Saturday, October 12, 2013

Historical Paddle on the Gorge

We kayakers are not the only ones who paddle on The Gorge, that narrow inlet that reaches from Victoria's Inner Harbour to a wide salt-water lake known as Portage Inlet. The Gorge has been the scene of human traffic in small boats for thousands of years since the Ice Age ended, and there are signs of all that use in the middens found at traditional First Nations village sites. There are some projects in place to restore the shoreline and water quality and bridges along this inland waterway.

For more recent history, in 1861 a noteworthy traveler was visiting Victoria, and the Hudson's Bay Company took her touring on The Gorge. This traveler was Lady Jane Franklin, widow of Sir John Franklin (yup, the Franklin who was lost on an Arctic expedition). This week I've been reading an interesting series of books on Arctic expeditions written by Calgary author Ken McGoogan. In one of these books, Lady Franklin's Revenge, McGoogan tells the story of Jane Franklin's travels around the world. It was a great pleasure to learn that on her last great trip, she reached Vancouver Island and actually rode in a canoe in my home waters.

The Hudson's Bay Company wanted to show off their local accomplishments, so the factor arranged for the town's worthies to accompany Lady Franklin on a boating tour. This sheltered inlet is well-suited for taking tours to show off the local shoreline and hills between the new town of Victoria and one of the farms set up to provide fresh produce. In a large Chinook canoe, Lady Franklin and her companion were conveyed by ten Canadian voyageurs wearing red shirts. They launched from the HBC wharf, which was probably located close to the foot of Fort Street today, (near the astonishingly good fish'n'chips booth Red Fish Blue Fish). A fleet of small boats carried dozens of local people along beside the large voyageur canoe.

The Gorge wouldn't have looked to Lady Franklin and her niece Sophy Craycroft as it does now, with industrial development at the wide place now called the Selkirk Water and houses along the shoreline where the waterway narrows. It would have looked more like the portion just north of the Selkirk Water, which has been restored to a more natural shoreline with trees and grass rather than concrete docks and buildings.

It was noted in The British Colonist newspaper that as Lady Franklin's boat passed under Victoria Bridge, "three rousing, hearty British cheers were given by a crowd thereon assembled." Ken McGoogan wrote on page 400 of Lady Franklin's Revenge that "Just beyond a rapids, at a place called Craigflower, Jane and her entourage relished an elaborate two-hour picnic before departing on their return journey to a final salute of gunshots."

So, where was this picnic held? Clearly, McGoogan doesn't seem to have paddled on the Gorge above the only rapids at Gorge Narrows. If the picnic site were as McGoogan says "just beyond" the reversing falls under the modern Tillicum Bridge, it could have taken place at either Kinsmen Gorge Park or the beach where the Victoria Canoe and Kayak Club launches. Both sites have good beaches for landing and launching small boats, and sloping shores where picknickers still gather today.

But there's a better place for picnicking with dozens of people and small boats.
The picnic site might have been less than a kilometre above the Gorge Narrows, on what is now the Saanich side of the narrow waterway, at the present site of Craigflower Bridge, where Kosapsum Park now has a few picnic tables and a public restroom just above a sandy beach. It's possible, because the fine beach at this spot was there in 1861. There was also Craigflower Schoolhouse, built in 1855, and Craigflower Manor built in 1856 just across the water on what is now the View Royal side of the bridge.

This is a photo from Wikipedia, showing the white schoolhouse building above the sandy beach.

This site is very probably where the picnic was held. The shoreline is not steep, and would suit the 70-year-old Lady Franklin as she climbed out of her canoe towards a fine cup of tea. The beach faces south and on a sunny day in March it is very comfortable to sit here, warmed by the sun and sheltered from the wind. There's plenty of beach for the small boats, and room for people to stroll. It's no surprise that this site shows signs of thousands of years of use!

Another possibility for the picnic site is Christie Point, which was used in the coming decades by the Christie family of settlers and other daytrippers as an excellent place for picnicking and swimming. Christie Point is a little farther on along the waterway, jutting into the wide saltwater lake that is Portage Inlet. But I don't think that the 1861 picnic took place here. It wasn't a popular place for daytripping until there were more houses built along the waterway. Christie Point is not just beyond the reversing falls, and most of all, it's definitely beyond Craigflower Manor farm.

Y'see, the best reason to bring Lady Franklin out on this day trip was to show off how the HBC was "developing" the area. She had made a habit as she toured the world, to see buildings and projects of many and various kinds. Of course the HBC would show off one of their four model farms; Craigflower farm was the most successful of the four, and was already a reliable source of produce and dairy products for the growing community of Victoria. During the two hours the picnic lasted, the HBC would not have missed the opportunity to try to earn her praise.

Christie Point wasn't yet homesteaded in 1861, so it would have been thickly forested and a pretty site with a narrow shore. Neither Kinsmen Gorge Park nor the VCKC site were homesteaded yet, so it's hard to know how closely the trees came to the water at that time. All the trees now seen along the Gorge Waterway are second and third growth after the area was logged clear, so modern photographs aren't a good way to tell how much room there was for lounging picnickers.

It doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things, to figure out exactly which beach a world traveler might have lounged on, but it interests me. I like seeing the connection between the colonial imperialists of Victoria and the way Lady Franklin got her way in the world. I like thinking of connections between daring Arctic explorers and long sea voyages, and the calm, sheltered waterway that is our home waters.

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