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Going nowhere fast

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

Earl Fowler

I live next to a wedge of West Coast rainforest bisected by a stream that morphs into a torrent in the winter, sometimes flooding its banks, and then dwindles to a meandering rill that you can easily cross by stepping on rocks during increasingly persistent summer droughts.

The forest, mostly comprising second-growth Douglas fir and western red cedars leaning this way and that like tall Venetian belfries and topping out at about 60 metres, includes a few old-timers that might predate Columbus.

But mostly it’s composed of second-growth trees dating from the mid-19th century, when the short-lived Hudson’s Bay sawmill established about 200 paces from where I’m writing this ceased operations.

I’m beavering away on a laptop from the comfort of my recumbent bicycle, whose rear wheel is lofted about an inch off the ground by a wind trainer stand affixed to the axle caps.

I try to spend at least an hour a day perched on the bike’s wide, padded, fraying saddle, linked to a backrest I find more comfortable than those of any plush couch or office chair. My pronouns are sweat pants/tensor knee braces/thick-soled sandals.

Several times a week, an inquisitive grey squirrel and a farouche black-tailed doe, accompanied by fawns and/or yearlings, will pop by to keep a wary eye on the animate, otherworldly apparatus emitting a steady hum as the adjustable friction roller presses against the rear tire to produce resistance.

This is the first time I have employed the setup as a sort of writing desk. It’s quieter and easier on the knees than my usual routine, as the iridescent Anna’s hummingbird drinking at my feeder insouciantly attests.

Most days, the deer find me pedalling madly away while reading novels, biographies or newspapers and listening to music through bulky, 1970s-style headphones. The bike and the stand are on a concrete pad under the balcony of our townhouse, thus keeping me dry and, with an assist from a small brown fence, out of the wind even during rainstorms.

Because this is Victoria, the temperature never drops more than a few degrees below zero, so there is never a day too inclement to bother with my addictive, dopamine-churning, endorphin-spinning routine. It’s snowing unusually heavily as I sit here, but none of it is sticking around or weighing down the daffodils.

My workout is maybe not the smartest or smoothest exercise regime for a man with a tattered prostate, but hey, we’re looking for adventure in whatever comes our way. Knee over the ball of my foot with the pedal at 3 o’clock, I cross the ocean for a heart of gold.

But that’s when I’m riding. Right now, I’m reading a short history compiled by the Victoria Harbour History Project on said stream (now called Millstream Creek) and the aforementioned sawmill:

Before the arrival of Europeans, the First Nations people used the forests for the construction of their homes, canoes, tools, fuel and clothing. The western red cedar was especially useful because of its long grain and its resistance to rot. Today, the forests remain an important part of the First Nations’ economy and culture.

When James Douglas (the Guyana-born, mixed-race fur trader who became the first Governor of the Colony of British Columbia) selected Victoria’s harbour as the location of the new Hudson’s Bay fort in 1843, the lumber for the fort’s initial construction was rough-sawn by hand. Building a sawmill was high on his list of priorities.

He charged Roderick Finlayson with the task of finding a location for the mill. After some exploration, Millstream Creek, which fed Esquimalt Harbour, was selected. In September 1848, the mill was completed, the first in British Columbia.

In November of 1848 sufficient flow enabled the first lumber in British Columbia to be cut. Some of the boards were used to surface the floor of the HBC dairy barn in Victoria. With the fort’s requirements met, the mill then sent 4,270 board feet to San Francisco aboard the American brig Colony, her captain having deposited $7,000 in gold dust as security. A considerable number of shipments were sent to San Francisco and also to Hawaii during the next few years.

Remember what I said about the stream dwindling to a trickle in the summer?

It turned out Millstream Creek’s flow was not strong enough to power the mill in all seasons. Finlayson and the millwright Fenton went further upstream to find a water source to divert into Millstream so the mill could be used every day of the year, not just when there was heavy precipitation. It was on that expedition in September of 1848 up Rowe Stream that Finlayson and Fenton discovered what is probably now Thetis Lake. Finlayson considered linking the lake to Millstream to obtain the desired flow, but the distance between them was too great and the lake’s water level too low.

