Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Into The Not-So-Deep Past

After the day I spent touring the Greater Victoria region with a geologist, I staggered around for many days seeing my familiar surroundings with new eyes. The first thing I wrote about this experience was the Into The Deep Past post on the Kayak Yak blog.
I should also write about the next day as well, when I went wandering into the past, but not so ancient. It was still pretty long ago by modern standards. Let me digress a little. We modern Canadians tend to think of things a thousand years old as pretty darned old. But around this part of the Island and the Salish Sea, there are traces of humans five thousand and possibly ten thousand years old. Or more. I don't know how to see the past as clearly as I'd sometimes like to do.
People in Europe can go look at the Parthenon in Greece, and see marble carvings etching in modern air pollution, or walk along Roman roads that were built to last. Two thousand years seems like a long time in Europe, with artifacts to look at all along the way. The Great Pyramids in Egypt are older, and we've still got the invoices for beer and onions for the workers, kicking around in museums somewhere. But the history books don't always tell the whole story -- like the olive tree on the hill next to the Parthenon that tradition holds was a gift from Athena herself. Or the marching songs that let Roman soldiers keep time with a 30-inch stride that added up to exactly a mile marched at the end of the right number of verses and choruses.
At least local history books about Victoria tell that the main wandering roads through Victoria follow old footpaths from before the Hudson's Bay Company built a fort here. Fort Road leads out from downtown, where the company built a fort on the Inner Harbour. Much older is Cedar Hill Road, which leads from Cordova Bay Beach south along a ridge that's now called Cedar Hill. Originally the Hill of Cedars was the bedrock hill re-named Mount Douglas for the company's chief factor and later the governor of the British colony. Mount Douglas is a good landmark around here. It's visible from most of the city, and the peninsula. When we're out on the water, the shape of Mount Doug tells us where we are along the shoreline.
When I follow Cedar Hill Road, it's easy to tell that it's been a road for a long time, long before the colony settlers started using it a hundred and fifty years ago. I don't need the historical records to tell me this. My feet tell me this as I walk along, or ride my bike. The road follows the creek up from the Cordova Bay shoreline, and then heads south, always staying out of the low valleys where streams would make the going muddy, and usually paralleling the high ground on a more level track than the highest points of the ridge. Instead of a surveyor laying out a road with a level and scopes, this route was laid by the time and motion analysis of many feet taking a sensible path. Practical knowledge can be science, too.
The old road crosses another old road, called (sensibly enough) Cedar Hill Cross Road. This pair of names drives visitors batty as they try to figure out where they're going, along roads that veer to take a slope at a more convenient angle. These roads aren't laid out on a grid like downtown. These roads are going someplace important to the people who made the original footpaths.
I could tell that these places are important, not only because local history books tell me so, but because of what can be seen along the way. There are old fields and Garry oak meadows that still bloom with camas flowers, a crop grown by the First Nations peoples. There's Spring Ridge, where good water welled up year-round. And at the end points, there were villages. At one end of the cross road was where we've built Craigflower Bridge, at the other the cross road split. One path led along the modern Beach Drive to villages where the Royal Victoria Yacht Club is now on Cadboro Bay, and Willows Beach on Oak Bay, the other led to what's now Gyro Park Beach on Cadboro Bay.
Okay, so that was a longer digression than expected for a blog post about kayaking. But really, that set of paths took me right back to my home waters in Cadboro Bay. I've taken my kayak out on the bay hundreds of times, at all levels of tide. And this day I started writing about, the day after my tour with the geologist, I set out to do an ordinary paddle out to Flower Island and back.
But I was still seeing the past all around me, manifest in the present tense. When you're out in a kayak or other small boat, you get used to being aware of the weather around you. But now I was sensitized to seeing the past. I saw the slight rise at the shoreline above the beach by the east end of the park, where the land rises for less than two metres. It's a midden, where there was a village. I saw the flat sand exposed by low tide, where clams blow little holes up, fewer now than when I was a child, but there must have been more, enough to harvest, a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, a thousand years ago... And when I pushed off, my little boat was floating into the places where it showed me what this shoreline was like a long time ago in human terms.
