November in the Highland Hills

Connell and a friend head for the hills on a rainy November day 81 years ago. You’ll never look at rain the same way again!

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, November 17th, 1940-

An afternoon in the hills! Who would not take it when weather permits? Tom Goodlake’s hospitable car is at the door and body and brain beg for fresh air, wrestling with the rocks, and the sight of a wide landscape wet with mist and rain.

A wet November in the Highland Hills, 2019

Indeed the last is by no means the least of attractions, for Nature’s water-varnish brings out the color of the country as nothing else does. And this is just what happens to our hill country at the south end of Vancouver Island when the rains saturate hill and valley, forest and ridge of rock. Everyone who has sauntered along the beach knows how pretty the worn and rounded fragments of stone are as they lie wet with the last advance of the wave. Red and green, black and white, golden yellow and pearly grey: what a range of bright and glistening colors! And then how exquisitely marked they are; some with curiously arranged twists and turns of veinlets, others with white crystals or black set in a contrasting base like the deft inlaying of a craftsman in wood or metal.

“Wet Stones” painted by Anthony Seebaran

And then, alas! how keen the disappointment when, on turning out the pockets at home, all the beauty is lost in the grey haze of dryness! The lapidary with his polishing wheel reproduces the charm of wetness, and even the varnish will bring out the color and pattern, but it is only Nature that can work the magic over a whole landscape. At the great annual exhibitions of art painters are allowed a “varnishing day” when they may varnish and touch up their pictures in their unaccustomed environment. Sometimes this varnish is a little overdone but Nature, with many and often continuous varnishing days, never overdoes it. The more it rains the more brilliant is the landscape when the clouds break and the sun shines; her superfluity gives us foaming streams, cataracts and cascades, and broad sheets of sky-reflecting mirror. Never are our fir woods so rich a green or our distant hills so deep and positive a blue, never are our rocks so tessellated and variegated with color or native road and bank so warm in tint, as when the windows of heaven are opened and the clouds drop down the early and the latter rain. Even the formal paved and asphalted roads take on a new aspect when the thin surface of water enables them to reflect the clouds’ shadow and gleam with the pure blue of the newly washed sky.

So as we take the Island Highway we see the colors of the leaves intensified by the recent showers. The massed color of dahlias, lychnis and chrysanthemums with roses, nasturtiums, marigolds and a dozen other late-lingering flowers of summer are enriched by the raindrops that linger among their petals. Better than all the meteorological reports with their carefully compiled statistics are these innumerable gardens with their vivid colorings as evidences of our climate. And by no means the least important of its publicists are the innumerable gardeners who all, consciously or unconsciously, display to the visitor these living tokens.

Into the Highlands

Under the shade of the dark firs that line the road by the Colwood golf links– firs that annually grow closer to one another above so that already they meet in places- we slip along and over the railway. The broad plains are left behind and the road narrows. Soon we are in the hill country, crossing the Millstream and running between twin lakes at one of which – Lost Lake – we get a little peep as we hasten by. The road becomes rougher and hillier beyond the Finlayson Arm road and the fork where we take the left hand. Your first view of the peculiar scenery along the irregular valley we are now following is of Holmes Peak on our right just beyond a farm and its buildings gathered about the foot. It is a bare, rocky promontory rising above the forest as a bold islet projects above the waves of the sea. It’s height is a little over 900 feet above sea level, but as we are already 700 feet up on the road the hill’s distinction lies chiefly in the bold, stark outline of its summit.

“A Corner of Scafe Hill, Highland District, V.I.” by Robert Connell, Aug. 3rd, 1942.

We are actually looking out for two old roads that branch off to the west, but the timber-cutting operations of late years have opened up so many tracks into the hills that the wagon trails are easily overlooked. However we find one which at its beginning has been shared by modern wood trucks. Some of the original appearance still remains, however, in the open, turfy spaces and in the old-fashioned stonework upon which a bridge over the Millstream still rests. Near by we trace a waterway almost wholly hidden in the shrubbery and the trailing branches of maples. Apparently it has been artificially made, for the blocks of black slaty rock border straight and parallel banks. At one end it passes into a deepish pool as if for the watering of cattle. As trivial as these things may be and with little interest for the serious historian, ramblers find that any suggested human handiwork gives just the touch the countryside requires to redeem it from loneliness.

“In our Southern Highlands” by Robert Connell, November 7th, 1940.

To some places there come moods such as that referred to by [Byron’s] Childe Harold:

The desert, forest, cavern, breaker’s foam,
Were unto him companionship; they spake
A mutual language, clearer than the tone
Of his land’s tongue.

But these moods are fortunately temporary, and ordinarily we rejoice to find some human trace in the landscape, provided it is not of the kind associated with what are called in Great Britain “litter louts”.