Thetis Lake — actually two beautiful freshwater lakes connected by a navigable culvert — is one of the great gems of southern Vancouver Island, a few blocks from our house. Now part of a 922-hectare regional park and nature sanctuary with more than 40 kilometres of superb hiking trails winding through bog and forest, it was named for the 36-gun frigate HMS Thetis, commissioned in 1846 and assigned shortly after to nearby Esquimalt as part of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Squadron.

The park has preserved glorious stands of Garry oak and arbutus, as well as the omnipresent cedars, fir trees and shrubs, grasses, ferns, sedges and mosses that stay green through the winter. The gnarly, flaky-barked arbutus or Pacific madrone, Canada’s only native broadleaf evergreen, grows 30 metres tall and gives the place a distinctly Mediterranean feel.

If you’re up on your Greek mythology, you’ll remember Thetis as a Nereid and the mother of Trojan War hero Achilles. Sadly, it never occurred to her to splash a little water on his heel when dipping him into the Styx as an infant. Thus, we’ll always have Paris.

But that’s all water under the bridge just east of Thetis Lake. Parson’s Bridge, that is, which spans the mouth of Millstream Creek as it empties into Esquimalt Harbour and ultimately into Juan de Fuca Strait, the 154-kilometre-long channel that separates Vancouver Island from the snow-capped mountains of Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula. The strait is the Salish Sea’s main outlet to the Pacific Ocean. Sail due west and you’ll eventually wind up in Japan, lost in translation.

The strait (officially the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the U.S.) was named in 1787 by maritime fur trader Charles Barkley (not that Charles Barkley) for Juan de Fuca, a hispanicization of the name Ioannis Fokas, the Greek pilot who served Philip II of Spain and claimed to have explored the channel during a 1592 expedition in search of the fabled Strait of Anián, believed by early cartographers to mark the boundary between North America and Asia.

It’s unlikely that Juan de Fuca’s story was true, so Barkley was probably the first non-Indigenous person to explore the strait, with its rugged coastlines on either side and tiny islands draped in basking seals with soulful eyes and humungous, raucous, bodysurfing sea lions capable of diving 250 metres below the waves to gorge themselves on salmon and squid.

If you’ve ever walked along Victoria’s scenic Dallas Road Waterfront Trail, which meanders along the seashore, you might have come across the cairn marking the bay where legendary long-distance swimmer Marilyn Bell (who famously also swam the English Channel and across Lake Ontario) emerged after becoming the first Canadian to swim the 42 kilometres across the strait from Port Angeles, Washington.

It was 1956 and she was 19 at the time but not — as I just noticed the plaque mistakenly boasts — the first woman to record the feat.

In 1955, 29-year-old Bert Thomas, who during the Second World War had become a combat swimmer with a U.S. Marine reconnaissance battalion while stationed at Pearl Harbor, entered the history books as the first person known to conquer Juan de Fuca. He succeeded on his fifth try after being defeated by fickle tides and the brutally cold water on his first four bids.

Thomas was only 46 when felled by a fatal heart attack in 1972. Three other American swimmers — Cliff Lumsdon, Amy Hiland and Ben Laughren — crossed the strait a few weeks before Bell, who is now 85.

But let’s dog-paddle back to Parson’s Bridge, where I have paused (staggered) after light lunches (seven or eight beers) at the adjacent Six Mile Pub, leaning over the guard rails and deliriously (drunkenly) observing (vomiting), on various occasions: black oystercatchers poking about with their ridiculous orange beaks, gorgeous mergansers, trilling killdeer, bald eagles, belted kingfishers, ospreys, red-tailed hawks, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, mallards, buffleheads, pintails, grebes, tundra swans, Canada geese, spotted sandpipers, river otters and Pacific harbour seals cavorting in the estuary below.

