Telegraph Road to Cowichan Head

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, April 28th, 1940-

Across the highway from Keating Hall a road runs downhill to the east and an elderly signboard still bears the inscription: “Telegraph Road”. This is the way to the seashore at Island View Park. It drops rather steeply from the long gravelly ridge followed by the highway to the broad flats of the South Saanich farms lying on the Maywood clays.

Farms off of Island View Road, April 2022

It is a pleasant walk this mid-April morning. In one field two tractors drive their gleaming coulters and plough-shares through the dark moist sod, while on an adjoining one a team of horses proceeds more slowly with the same operation. The usual flocks of gulls are there. The air is full of the voices of birds. Sky larks sing above and below. Meadowlarks are melodious on fence posts. Song sparrows utter their sweet little songs in rivalry with the white-crowned sparrows in the wayside willows and cascaras. The call of a killdeer plover comes across the fields. A towhee comes out from the bushes and from a fence post views the passer-by with quick, nervous movements accentuated by the red-ringed eye.

Old Barn and Blue Hills

From this you may guess that my progress is slow; no “hiking” along a road so replete with interest. Not only are there the birds; the landscape is full of beauty. The clouds, snowy white or slaty grey, as they are in light or shade, throw their shadows across the distance. Mount Douglas in the south is a dark blue, and as we reach the further side of the valley we can look back and see across a grey barn the long sweep of the hills beyond Saanich Arm and away to the northwest, half hidden, half revealed in the broken light. Two things are outstanding in the valley itself. One is a large, isolated pine whose rounded outlines might deceive you at a distance were it not for the sombre green of its foliage. The other is a noble barn that seems to sum up in its form and size the achievements of generations of Saanich farmers. Its snowy walls just broken by little windows, its expanse of soft grey roof that expands with grace at the side, the round tower of the silo, the neighboring outbuildings, and the neat farmhouse half hidden by trees, all combine to make a composition pleasing to the eye after so much of out city and suburban confusedness.

Few wild flowers are out by the wayside, but the rich colors of the exposed soil, its brown and purple and black, the fresh green of the young wheat, and the broken verdancy of the pasture, are very lovely in the sunlight. Salmonberry flowers of a deeper hue than usual hang downward over the ditches, and orchard trees look like snow in summer. As the rise on the other side of the valley is climbed, strawberry and blackberry flowers appear. The pink and white flowers of the Siberian Spring beauty star the damp hollows and the creamy clusters of the red-fruited elderberry fill the air with a somewhat overpowering odor. The common horsetail of sandy banks forms little miniature fir forest of its bright green sterile fronds, while the fertile ones with their bursting cones a-top have in their black and fawn an appearance of detachment that befits their peculiarly specialized functions of spore production and dispersal.

A Shifting Shoreline

The winding road descends towards the sea, but at the foot of the hill lies a broad flat which extends from the Indian Reserve at Saanichton south for over two miles. Its greatest width is about half a mile, but where our road crosses it a quarter of a mile brings us to the shore. It is a triangle with its base at the north and its apex at the south. It was at one time strewn with timber bleached silver white by the weather. Then it was covered with the grasses that flourish in salty ground and with the succulent salicornia or glasswort. The ditches draining it carry a dark, forbidding water discolored by the peaty soil below. At the border of the flat the sea has built up a barrier beach, and indeed two or three of these barriers may be made out by the observant. It is along the inner side of this barrier that the local authorities are undertaking the building of a road and a wall of timber is rising as a bulwark against the waves.

Island View Beach with Tsawout and Tixen (Cordova) Spit at its northern end.

The old coastline is obviously marked by the hillside down which the road comes. The flats have passed through the usual stages of lagoon and peat swamp. The materials for beach building have come largely from the exposed sections of the hill north and south of the point known as Cowichan Head, a conspicuous landmark from the southern part of Cordova Bay. The sea is very shallow here, and in heavy storms the beach barrier is sometimes broken by the sea and the coarser materials of the shore are carried inland over the flat for some distance. The coast is open and exposed to the southeasterly gales of winter and these, combined with high tides, are potent instruments of destruction.

