Esquimalt’s Natural Park

Connell takes a ramble across some undeveloped parts of Esquimalt and to the top of High Rock Park.

From the Victoria Times Colonist, March 28, 1931-

Everyone knows the charm of Esquimalt’s waterfront. Fortunately the golf-links have preserved a large portion of it to which the public has access. With but the narrow harbor entrance between them, the shores of the two municipalities are very different in character. The cliffs from Beacon Hill to Clover Point, with their great thickness of glacial clay, have no counterpart to speak of on the Esquimalt peninsula where the rocks are usually just below the surface of the soil or break through it in innumerable hummocks. The sea is thus seen from a lower level than that of the Dallas cliffs, while at the same time there is much greater proportion of picturesquely rocky shore.

The Esquimalt waterfront, 1905. CVA image.

But Esquimalt’s charm is not confined to the seashore, and anyone who is in doubt about it should walk the three-quarters of a mile between the corner of Lampson and Head Streets and the meeting with Admiral’s Road. It is a delightful and secluded piece of the old thoroughfare that was once the only means of communication by land between Victoria and the Admiralty village. An old map of 1860 shows it leading from the ferry on the Songhees Reserve just where the present bridge spans the Arm. Up over the hills through what we now call the Industrial Reserve it is still used. As it crosses the present Esquimalt Road its identity is lost in Wilson Street, to emerge again beyond Dominion Road, where it is still known as “Old Esquimalt Road“.

Passing Lampson Street the road rises gently over a prettily-wooded ridge where, among an abundance of young oaks fringing the fir forest, a few houses are charmingly situated. The elevation is about 150 feet above the level of the sea so that fine views of the sea, the surrounding country and the distant mountains are possible. While most of the oaks are young, one very fine patriarch stands by the roadside and is probably the ancestor of the later generations. The many open spaces are broken by little islands of rock whose identity is almost hidden in thick covering of moss and thinner expanses of lichen, while the short turf between is spangled with the silver of innumerable daisies. The top of the road is no sooner reached than through the framework of roadside trees appears the misty gray of the distant hills of Sooke and the gleam of the harbor waters of Esquimalt.

Woodland and Winter Pond

The road now descends steeply, as motorist and cyclist are duly warned, and a glimpse of the roofs of urban Esquimalt warns the rambler that he is perilously near civilization. So finding conveniently to hand a set of rustic bars he enters the woods on the right by a well-defined path. The makers of the path are heard in the distance as the pleasant music of cow-bells comes echoing through the trees. Woodland as the place is, it is almost wholly free from underbrush. Here and there are little grassy amphitheatres where the sun seems to shine with a peculiar and special warmth, and as often as they are met with they tempt the rambler from the beaten path into the labyrinth of trees. Suddenly he comes on a little pond. What beauty water communicates to the landscape! Even the wayside ruts with their images of sky and clouds redeem a landscape on a dull day from monotony. And this lakelet – how it reflects in its perfect stillness the trees that surround it as if to mark out the verge of its waters! A little peninsula of turf projects a few feet from one side, and on its point is a solitary alder whose catkins, now turned to gold, hang like the side-curls of a mid-Victorian beauty. On the other side are three large cottonwoods with their graceful trunks hovering high in the air and near by are more alders, more gnarled and twisted than the first, as if the perpetual damp had produced in them a state of chronic rheumatism.

Most of the coniferous trees are comparatively young but among them are sparsely scattered a few very large Douglas firs whose thick branches almost from the ground up tell of long years of lonely state before their independence was violated. One of a pair that seem to spring from one root has been at some time violently twisted and broken off about ten feet above the ground, but from the splintered wound a “leader” has carried the trunk up a-fresh, smaller, but straight as an arrow skywards. About the feet of the forest members there lies in places a confused litter of broken branches and branchlets torn from the tops in great winds. There are scarcely any flowers as yet in these woods. But if flowers are wanting there are leaves a-plenty. And were it not that the leaves are all green we should find in them as much aesthetic please as in the flowers.

“Maple and Fir in Winter off Lampson Street, Victoria” by Connell

The High Rocks

Regaining the path the rambler notes a change in the plants as he proceeds. Fawn-lilies are opening their spotted leaves and occasionally a white bud like a dog’s fang is seen, and mottled leaves of the rattlesnake-plantain orchid remind us by the name the children give them – “finders” – that hereabouts the pink lady’s-slipper ought to be found. But I fear that the intensive picking of long years has made both fawn-lily and lady’s slipper rarities in these Esquimalt woods.