If you’re up for it (down, to be technical) and don’t mind mucking about in gravel, sand and mud, there is an abundance of shore life to explore along these tidal flats: crabs, small crustaceans, sea urchins, snails, bivalves, limpets, chitons, sea slugs, fish, anemones, barnacles, coral, algae, seaweed, octopus, the occasional squid … the harvest varies depending on whether the tide is in or out and how much time you spent in the Tudor-style pub, which dates to the 1850s and is the oldest surviving watering hole in British Columbia.

Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs, upon the slimy sea (and out of the authentic Doctor Who phone booth placed strategically at the pub entrance). And may there be no moaning of the bar, when I put out to pee.

At high tide, you can navigate Millstream for roughly a kilometre up to Mill Falls. With nearly three metres of tide, the minimum depth is about a third of a metre. Kayakers and canoeists, I have noticed, favour the south side for maximum depth.

Ratty, advising Mole, had it half right in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Ratty had apparently never spent a sunny summer afternoon half cut on the convivial and commodious terrace of the Six Mile Pub, watching boaters messing about below. Beats the crap out of paddling.

When we moved here almost 20 years ago, it was common to find colourful sea stars inhabiting the rocks and soft bottom of the estuary. You almost never come across them any more due to what is believed to be a “wasting syndrome” bacterial infection that dissolves and fragments their bodies. The victims look to be straight out of 1950s sci-fi/horror B movies.

During the 2021 heat dome in which temperatures rose to above 50 C along B.C. shore lines, sea critters in Esquimalt Harbour were among at least one billion — perhaps 10 times that many — to bake and fry in an unprecedented die-off that was likely a preview of many repeat performances to come. I initially believed that either our sewer had backed up or a large dragon had died in the basement until I twigged to where that putrid smell was coming from.

Back in the 1850s, when the Industrial Revolution that kicked off our climate change crisis was just gaining steam, the mouth of Millstream Creek was selected by the Royal Navy as their regional source for freshwater. Steel rods that supported flumes built by British sailors to channel the water still protrude from rocks directly in front of a fish ladder constructed to help migrating salmon.

The sailors used to unwind at the Six Mile Pub (in an earlier version of the establishment) after filling and loading their barrels. Weigh, heigh and up she rises, early in the morning.

Millstream Creek borders the townhouse complex in which we live. When we moved here, you could spot hundreds of spawning chum and coho salmon every fall from an adjacent lookout platform, along with otters and eagles dining on the dying fish.

That annual migration has been sparse and disappointing for at least five years, posing an existential threat to the three pods of 70-odd resident orcas that rely exclusively on salmon (unlike the well-fed transient killer whales that feast on seals and sea lions, sadistically tossing them into the air like domestic cats playing with their prey).

Happily, the removal of a culvert barrier that crosses our street, along with the recent addition of 13 step-pools, has reopened seven kilometres of previously inaccessible Millstream Watershed to returning adult salmon and cutthroat trout.

Not that it’s time for a rousing neighbourhood chorus of Michael, row your boat ashore or anything.

There was an article in the Victoria Times Colonist this week about the Parole Board of Canada’s appeal division’s denial of a 29-year-old inmate’s quest for day parole in the murder of teen Kimberley Proctor 13 years ago.

When he was 16, Kruse Wellwood and a 17-year-old friend, Cameron Moffat, lured the Grade 12 student to Wellwood’s home, “tied her up, gagged her, sexually assaulted her, beat her, suffocated her and mutilated her body with a knife over several hours,” the article recounts.

They put her body in a freezer, and the next day travelled to the Galloping Goose trail and set it on fire. Her burned body was found under a bridge on the trail on March 19, 2010. The teens, who were sentenced as adults, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and were given life sentences with no possibility of parole for 10 years. They were both eligible for day parole in 2018.

