Esquimalt Lagoon and the Coburg Peninsula

Connell takes in some of the history, bird life, geography and more along the shores of Esquimalt Lagoon and Harbor.


From the Victoria Times, January 30th, 1932-

The old Belmont Road is now open right through to Esquimalt Spit and crossing the narrow entrance of the lagoon enables the traveller on foot or by car to make the complete circuit, returning to the Albert Head highway by the lagoon road.

Esquimalt Lagoon from the air. Saanich News photo.

Belmont Road in years gone by used to be the thoroughfare leading to the house of Chief Justice Cameron, “Belmont”, standing on ground now occupied by [Fort] Rodd Hill fortifications. The old road or trail to the Belmont lime-kilns turns off to the left just past the bridge over the CNR, and almost to the water the board fence of Hatley Park forms its western side. The ancient forest thus protected contrasts with the decimated woodlands on the east, but further south where the ground becomes rougher and rockier along the edge of the Baxter farm, the difference disappears. The old Rodd Hill road forks off to the left and is now quite unsafe for travel except on foot, for the winter rains have cut deep gullies in the gravel down which cheerful little brooks were running the other day. But there is little at its end; only a gravelly cove with kitchen-midden banks and a near view of naval Esquimalt.

The old street plan around Esquimalt Lagoon (c1900) showing Belmont Rd., circled in yellow, when it ran through to the harbor. UVic map collections.

The Belmont Road, as it approaches the Spit bridge and the Lagoon waters, winds a little through the woods in its descent, and then on the left between the government fence and the sea passes a grove of native thorn and wild cherry. There before us lies the new bridge, the first to connect the peninsula with the mainland near Rodd Hill. It is a strong structure, somewhat steeply arched. As we cross we can see the rough waters outside at the entrance to the lagoon and a lone fisherman in his craft riding uneasily on the turbulent waves. The guns of the battery look out to sea and across their muzzles is the white tower of the lighthouse on Duntze Head, at the mouth of Esquimalt Harbor.

“Cloudland Mountains” by Robert Connell

On the tip of the peninsula there is a little irregular village of summer cottages that during the past few years has sprung up behind the crest of the sea-raised pebble bar. If a second Rip Van Winkle, a left-over of twenty years ago, should by chance revisit the scene of his crab-catching days he might be surprised indeed at the habitations, but his chief wonder would no doubt be reserved for the innumerable slender poles that rise in the air on every hand as if the very houses had taken to fishing and were with one accord hesitating on the edge of a cast. Nothing so well illustrates the changed conditions of our day as these aerial poles and their wires, and perhaps nowhere do they present so striking an appearance as they do on Esquimalt Spit, against the clear spaciousness of the Straits.

Ups and Downs

It has been a frosty night; the pools and puddles are thinly covered with ice, and there is just a suggestion of north wind; so we get a sheltered corner among the rocks on the west side of the road and close to a much-excavated kitchen-midden. Before us lie the Lagoon with its waters gradually falling as the tide passes out to sea. Beyond rise the woods of Hatley Park and Colwood Plains. At the right the forested slopes end abruptly at steep cliffs, whose structure is rudely outlined by the shadows of their fissures and gullies. Further south the outline of the land steepens to the cliffs of sand and gravel in which the gravel-pits have been gouged out. Still further south is the very conspicuous promontory of Albert Head, the site of the first quarantine station and the source of much of the rubble rock used in the heart of the breakwater. We have thus at each end of the three-mile stretch of shoreline that backs the world famous Royal Roads, anchorage of many a celebrated sailing ship, a mass of crystalline rock, and between the two masses a great filling of loose sedimentary material, 220 feet in thickness above the sea.

Inside the Lagoon, January 2022.

The rocks at the Rodd Hill end, on the corner of which you are supposed to be sitting with me, are ancient lavas, but Rodd Point and Fisgard Island (on which stands the lighthouse at the entrance to Esquimalt Harbor) are composed of the pale Saanich granodiorite of the opposite shores. Albert Head on the other hand is a headland of much younger lava. The intervening space was filled during the period between the first and second glaciations with a comparatively deep-water deposit of clay, which can be seen along the shore west of the gravel-pits and which forms the lowlands behind the Lagoon and the depression within which the race-track is situated. The sands and gravels form the broad, level, elevated plains of Colwood and Langford, narrowing at present to a front of a little over a mile, in which they occupy the whole cliff from shore to plain above.