But now appears before the wanderer’s eyes the main mass of the High Rocks. Children have always loved to visit this natural park which provides a ready-to-hand entrance to the joys of the wild. The trains of the E. and N. Railway may thunder by amid warning whistlings, but once across Lampson Street you are in the ancient woods and the spice of adventure is in the air. And here today, as the rambler gains the summit, he finds three youngsters out for the day even as he. Their knapsacks are across their shoulders, for they bring their lunch with them like true woodsmen. One tells me how he longs for the holidays when he can go to his uncle’s farm at Sooke, and I can see by the sparkle in his eye how his boyish imagination dwells on the life there, and how he turns over and tastes each individual item in his lunch with the pleasurable anticipation of a gourmand. Another is concerned about fishing, and I learn that his image of felicity demands a rod and line. When I tell them of some of the places I know the mention of a creek at once brings forth his question: “Are there any fish there?” How old Izaak Walton would have enjoyed his enthusiasm! The third is silent, but there is something in his face that tells that he too has visions, though he cannot articulate them yet.

The view from High Rock Park, Esquimalt.

But down the rock they go and I am left alone on the dome-like top. From it I look out over the hills to the east and north-east from Mount Douglas and Christmas Hill to Scafe Hill, whose bare scarp just shows through the trees. Hill after hill of Saanich, Lake, and Highland districts rise behind each other, blue and gray in the faint mistiness of this warm March day. The High Rocks and all the nearer hills as far as Mount Work and Little Saanich Mountain with its white Observatory are all composed of rocks of granitic structure though not of granitic materials- granodiorite, diorite, diorite-gneiss. The old Jurassic lavas have been weathered away, while stumps of the harder, tougher, deep-seated rocks have withstood the same forces and the powerful mechanical erosion of the great ice-caps.

In the Lampson Street Woods

In my turn I drop down from the summit past satin-flowers and flowering collinsias four or five inches high. Now I am in the woods that adjoin Lampson Street. Here an old wagon-road runs beneath the High Rocks, and so delightful is it that having reached the end I retrace my steps to get as much of its beauty as I can. Here maples hang their bursting buds of gold, and a solitary arbutus gives a touch of bright red and vivid green. A great balsam fir, five feet in diameter at three feet above the ground, is a noble sight but someone has put a great axe cut in its side and the ants are busy in the old wound. Flowering currant of the most brilliant crimson scents the air. The wild gooseberry bushes are laden with blossoms and the birdcherry is full of drooping sprays of white. The wild cherry is in bud, and the leaves of the saskatoon have opened; they are little different from the their maturer form, but the ocean-spray leaves are full of the little folds in which they lay while still wrapped in their winter coverings. Occasionally there is a touch of dull crimson where a red-barked dogwood grows in the thicket. The honeysuckles are out in leaf, and a their close relative, the snowberry, keeps them close company. The snowberry seems always trying to get away from the puritan simplicity of its leaf-form and take on something a little more ornamental. You will find many of the bushes have some leaves with prettily-toothed edges, but none are wholly so, and the attempt seems unavailing. But some day it may be that the snowberry may achieve its wish. Or perhaps some gardener may utilize this tendency to break and produce a pinnately-toothed snowberry for the delectation of lovers of pretty shrubs.

In the open space where the road runs and where the sunshine warms and cheers without let or hindrance, the Camberwell beauties or mourning-cloaks are out in force.

Mourning Cloak butterfly

They have hibernated and are now renewing their acquaintance with the world they lost sight of for a brief while, but they are as merry as grigs, chasing each other to the fro out of the sunshine into the shady glades and then back again. From the trees come the clear loud notes of woodpeckers and robins and from the bushes the quieter voices of song-sparrows and the twitter of wrens.

“What are the voices of birds-
Ay, and of beasts- but words, our words,
Only so much more sweet?”

And perhaps the birds and the butterflies know best the joys of Esquimalt’s natural park. Although it is privately owned, in a very real sense, like all beautiful things, it is the property of those who enjoy and appreciate it. And who shall measure the delight in such a place as our humble brothers and sisters, the wild things of the woodland?

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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