Lone Tree Hill

About three-quarters of a mile northeast of Holmes Peak in a straight line – which the road most decidedly is not – the old summit of Lone Tree Hill rises above us on the right. In general appearance it resembles Holmes Peak, but it is 300 feet higher and proportionately larger in every way. The bare rocks rise with the same starkness above the wooded side, and we see enough of the latter to recognize the open character of the forest as it stretches up the slopes to the walls and ledges of the long ridge. We leave the search for the old road and decide to see the view once more from Lone Tree’s top. The ascent is easy under the trees, just a steep walk, but when we reach the rocks we have to follow ledges, sometimes along a track worn by sheep or a narrower one made by deer. Then there are steep little gullies to be ascended and rock walls to be climbed by such foot and hand holds as can be found. Altogether it is excellent exercise for fingers and toes. You dig your fingers into the soft, wet moss feeling for some slight projection to cling to, and you find yourself developing a power to feel through leather with your toes for angles and corners or even mere roughness of the rock surface. Of course the 400 feet is very quickly ascended. We first reach the top near the north end, where the forest rises and blocks out the view Up-Island. So we follow along to the southeast, clambering up and down the sections of the summit separated by bare scarps and little narrow passages of turf between. Here we come on the Lone Tree, an old and stunted fir whose slightly leaning trunk bears a thick flat top of foliage suggesting a toadstool. It has a true summit to itself saving only an arbutus of shrub-like dimensions that has taken to itself another section further south. The name of the eminence is thus the most obvious thing in the world, for the old fir surprises you at once like some old patriarch shepherd of the hills upon whose solitary meditations you have broken in.

At the top of Lone Tree Hill, November 2021. An arbutus tree is still there but the rotten and charred stump at right is all that remains of the “lone” fir.

The view from the summit is strictly limited by the weather to our own Island and its immediate neighbors. Below us on the west is the broken valley we have been traversing, where among the forest remnants we can see little openings of green which are the fields of the neighboring farms. Then the ground rises to a distinct edge beyond which the landscape is greyer by added distance. This edge is the east wall of Finlayson Arm and its most notable feature is Mount Finlayson, two and three-quarter miles away to the southwest, and even from here a conspicuous hill though much of its height is lost by its landward base being about 500 feet above the sea. Following the ridge north we come at the other end to Mt. Jocelyn, much less conspicuous though actually higher because its land-ward base rises from the 1,000-foot level. On the west side we look across a broad valley to Mount Work on the northeast, whose 1,445 feet is again dwarfed by the long slopes north and south. Hidden in the evergreen forests lie Second and Third Lakes and the east fork of the Millstream.

Ice-Work and Weather-Wearing

The bare summit of Lone Tree, like that of Holmes Peak, shows still the powerful effect of the ice cap as it moved slowly southward. In spite of the thousands of years that have elapsed since its retreat the moulding and gouging is yet traceable, though the work has been to some extent dulled. There can be little doubt that the general features of the land have been little changed. These highlands were first brought into being in the long Tertiary period when the land lay high above the sea and was carved by its streams into valleys and intervening hills. The ice deepened the vales and smoothed the hill, its most significant work being done in that deep trench beyond the Finlayson-Jocelyn verge whose bottom the sea now floods. There its work can be seen in the “hanging valleys” of streams like those in Niagara and Arbutus canyons. The forest-filled valleys have their covering of drift, but on the high ridges of Lone Tree and Holmes Peak there is a bareness like that of our Gonzales Hill. On closer examination, however, these ridges of the Highland district are found to have not only their mosses and selaginellas but, equally conspicuous in the winter season, clumps of the tufted saxifrage whose pure white flowers are such a beauty of the late spring. When I first climbed Lone Tree Hill many years ago I found the western or ruddy saxifrage fairly abundant, but today I look in vain for it on the northeast side where the rocks are at once more rugged and more rich in plants.

Tufted saxifrage [Saxifraga cespitosa]

Barren of trees as the summit is, the maple grows high up, clinging about the more sheltered walls of rock. Here, exposed to the wind as it beats upon the hill, the tree becomes more gnarled and its bark resembles more closely that of an oak and its branches show their slower growth. Although we saw no oak trees we did come across one or two seedlings a few inches high, grown no doubt from acorns brought by birds. A single flowering plant, a cat’s-ear, proclaimed the persistence of weeds at all seasons of the year.

But already the mist we saw from the summit is sweeping in upon us, though scarcely noticed in the forest, and as we set out once more along the road the blue sky is for the time being lost behind a ceiling of vapor. When next the sun breaks through all is once more glittering afresh with Nature’s varnish.

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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