On Colwood Plain

Connell heads out to the West Shore to explore the landscape of late Fall. Focusing on fungus, he also takes in some of the recent human history of the region along the way and considers the curious landforms known as “kettles”.

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, November 28, 1937-

It is the eve of our November snowstorm. Of course, we do not know it at the time, and the weather is indeed so mild that the most we expect is a continuance of the rain showers that have been intermittently active throughout the day. My friend Gunson and I, in his hospitable car, are on the way to Colwood Plains where I am to revive memories of certain geological features peculiar to the region in readiness for an address to the Colwood Men’s Club. Memory is a good thing, but there is nothing like freshness of observation and impression.

Colwood Plain viewed from the forestry station on Mill Hill in 1938. BCA image.

We take the picturesque old-fashioned Atkins Road that runs at first between the two railways, with the C.N. below in a deep gorge cut through the rocks of gloomy black. Turning to the right we pass under the E. & N. and run across a little fertile basin. Then leaving the car we climb a hillside whose crest is a ridge of limestone. This rock, in country where it is abundant, often produces a flora peculiarly its own, but here it seems rather to restrict the abundance of native plants and trees. One shrub is still bearing leaves, a bush of soapberry, or shepherdia, whose berries make that pink foamy dish so much prized by the [Indigenous peoples] and appreciated by many old-timers. It’s leaves are speckled on the back with tiny brown spots on a silvery ground, somewhat velvety to the touch. My friend called my attention to certain small white stars in this background which I had never before noticed. When I got home I put one of the leaves under the microscope and found a really beautiful sight, one of the innumerable examples of the infinite care for beauty in small things we find everywhere in Nature. The stars that give the velvet texture are formed of silky white thread radiating from a common centre, numbering generally from fifteen to twenty five, each thread a hollow cell. Some of the stars have a small reddish-brown centre to the little disk from which the threads radiate. The brown specks are also starlike, but their radiating threads are sixty or more, and their union extends halfway between the centre and their tips, and are more irregular in length. The brown stars are mort plentiful along the midrib and when the young stems are examined they, too, are found to be thickly set all round with them, and the older leaves are more thickly speckled with brown stars than the younger ones. As the soapberry is a dweller on dry hillsides, it is easy to see the utility to the plant of this protective drought-resisting covering: the wonderfulness consists in the union of utility with beauty in the exquisite star forms.

The underside of a soapberry (Shepherd canadensis) leaf. Photo credit to https://wildfoodgirl.com

Spur of Mill Hill

We return to the road which winds around the spur of Mill Hill, past the old silica brick works of which but little remains, and then across the Millstream which, swollen by the rain, comes down in a flood of brown water and creamy foam. We are already on the delta of the post-glacial Colwood River [Creek] and its open, short-grassed surface and scattered trees mark the area of gravelly soil. Taking the Station Road we cross just past the right-angled turn a fine example of a delta terrace with its rich, alluvial land lying below it. We double back along the Sooke Highway and then turn into the strip of country that borders the eastern edge of the Sooke Hills. The basaltic rocks above us show their glaciated contours, and there are signs of terraced soils upon their sides. The afternoon is wearing away and the dark rain clouds seem almost to rest upon the higher tops, shadowing them and the forest with an aspect of gloom broken only by the vivid green leaves, tawny trunks, and scarlet fruit clusters of the arbutuses. We pass the attractive stone buildings of the Wishart farm – one of them particularly pretty, a little one-storied cottage with windows gay with boxes of geraniums – and within the margin of the forest leave the car and take our way on foot.

One of the lovely stone houses built by the Wishart family in Colwood in the 1920s.

Although our goal lies ahead of us, we do not rush immediately to it, heedless of all else: otherwise much of this story would be unwritten. The proper mode of progress in the woods is an easy and leisurely one, and this although the rain comes down from time to time and the afternoon is slipping away. The mild weather and the autumnal rains have filled the forest floor with color, but it is not the color of flowers or solely of fallen leaves. It is the season of mushrooms.

