conspicuous because of the rich shining green of its comb-like branchlets. In comparison the Douglas fir is shaggy and wild.

I have always been attracted to hills, especially those whose grassy or heathery sides are broken by outcrops of rock. As a child I hoped at first only to catch a glimpse of the sea from them. But as soon as I was able to explore alone I found them sufficient in themselves. Such hills are curiously alike wherever found; the proportions of rock and vegetational change but the mental impression is the same. The hills of the Okanagan country are curiously like those of the South of Scotland, and there are open stretches of the Sooke Hills on the north side of the river that might be bits of hill country from Midland Scotland or Northern England. And the pleasure of climbing them is the same everywhere, as great in sun drenched California as in our more temperate northern air. When circumstances placed us for some length of time in the plains beyond the sight of hills we have missed them as we miss a friend. And while we recognized the beauty of the vast dome of heaven thus displayed we have longed for a glimpse of hill, fell, law, or tor to break that monotonous imprisoning ring. No wonder then that we delight in the opportunity of ascending even hills of very moderate elevation when no others conveniently present themselves.

Such a little hill is this above the anonymous stream, its highest point but 160 feet above the sea and 120 above Swan Lake– less than half of the height of Christmas Hill or Mount Tolmie. A stony upland pasturage describes it. The firs give place near the top to oaks where the ground is covered with their dry leaves, left there through all the fury of Winter winds. As they rustle before the feet Autumn seems still with us though the eye perceives that the warm tints of Fall have given way to a dead, dull, greyish brown. Here and there are scattered acorns. Where the ground is bare of leaves a low thin growth of the first leaves of buttercups spreads itself everywhere among the scant grass and in places the leaves of wild onion show gleaming dark green. Among the small outcrops of rock at the top are a few scattered boulders grey with lichens. At the south end a bold mass of rock juts out irregularly like part of the ruins of some ancient fortalice, and here the hands of children playing on some Summer day have left a little memorial of their happy hours: A few handfuls of coarse hair-moss on top of a broken fragment of rock. At a distance it looks like a tousled head watching from behind the rock barrier.

The usual rock flora quite conceals the rock itself. Lichens of one kind or another from the microscopic species to the showy branched and tufted cladonias and the spreading prostrate parmelias exhibit Nature’s primitive vegetation in its work of preparing the way by slow, almost imperceptible, but sure means for the succession of higher plants. Thus creeping up among the lichens come the mosses of various species like a thick-piled carpet of many textures and colors. And here and there is the wiry little Selaginella or dwarf club-moss, not forming velvety pads like the mosses but spreading out it’s dull grey-green branches that with their closely folded little leaves recall on a small scale our native white flowered heath of the mountains.

Journey’s End

Below the hill on the west lies the road, the old Saanich Road from town of pre-motor days. It always gives me a home feeling because when I had pastoral charge of all the territory outside the city south of North Saanich and east of the dividing line between the Lake and Highland districts, I travelled this road many, many times. And it is still a very pretty country lane. The old trees for the most part are still standing and the old curves are still there, and some of the old houses.

The Girling home at Swan Lake in the 1910s. Saanich Archives image.

I was surprised to find a new farm between the road and the lake, cutting off a pleasant approach to the water’s edge. The lake itself however is unchanged in appearance, though both it and Lost [Blenkinsop] Lake are gradually filling up. The margin of both is soft and boggy and the CNR met with difficulty in running its line across both the south side of Swan Lake and the north end of Lost Lake, the weight of the rails and ties, to say nothing of the trains, causing a great upheaval of the neighbouring soil.

There is a wild note about the name of the lake that recalls the days when swans as well as geese were common birds about Victoria in migration time when the city was a little more than a village clustered about the Hudson’s Bay Company’s bastioned fort. Swan Lake then lay well out in the country. Of all the houses gathered about it on the north, west and south none were present 40 years ago. The few farmhouses by the road are just enough to accentuate the rural atmosphere with their cattle and fields.

Swan Lake from the old Saanich Road by Robert Connell, March 6, 1943.

None of us who were wont to travel in our horse conveyances along the old Saanich Road ever thought we should see carriage-less horses “running” along Quadra Street at 40 and 50 or more miles an hour and our old pleasant winding narrow road discarded, which shows how little we know about what is around the corner in human history even on the most limited scale. It is the unexpected that happens. But despite all our human changes the little stream continues to flow, the rocky hills still endure, and the wild fowl still congregate in the lakes.

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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