There Rolls the Deep

When I came down to the beach the other morning the tide was well up on the sand below the barrier of coarse material. I looked in vain, therefore, for something pointed out to me a good many years ago by friend Mr. F. W. Hearle, of Sluggett. On that occasion he showed me on the shore between tide marks several root stumps and suggested that they were remains of trees once growing there, though now only their submerged root systems appeared. I was hesitant about accepting the explanation at the time but last Saturday’s visit has, in my opinion, confirmed the accuracy of Mr. Hearle’s diagnosis. To go a little ahead of time in order to emphasize the changes along this piece of shore, I ask my readers to see what I did on my return some three hours later when the tide had fallen enough to bare a considerable expanse of sand, including some “islets” still surrounded by water. I found the roots much better exposed than at my last sight of them. One of the largest is the furthest south and its elaborate system rather resembles a boy’s catapult, or perhaps a better comparison is with a large mammalian vertebra, the base of the trunk representing the centrum while the open neural arch is more or less traceable in two larger root branches. Such comparisons are, however, quite incapable of conveying more than the haziest picture of the real thing. The diameter from one extremity of the root system to the other is about twenty feet in the longest direction. There is another very large one near by, and at least three smaller ones are visible. The wood is perfectly sound and, where I cut it with a knife, I found it a warm brown like cedar, which I take it to be.

Root erosion along the shoreline of Island View Beach, April 2022

Possibly, then, the flats once extended much beyond their present bounds and the sands, exposed broadly at low water, may be underlain by this extension now hidden. This former condition would exist when the now truncated Cowichan Head continued as the southeast end of James Island did out into the waters of Haro Strait. It may also be that further uncovering and examination may show that these trees are part of the same inter-glacial fresh water phase we find at the base of the cliffs north of Cormorant Point and containing among its branches and crushed plant debris the wing covers of beetles like and even identical with those found in similar inter-glacial beds at Scarborough Heights, Toronto. Consequently it seems that Mr. Hearle has opened up an interesting chapter in the history of the past of Saanich where now “rolls the deep where grew the tree.” Whether it will be possible to pass from surmise to certainly is still a question.

Fretting the Cliffs

Leaving the flat and its peaty waters and the mud where red-shouldered blackbirds seem to take pleasure, we follow the strip of sand below the beach barrier proper, and passing the wooded corner where lowland and cliff meet the shore we arrive below the side of the ridge. It is in places wooded, chiefly with alder, but it becomes as we walk below increasingly bare. The long straight beds of sand and gravel and clay look as if ruled by a Tom Linkinwater in their accuracy. Below is the bluish Maywood clay, over which the water runs quietly and continuously to the sea.

The cliffs south of Island View Beach, April 2022

Close examination shows in places the presence of marine shells, whole or fragmentary. Masses of clay have slipped down, and on the wet, sticky slopes the butter bur or colt’s foot grows in large patches, exhibiting its clusters of flowers and its picturesque leaves sometimes a foot across. Salmonberry and red-flowered currant also occur. Further on the cliffs are barer, and about the sandy beds a few swallows fly to and fro, up and down, in a perfectly dazzlingly bewilderment of curves and corners. One of the most striking features of this part of the sea cliffs is easily missed between the distractions of the shore and the clusters of alders on the upper beach. This is the excavation of profound gullies in the loose sediments by the power of water. The consequent fretting away of the cliffs is precisely what we find near Cormorant Point, Cordova Bay, where the walls of sand and gravel have been undergoing intermittent collapse as long as I have known them, but here, north of Cowichan Head, the effects are much more spectacular. In one place I gazed up at a sort of aerial peninsula formed by the profound excavations on each side and its own sharply eroded sides which looked as if they had been attacked by one of those modern shovels that fascinate the passers-by. It was crowned with a little group of alders rooted precariously in the slowly narrowing islet. Overhead was the brilliant blue of the sky broken only by a luminous fleecy cloud wandering by. In another place I looked up a comparatively narrow but deep gully and saw that its head opened into a great pit or cirque, reminding me very much of what you see along the road between the towns of Summerland and Penticton below the cliffs of Okanagan Lake. The beds as we approach Cowichan Head are seen to dip at an angle of about fifteen degrees or so to the south, so that by the time we reach the bend inside of the Head the underlying clay is at sea level and we actually come upon it outcropping along the shore. The outcrops have a reddish color due to the rusting of the iron contained in the clay and giving it on fresh surface its bluish tint.