The charming little bridge where Proctor’s body was discovered crosses Millstream Creek a few blocks southwest of our townhouse. It is shaded by tall trees and thick foliage, offering a cool refuge in the summer and an invigorating roar of rapids in the winter. Since the murder we have usually crossed it with a shudder, quickly and in silence, but it used to be a favourite place to linger on walks and cycling trips.

Ah, yes. This is about cycling, remember? Victoria boasts a terrific network of well-maintained biking and hiking trails, including the Galloping Goose, half a block from here. But the forest slice I face while pedalling to nowhere in the normally sleepy suburb of View Royal is part of an idyllic family farm, so I rarely feel the need to go anywhere at all. This is where the rubber doesn’t hit the road.

The Pollock family has owned the land since 1921, when brothers Malcolm and Neil purchased 24 acres from the Hudson’s Bay Company, a short hop from Parson’s Bridge, down what is now called the Old Island Highway.

The brothers harnessed horses to clear most of their land and erected four glass greenhouses, renowned for including an innovative cooling system that provided what Neil described to B.C. farm journal Farm and Home in 1927 as “good clean oxygen that helps with the flavour of the tomatoes.”

The greenhouses lasted into the 1970s, succumbing at last to windstorms and age. This is from a B.C. government news release issued last August (admittedly, a year late) to mark the family’s 100 years of continuous operation on the site:

In the 1930s, a farmhouse, barn and milk house were added to the property, and the farm was in full operation during the war years and the Great Depression. Malcolm’s son, Earl, ran the farm from 1939 to 1990. In 1970, Earl sold the property the greenhouses were on, then moved the majority of the farming activities to the farm's current location on Atkins Road.

In 1990, Earl’s son, David, was added to the deed and, together with his wife Ingelise, they established an apple orchard and berry crops, produced hay and beef and grew a market garden. In 2003, David took over the Pollock Family Farm and continues to operate it today.

David and Ingelise have become friends of ours. In the summer, we buy most of our vegetables at their farm stand (their apple and raspberry orchards are gone, mostly because they couldn’t get cellphone-addicted kids to help harvest the fruit as in the past). I like to think of our veggie bonanza as our 100-Metre Diet.

The Pollocks’ battles to protect their substantial corn crop from wily neighbourhood racoons are legendary. Last summer they trapped and killed more than a dozen that figured out ways to penetrate high, sophisticated fences. The summer before, the couple mourned a stillborn calf thought to have perished due to a lack of oxygen and stress because the heifer’s pelvic area was too small.

Farming is no picnic, David and Ingelise are no spring chickens, and even in a cooling housing market, salivating developers would pay tens of millions to get their hands on the historic property. I fear for the future of our private Eden.

The massive Elements Casino Victoria now sits on the former greenhouse site, across Millstream Creek from our place, but the brave little forest between us enables us to ignore its presence. We have no plans to visit.

I have, however, accompanied David on a tour of hidden portions of the farm and was blown away to see the old sawmill power station and other extant industrial gear from the 19th century. David tells me that while working the land and exploring the woods, he and his forebears have discovered cougar dens and First Nations artifacts.

The dens are gone so far as I know, but we still see cougars from time to time. A neighbour two doors down was surprised to find her cat scratching desperately at her sliding screen door, frantic to return to the house just a minute after meowing to be let out. She opened the door, the cat scrambled in, and as the screen was pulled shut a mature cougar leaped onto the deck and stared balefully at the human interloper. Suffering succotash.

In our short hikes and longer peregrinations through the neighbourhood and nearby parks, my wife and I have yet to stumble on such First Nations artifacts as shell middens or nephrite adzes. Not that we’d recognize them anyway. But they’re certainly there.

Records and interpretations vary, with the remains of early settlements surely waiting to be discovered under water near fast-receding shorelines, but some archaeologists have argued that the evidence points to an Ice Age human presence along the B.C. coast and on Vancouver Island dating back at least 14,000 years. Others are more comfortable with 10,000 or slightly less.