“Autumnal Fruits”, woodblock print by British artist Gertrude Hermes

Mushrooms and Fungus

Mushrooms in this wide sense covers all the large and conspicuous kinds of fungus instead of being limited to the common meadow variety which, to most people, is the only safely edible one. Mushrooms thus include many diverse forms. Some have their spores produced on gills, others on the lining of tubes, and still others on spines. They display many colors such as white, yellow, orange, scarlet, crimson, violet, purple, blue, green, and many shades of brown and grey. The best known are those with cap and stalk, after the plan of the meadow mushroom; the cap is often peculiarly marked or scaled; the stem may have a flounce about its middle or a bowl in which it stands. The cap may be one color, the gills or tube-surface another, and stem a third.

They differ in scent and taste. Some are poisonous in varying degrees, others are simply indigestible, others agree with one person and are harmful to another, but the greater part are harmless and often edible, and pleasantly so when properly cooked. It is hardly necessary to say that great care should be exercised in the choice of mushrooms for eating, and none used unless they are positively known or have been identified as fit for food by someone who really knows.

Are Spore-Bearers

Unlike flowering plants, including the great trees that tower above them in the woods, the mushrooms do not propagate themselves by seed. Like ferns and horsetails and mosses, they are spore-bearers. If you want a pretty mushroom design, cut off the cap of a mature one and place it with the gill side down on a piece of white paper and leave it for a few hours. When you remove it you will find a perfect pattern of the gill arrangement worked in the fine spore dust. The color of the design will depend on the species, and may be salmon-pink, black, brown, yellow, or even white, in which case you will not be able to see the spores on the white paper unless you hold it up so that the light can fall towards you across the pattern. Because of these white ones some people put under the cap a piece of black paper and a piece of white, meeting at the edges, and place the mushroom cap so that one half is on the black and one on the white.

Mushroom spore print. Photo by Adam Cameron

I would add that there is a surprising diversity of form in the caps, some of which are like the peaked hats in pictures of fairies; others resemble a Spanish matador’s headdress; there are severely plain caps and daintily edged ones, smooth and rough, velvety and moist. There are stemless kinds that live on trees, with bands of brown and gold or with strongly contrasting top and bottom. Even in the brief course of a mushrooms lifetime it may undergo very great changes of color and form, and what may be a fit subject for an artist’s brush today may be an unsightly mass of corruption tomorrow.

Through the Woods

This divergence from our path through the woods is a necessary introduction to our progress for it explains partly at least why that progress is slow and why, had you been there, you would have wondered at our stepping off the beaten way first to one side and then to the other. Gunson is ahead of me in the knowledge of mushrooms, but I know enough at any rate to appreciate their interest and their curious beauty. Hence, when we come upon a rosy-red capped boletus with its yellow under surface pierced by little roundish holes which are the openings of the spore-bearing tubes, it is liable to be picked for the sheer delight of looking at its sturdy form and contrasting colors. It is obviously a favorite with some creature of the woods, probably the squirrel, for it is often partly eaten. Then there are beautiful mushrooms with amethystine violet gills and stems, the latter fibrous in texture and with brownish caps, a species of clitocybe. On the dead tree trunks there are tufts of clavaria, resembling certain species of seaweed but pale cream in color. These have no caps but bare their spores on the surface of their frond-like branches. On one fallen tree grows a magnificent specimen of the coral hydnum, a little like a cauliflower in size, and with its white color and innumerable branches.

Coral hydnum, or tooth-fungus (Hericium coralloides)

It bears its spores on minute teeth. It is one of the delicacies of the mushroom-lover while gathered while still white and fresh. There is a biographically scientific interest attached to this mushroom. It was admiration for its beauty that led Elias Fries, a Swedish boy who met with it in the woods, to devote his life to the study of fungus botany, or mycology, publishing at Upsala his great works on the European Hymenomycetes (or mushrooms with an external spore-bearing surface) between 1867 and 1884.

Elias Magnus Fries (1794-1878), the great Swedish mycologist

November Afternoon

But the number of mushrooms is legion in the woods this November afternoon. Everywhere you look you see them. Huge red ones and little tender ones in soft grey, yellows and creams; growing among the moss and among the grass; pushing themselves up above the ground with a likeness to round, dusky pebbles that often deceives the collector; springing up on the dead wood rotting on the ground or from the flanks of a still living tree. Here are little birds-nest mushrooms in their earlier stages of growth, little squat pillars with a rounded top, their sides clothed in the softest creamy fur which becomes a white band along the upper edge. Later the top becomes a thin papery lid which opens to reveal a number of little, much-flattened, round cakes of spores of a clay color, each smaller than the smallest size of pin-head. As they lie in the open cup they look uncommonly like a tiny nest with its eggs. The nest is about a quarter to three-eighths of an inch in diameter at the top.