The height of the Colwood Plains above the sea – 220 feet – gives a minimum register of the elevation of the land at the close of the Vashon ice period, independently of the corroboration of marine shells at that and even higher levels. Thus we know that the land has had its ups and downs in times that, geologically speaking, are quite recent. It sank during the Admiralty ice-cap‘s days and rose during the following warm interglacial period. Then again it sank as the Vashon ice crept southward and rose again when it had retreated and shrunk. These were the main movements, but doubtless there were many minor oscillations in both upward and downward shifts.

Erosion has stripped off the northern part of the delta deposits and the sea has at one time cut out a shallow bay in the clays. It has also cut into the delta deposits, and its shorewise currents have carried the material along the coast and built across the bay the Spit, or as the charts call it, “Coburg Peninsula“.

Coburg Peninsula/Esquimalt Spit

Waste from the land and organic matter in the almost enclosed water have gradually silted it up until now. It has a depth of only a few feet and owes its existence largely to the periodic tide streams which keep free its connection with the open sea. It is thus an eminently favorable place for food, and as such is the home of countless crabs and the resort of great flocks of wild-fowl.

Along Coburg Peninsula

The sea is steely gray, with one long thin line of golden light in the far distance. The Empress of India is off for Vancouver, and closer still lies a Japanese steamer, which I find out in the evening paper is the Akagisan Maru, outward bound with a cargo of lumber and now awaiting the lashing of her deck-load before she steams away to the Orient. The clouds completely obscure the Olympics, but the city is a delightful study in grays.

The old road that runs along the spit has been cut through the shell-banks left by the [Indigenous peoples] long years ago. Judging by the height of the beds and their apparent age, little change must have taken place on the peninsula for many years. Its upper surface lies just above high-water mark and out of the reach of drift wood, and as the shells in the older deposits must be 200 or 300 hundred years old at least, to judge by their decay and the black soil in which they lie, there can have been no very noticeable change in the peninsula during that time.

But our attention is immediately attracted by a very much larger “kitchen-midden” opened by the bridge-making operations. A trench cut in it on the left-hand side of the road presents a revealing cross-section. In the lower part of this shell-mound, or from a foot or so at the top down to the unreached bottom, oysters, the smaller native ones of course, form the greater part of the material. The broken and decaying shell is little mixed with foreign matter. But it is interesting to note that in the higher levels everywhere the little oyster becomes more scarce and almost wholly disappears.

Where the Water-Fowl Forgather

The aspect of the Lagoon is forever changing. For a minute or so the fir woods and cliffs of Hatley Park are reflected in the water, which is just enough in motion to give an effect of vertical lines rather than a perfect double. Across this dark and trembling surface the swimming birds etch silver lines that as they get further away from their origin break up into tiny ripples and dots and finally lose themselves. But hardly has this picture impressed itself on the mind when a little breath of wind disturbs the water and except just below the overhanging banks the dark reflections vanish before a broken blue-grey image of the January sky. So it goes on, one scene succeeding another, a moving picture in which the scenery and actors are ever changing and yet are ever the same.

We have no sooner approached our resting place than the wild-fowl along the edge of the water, taught by grim experience of shore loungers, move out towards the centre and beyond gunshot. However, we sit down and very quietly, with no talking and as little movement as possible, proceed to a cup of tea and a sandwich. In a minute or two a pair of grebe draw near on the right, alternately swimming and diving after the manner of their kind. One of them, the bolder of the two – for birds and beasts have their idiosyncrasies like men – passes by at a distance of thirty feet or so. Meanwhile a pair of scaup ducks comes up from the same direction. They too are divers but very different in appearance from the almost snake-like grebe in their coats of silver grey. The scaups have pronounced bills and their plumage, especially on the head, is like rich velvet. They have, in spite of their wildness, a comfortable and domestic look. However one look at us is enough and away one of the pair goes to the crowds of the Lagoon centre while the other loiters behind and eventually tucks its head in and has a quiet little doze.

And here comes a canvas-back with its head and neck a glowing chestnut red. A quick, active bird is this one, and we are tempted to think it will come close to us if not past us, so unconscious does it look of all but its immediate affairs; but just as it draws near it veers off and is out of sight. Meanwhile from the corner of the eye notice comes that there is a bird close at hand on the left, and turning just enough for the purpose we see our little grebe not ten feet away, but our one look is sufficient and with his little jump and splash he disappears. Grebe are at once a combination of curiosity and alertness. A slight movement of the hand or head sends them below like a flash, but I have known one to be caught by a troller’s spoon and hauled incontinently on board.