It's hard to keep track of all the local names for islands and points and bays around here. There's a different name for most places in each of the local First Nations languages. Some of these places were used by different groups at different times, or at different times of year. My paddling group is learning names from charts. We also make our own names for the little rock garden, the big rock garden along the Uplands shore, the channel that someone has blocked by chaining a steel float, and where we see animals.
I'm not sure how long ago the sea level was at the point that we see nowadays as our zero tide. Only on the lowest tides at the winter and summer solstices each year does the tide get that low nowadays. But during the latest Ice Age the water level was lower still. I paddled along the shoreline where the little rock garden would have been a lumpy point of land sticking out from the rocky shore, as it is during low tide.
I looked across to the other shore that rises above the west end of the beach, and saw that there had been a slide or a slump of part of the bluff. Until then, I had been assuming that most of that bluff was made of the same rock as this side of the bay. But no, the slide showed sand. It made sense after a moment's thought. There are sandy bluffs miles up the peninsula, up near Island View Beach, and on James Island and Sidney Island. But I didn't know this bluff was made of sand. I'd never tried to climb it, so I hadn't learned what was hidden under the greenery covering the steep slope. There's plenty of greenery trailing over the rocks on the rocky side, too. It was the sand showing against the greenery that let me see from across the bay that there had been a landslide. The new edge of the bluff looked rather too close for comfort to the patio of one of the fine houses along the top of the bluff. Suddenly, I felt even less craving for a waterfront house than ever before.
And now I understood why Cadboro Bay is so shallow under that bluff when it's deeper along the east shore -- under the bluff here is like the shallows south of the bluff at the end of James Island. The sand slumps. It's been slumping since the glaciers retreated at the end of the latest ice age. When I paddle over that shallow, sandy-mud bottom, I'm paddling over ten thousand years of sand slumping into a basin scoured between the bedrock of the east shore and the bedrock of the Uplands shore along the west and south. The tides pull the sand out and spread it along the beach between the arms of the bay. There's been a sandy beach here for ten thousand years.
That's only a heartbeat in the geological time that Dr Yorath the geologist showed me how to see. But it's all the time that the Salish-speaking people have lived at this end of Vancouver Island.
I paddled a little further along, to one of the many little islands in the bay that are part of the Ecological Reserve. Don't go ashore on those islands -- they're bird sanctuaries! There are other reasons not to go ashore there, as well. These were important places for First Nations people, places of transition. There are stories shared in books and on websites about how there were stones at special places, stones regarded as ancestral guardians showing good ways to travel or where to look for food. There are similar stories from Europe about the standing stones in fields and hills. I looked at one of the little islets in the bay, with a stone on it. The first time I saw it, I knew that this stone was clearly a glacial erratic left behind by the ice. But this time, when I turned away from the little island, I looked across the bay and could see the two old village sites. The modern houses faded to my new way of seeing -- I could see that this was a good spot to look over on both villages, from what would have been a little point or peninsula, not an island.
This stone makes a good memory stone.
I drifted on for a while, paddling slowly. Flower Island was living up to its name, all a-bloom with blue camas flowers. This island was someone's place to gather camas bulbs for special feasts, right up till a hundred years ago or so. This basalt rock would have been connected to the point ten thousand years ago. The narrow channel that separates Flower is also a shallow one. I took my boat around Flower to Evans Rock, where there's another channel, shallow at low tide. Drifting along, I could see the bottom is white there, not the white of barnacles so much as the white of a shell beach. How long ago was this channel a beach for harvesting oysters and clams? A thousand years, five thousand years ago? Only at a zero tide is the water shallow enough for me to see the bottom and guess at the work of hands opening shells, gathering seafood for all those years, all those years ago.
I remember that one time I was talking with my mother about Discovery Island and the Chathams, near Victoria off Oak Bay and Ten Mile Point. She hadn't known that much of those islands are an Indian Reserve. She wondered why the local First Nations people hadn't developed that area. After all, Victoria had plenty of houses and businesses, why not there too? I tried to suggest that maybe the people who had been using those little islands for thousands of years had developed them just exactly the way that they found them most useful.

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