Meanwhile, we have reached the edge of one of the largest of the many “kettles” found on the Colwood Plains. We are looking down into a steep-sided depression, at the bottom of which is the mud of a small pond that lies there part of the year. The kettle-hole lies eighty feet below the level of the surrounding plain and is about 100 yards across at its longest diameter. The steep sides are partly grassy, partly covered with alder and salal. Around the edge of the mud the water-moss forms thick mats, almost black in the older growth but bright green in the younger. At one side a great bush of red-barked dogwood and a tall black willow, both lovers of water, have planted themselves at the lower edge of the hollow. They give additional evidence from their size and presence that the reason why water lies at all in this deep basin among the gravels and sands of the Plain is that there must be an impervious bed of clay below.

Some Kettle Holes

Did the time of day permit, we might be able to visit some of the other kettle holes in the neighborhood, but daylight is diminishing and the rain becomes more persistent, so we must leave them. They constitute perhaps the most remarkable phenomena of the Plains and if we prized their real value these relics of the past history of the earth, the area containing this particular cluster of three or four would be acquired for the benefit of the public. Their origin is understood because similar depressions are found in regions to the north of us, where the retreating glacial ice reproduces for us today the conditions that prevailed here some thousands of years ago. When the last glacier was melting back, one of its many fronts fed a river that flowed eastward along the great trench that extends from Goldstream to the West Coast. The magnitude of that trench is evident to anyone standing on the summit of Survey Mountain above the north fork of the Leech River, whence the eye can take in mile after mile of the straight and wide cut.

A glacial valley in the Sooke Hills by Connell

Today it is filled with several pairs of streams, each pair flowing in opposite directions from the same watershed, the Goldstream and Wolf Creek, the Leech and Bear Creek, Wye Creek and Loss Creek. This old eastward-flowing river carried down its burden of glacial debris and deposited it year after year in the sea which, because the land was then lower than now, extended inland across Colwood Plains to Goldstream. While the river – which we may call Old Colwood River – was thus engaged, blocks of ice of various size were broken off the ice-front and floated down. Some of these became entangled in the delta deposits and, when eventually they melted, the place of their temporary rest was marked by depressions whose size was proportionate to the imprisoned ice-block. Not only were some of these depressions left as kettle-holes like the one described, but it is highly probable that Langford and Glen Lakes were formed in the same manner by the stranding and involvement of very large ice-blocks.

Colwood Gravel Pits

The gravel pits at Colwood reveal cross-sections of the delta deposits of the Colwood River. In them one may see the gently seaward-sloping beds that make up the great part of the more than 200 feet of boulders, gravel and sand, while above them can be descried shallower horizontal beds resting on the beveled edges of the sloping ones. The sloping beds are known technically as “forest beds”.

“Above the (Colwood) Gravel Pit” by Emily Carr, 1937

Beyond Langford Lake on the Highway and about old Sooke Lake crossing of the E & N Railway may be seen great beds of large boulders brought down by the Colwood. Much of the material found in these delta deposits is derived from the Leech River rocks – quartz and dark slaty schists – but there is of course much also from the more distant rocks over which the ice-cap traveled and from which it brought down its moraines.

In the Puget Sound area there are similar areas, such as the Steilacoon Plains, east of Olympia. There and on the Colwood Plains a large red-headed ant builds its mounds, largely of fir needles. It seems to favor particularly these plains with their dry soils, through which the winter rains pass so easily, and the multiplicity of mounds is as noticeable a feature as the ancient firs with their horizontal branches often within two or three feet of the ground, or the clustering of the conifers so evident on the Colwood links, a natural feature recalling the similar clusters on the high mountains.   

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.

2 thoughts on “On Colwood Plain

  1. Thank you Ben for providing these rambles. It amazes me how much of our region has changed with settlement. We are fortunate that some people like Connell took the time to write about their era.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment John. Yes I agree, his writings are a fascinating record of the time and provide an important connection with our brief but interesting history here as settlers on the land.


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