What’s certain is that people have been smoking herring, building longhouses and erecting totem poles here for millennia, long predating the Egyptian pyramid-building era, and somehow managing to do so without clearcutting old-growth forests or catastrophically screwing with the climate.

In recent years, it has become standard practice for settler politicians of all stripes to open speeches given on the southern tip of the island by acknowledging and thanking the Lekungwen peoples whose traditional, unceded territory this is (along with Washington state’s San Juan Island and some Gulf Islands on the Canadian side). They’re better known as the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nation communities.

As part of a long-overdue commitment by the federal and B.C. governments to the much touted but somewhat nebulous goals of “truth and reconciliation,” a series of treaty negotiations is underway to return various parks and other Crown land to the descendants of the first occupants of this land.

One of the properties about to be repatriated is the main campus of Royal Roads University, formerly the naval training facility known as Royal Roads Military College — another spectacular jewel of Victoria’s West Shore.

It’s about a mile down the Old Island Highway (aka Sooke Road) from the Pollock farm and opens onto Esquimalt Lagoon, a national migratory bird sanctuary enclosed with a sand spit and connected to the Juan de Fuca Strait at one end by a tidal channel. The views from the lagoon of the Olympic Mountains across the strait are stunning, and, d’après moi, nearby Fisgard Lighthouse is no less picturesque than the one at Peggy’s Cove.

Along with its formal gardens (featuring Japanese, rose and Italian sections) and stands of second- and old-growth forest, the public university includes the Tudor-revival-style, 40-room Hatley Castle, built by nefarious coal baron James Dunsmuir in the early part of the 20th century but probably best known these days as Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in the X-Men movie franchise.

I’m not sure how this turned into a tourist brochure, but before signing off, we might as well stop by Mill Hill Regional Park, also an easy walk from our home. It gets more challenging as you climb through cool woodland and delicate flowers, some of which are already blooming in late February, till you get to the summit. There, at 203 metres to be precise, one is treated to marvellous views in all directions while standing on a peak-finder cairn mounted on the foundations of a long-gone Forest Service lookout tower.

Drop by for a visit someday and I’ll gladly go into docent mode, excitedly pointing out highlights of this living compendium of mirabilia. Set a spell. Take your shoes off.

In the meantime, I’m setting down my laptop and gearing up for another ride madly off in no directions.

The real beauty of this arrangement is that if I have to use a bathroom, there’s one just beyond the sliding door. If I get tired, poof, I’m home. If I get tired of the Beatles, I switch to the Stones.

And given the calming aroma of the lush greenery, what the Japanese refer to as “forest bathing” beats the hell out of inhaling some hairy lout’s sweaty exhalations at a crowded fitness club. It’s also free, once you have a place to ride, a bike and a wind trainer (costs vary and they wear out every few years if you ride frequently, but I typically pay $300-$400).

As I write this, a barred owl is calling somewhere at the limits of my hearing: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”

Ravens are canoodling, croaking, cackling and clicking near the crown of the 50-metre western red cedar four steps in front of me, wide enough at its moss-covered base that it would take three or four of me to encircle it with arms fully extended.

Time was when coastal peoples used all parts of these trees: the wood for dugout canoes, house planks, bentwood boxes, arrow shafts, paddles, ceremonial masks; the leaves as medicine to soothe painful joints or incense used in smudging and purification ceremonies; the pitch as chewing gum.

Because the wood is water repellant, rot- and insect-resistant, straight-grained and relatively easy to shape, it’s also the go-to tree for the monumental carvings that define Northwest Coast art and culture: totem poles.

And so, as Chief Dan George proclaimed so memorably in Little Big Man, it is a good day to ride.

(What with the hypnotic hum of rubber on roller and all, I might have slightly misheard him.)

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With decrepit knees and tired back, I came along for the ride, from your laptop and bike to nowhere, down through history, of sailing ships and omnivorous capitalists, hungry whales and rotting sea life, chattering birds and puking drunks, and it was a hell of a ride to everywhere. Thank you.

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Sore backs in the saddle again ...

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