Cowichan Head proper is a little triangular expanse just behind the beach. It is occupied by a pretty little cottage where the daffodils in Spring stand up and take the sun and breeze. Coming out of the calm of the north side I was quite surprised at the wind blowing round the corner. Where we touch the cliff again appears at the base, speckled with little white shells. And now the whole one hundred and forty feet of deposits rise uncovered above us, sloping back at a fairly steep angle, which is broken, however, by edges of the slightly more resistant beds, producing thus a rather vague terraced appearance. In summer head and drought the cliffs here look barren indeed, but now in spring there is a light clothing of green, for a number of plants well suited for such a precarious life have more or less established themselves on what in summer, and especially in a wind, is literally a moving soil, on the surface at least. Such plants owe to the silky or gummy character of their foliage and their ability to root deeply such persistence as they show. One of the them is a species of sage brush with pleasantly aromatic leaves; another with leaves as finely divided as those of garden southernwood was scentless, and a specimen of it I pulled up had a root more than five feet long. Another common plant was a species of gumweed or grindelia. The only gullies here are quite small, though they may extend right down the cliff face, and are quite plainly steep furrows cut by the rain. I noticed at one place the ruins of a wooden stairway that once led for the top to the shore. The fretting of the cliffs is less spectacular than on the other side, but it occurs more broadly across the face and goes on in summer as in winter when the wind blows from the south.

Blue-Eyed Mary

Blue-Eyed Mary (Collinsia grandiflora), 2022

Coming back across the triangle at the Head the grass is found to conceal a profusion of Blue-Eyed Mary, a profusion that even runs out among the bare cobbles at the upper edge of the beach and plays hide-and-seek among the driftwood. In the taller herbage the dark checkered bells of the fritillary hang above the leaves of the larkspur. But most of the triangle bears a plentiful growth of small Oregon grape, the holly-leaved kind, none of it more than a few inches high, yet flowering profusely. With the now much-fallen tide the Head slopes down to a stretch of wet sand and pebbles where the gulls evidently find good feeding, for every now and then one flies away with some creature in its bill to find its accustomed place for breaking the hard shell.

The shoreline at Cowichan Head, April 2022

Out on the wet sands the prevailing colors are dark green and dark red. The last comes from wreath-like masses of the red Ceramium seaweed, which makes up for its lack of size by its density of growth; the first is the effect of outspread fronds of green laver, large and small. Judging by the amount of fish and crab remains found along the shore the sea birds are by no means confined to clams and purples. Out on the wet sand there are signs everywhere of the marine representatives of our common earthworms as well as of other creatures of the shallows. Depressions filled with water remain after the tide is out, but the delightful pools of rocky or even bouldery coasts are quite lacking. For these it is necessary to go away to the south toward the northern end of Cordova Bay. As we walk along we see ahead the end of James Island, looking as if cut off by a knife with its steep, bare cliff corresponding to Cowichan Head in material and structure, though a section of another ridge.

The shoreline south of Island View Beach with the cliffs of James Island in the distance. April 2022

Back of it the seaward slope is yellow with broom. The islands across the Strait are chiefly of the San Juan Archipelago, hill behind hill against a background of piled-up cloud in which the far-off mountains are lost.   

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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