A gull comes swimming past occasionally and it is interesting to note how differently this bird’s comportment is from the duck’s. This is more angularity about the gull and it floats high behind like a seventeenth century vessel. The attitude of head and neck suggest the original of the Native canoe prow. A difference, too, is seen in their respective contacts with the water as they come down from the air. The duck takes the water with its breast, leaving a rippling V behind, while the gull comes down quietly, feet foremost and wings raised almost vertically above.

Herons in the Tree Tops

Suddenly the air, which has been deserted except for passing gulls, is filled with great lazily flapping wings. A flock of herons has appeared from we know not where and are circling round above the Lagoon on the left in an irregular and confused manner; at least so their gyrations appear to us. Then as suddenly they make for the shore above the cliffs of Hatley, and the whole thirty or more of them take up their positions in the branches of a large dead fir and its neighbors. It has been a very silent display, and were it not that their passage to the trees has been followed it would not have been possible at this distance to have noticed them there. The heron is one of our most interesting birds. Seen, as he so generally is, alone, silent, and even motionless, waiting for his prey in some shallow bay or estuary, his curious attitude and form mark him off definitely from other birds, and when he takes to the wing uttering his horse scolding cry his peculiarities seem still more marked.

Great Blue Heron at Esquimalt Lagoon.


The Old Limestone Quarry

But time flies and we must take the road again. We return by the Belmont Road until we reach the lime-kiln one, where we turn off to the right. The ice on the roadside pools has almost gone in places exposed to the sun, but under the shadow of the trees and in the lee of hillocks it still lingers, crackling like dry toast beneath the feet. Even on the grass as we get out of reach of the sea air the frost crystals still reveal their delightful patterns, beautiful as anything the fancy of man can picture. The country through which we first pass is not pretty: the mark of the axe is too evident upon it and the fields lie bare and swampy. Just to the left separated by a wire fence is the great excavation made in the limestone of the district. It consists of a narrow gorge leading to a lobed quarry whose grey cliffs rise precipitously from the level floor with its little narrow-gauge railway line, along which the loaded trucks run. The once horizontal beds of stone, intruded by bodies of igneous rock, now stand on end, bent and twisted by the stresses they have suffered. The processes that have converted the original coral and shell lime-rock into this blue-grey marble have been joined with others that have sheared, fractured and smashed the stone beyond any other use than that of the kiln. So to the kiln by Esquimalt Harbor it goes as it has been going for long years, traveling down the little railway between the canyon-like walls.

The historic View Royal lime kiln in 1977. Robert Duffus photo.

Today the tawny red of wet sawdust competes with the debris of the kiln, for logs come in to the great saws as well as limestone to the furnace. And from this mingling of industry as of color a new road leads up the hill and away to the Island Highway near Parson’s Bridge. It leaves the old buildings and the new and runs through the clay valley where the race-track extends its long oval between the two low ridges.

On the right the ground is hilly and scrubby, and through the ragged thicket we see a flock of black-faced sheep. Off the clay comes a rapid stream of water filling the ditch and crossing the road to pass down the valley to Plumper Bay, the flowing water neighboring discolored ice just thick enough to tell the world it froze the night before.

Gulls at the Oyster Beds

The new Parson’s Bridge with its delightful curve looks down on the Esquimalt oyster beds. Brought as infants from their Atlantic home, the bivalves grow up to a rich and well-flavored maturity in the shallows between Cole Island and the bridge. Beside the native oysters these Easterners are giants, increasing their shells from the limy waters and their luscious bodies from the abundant food that streams in between the shells. This food is almost wholly made up of diatoms, those wonderful microscopic plants of the sea with their embellished covers of imperishable silica.

“Cultivating Eastern Oysters at Esquimalt Harbor” – Victoria Colonist, 1908.

However, today our attention is taken from the possibilities of the oyster beds to the immense numbers of gulls that occupy the space between the beds and Cole Island. Even the rocks of Gibraltar on the left look as if covered with patches of snow, so large is the number of birds assembled on them. And in from the entrance of the harbor they still come, flock after flock. Some of them are above the bridge in the tidal waters of the Millstream, and judging from the cries and the occasional evidences of petty pilfering one from another the cause of this gathering of the gulls is to be found there at least. Probably it is due to a run of some of the small fish that from time to time appear in vast numbers in the protected waters of our bays and arms. Some years ago the old dry dock at Esquimalt had to be emptied of the fish that lay thick on its bottom after the withdrawal of the water.

But whatever it is at this hour in the afternoon business activities seem to have practically ceased; only a few late-comers such as those above the bridge being at work. All the rest of the great company wear a satisfied and contented air, as if for once they had received their deserts.

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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