Witty’s Lagoon CRD Park January 8, 2004
Some places have what they consider a jewel in their crown but Witty’s Lagoon CRD Park, more commonly known as “Witty’s”, has many such jewels; a King’s ransom of the grand, the spectacular, the rare and the precious.
One jewel is the Tower Point section of the park. The following is reprinted with permission from the CRD Parks VIP Newsletter:
At Witty’s Lagoon Regional Park, Tower Point has an intriguing story to tell. It’s a story that reflects the history of colonization on southern Vancouver Island, changes for people and for ecosystems. The land that forms the park has had many uses over time; a First Nations fortification and village site, a Metchosin pioneer settlement to a present day park. But it hasn’t always been known as Tower Point…
Before European contact, the small Ka-Kyaakaan band occupied the land around Witty’s Lagoon. They were part of a larger group of people, the Coast Salish. The Ka-Kyaakaan had a permanent village on the sandy spit that was protected by two fortification sites, one at Tower Point. With its steep bluffs dropping into deep, cold water, Tower Point was an ideal defensive site, one that provided expansive views in all directions. If you look carefully, you can still see evidence of the fortification today.
Spanish and British ships explored the area, providing the first European contact and in 1850, local First Nations and the Hudson’s Bay Company signed the Fort Victoria Treaties. This act marked the beginning of the formal colonization of southern Vancouver Island. In 1860, a new settler to Metchosin named Edwin Rosman purchased several adjoining parcels of land, including Tower Point. The land changed hands several times until Dr. Hart and his family purchased the Tower Point property in 1909, from the Duke family.
The Hart family had water shortage problems on their farm. They commissioned the construction of a gravity-fed irrigation system to provide a reliable water source. The system began with a cement weir above the waterfall on Bilston Creek, near the present day Nature Centre – a fair distance from Tower Point! Water flowed through carefully constructed wooden pipes along the lagoon shore to the Hart property. The wooden pilings and the weir are still visible today when hiking the Lagoon Trail. Once the water reached the Hart property, it was pumped up to a wooden tower and gravity fed to the house and farm. Tower Point now had its modern day name.
The Higgs family later bought the land from Dr. Hart and named the property Darby Farm. The land changed hands several more times until 1970, when CRD Parks purchased it for regional parkland, making Witty’s Lagoon one of the original parks in the regional parks and trails system. The wooden tower you can see today is not the original one, but is believed to be the remnant of a tower probably built by the Higgs to cover and protect the pump used for their well.
Today, Tower Point has much to offer park visitors at any time of the year. It features seaside and mountain vistas, abundant birdlife, wildflowers in spring, a rocky shoreline inhabited by an array of marine life and wildlife viewing opportunities of resident harbour seals. As well, there are stories to tell and clues to find that whisper about the history of this piece of land.
By Colleen Long, Coordinator of Environmental Interpretation
Tower Point is known in botanical circles for the occurrence of several species of rare and uncommon plants: Howell’s triteleia (Triteleia howellii), showcased by local expert Andy McKinnon in a previous edition of the Muse; Geyer’s onion (Allium geyeri var. tenerum); seaside rein orchid (Piperia elegans) and poverty clover (Trifolium depauperatum). The rocky outcrops along the shoreline are festooned with moss and lichens. These areas are extremely sensitive to foot traffic and the moss is easily dislodged at this time of year. Please stay on the paths and help us to maintain these small but crucial populations of threatened and endangered plants.
For several years there has been ongoing broom removal at Tower Point. Broom, as most people are aware, is an aggressive non-native plant that particularly likes sunny, dry locations. Left unchecked it will invade and completely dominate open sites and wipe out populations of native plants. It is not the only invader plant to establish in the park. At the entranceway to Tower Point (Dog Poo Alley as it is known to some) is a small but growing cluster of knapweed, a scourge of our Interior grasslands and the bane of cattle ranchers (it can also be found along Metchosin Rd, through the gravel pit). Himalayan blackberry is also present, leapfrogging it’s way along the hillsides.
If you are interested in volunteering with CRD Parks, as a naturalist, park warden or to be involved in restoration projects, please contact Jenny Eastman or Jane Balfour at 478-3344
To be continued……
Safe haven for migrating waterfowl, repository of First Nations archaeological sites, precarious home to rare plants, soothing balm from our frenetic pace of life, Witty’s Lagoon Regional Park encompasses 55.5 hectares (approx. 137 acres) of Metchosin landscape and a place in the hearts and spirits of residents and visitors alike. Designated a nature appreciation park and brought into being by committed people with foresight and a thoughtful eye to the future, Metchosin has been the beneficiary of those long ago decisions.
Homesteaded by Captain Cooper and Thomas Blinkhorn and family, the 385 acre property known as Bilston Farm quickly passed through several hands until it was bought by John and Charlotte Witty in May of 1867. They and their descendants raised their families and tilled the land until Yvonne Witty left during the 1950s.
The Capital Regional District began acquiring parcels of land around the lagoon in 1966 with the intention of creating a park, a process that has been extended with the recent purchase of a property adjacent to the church. This new property was acquired to secure a covenant to protect Bilston Creek and riparian area and allow possible future access to the beach. Since the remaining land is not considered to have imperiled ecological communities, the intention has been that CRD Parks would then offer it for sale in order to purchase other more environmentally at risk properties. Negotiations have been started at the behest of some Metchosin residents to purchase the property because of its place in the cultural history of Metchosin’s first European settlers.
Heading down the trail from the Nature House, watch for the giant arbutus tree on your left, recorded as the 10th largest arbutus in BC. There is another very large specimen to your immediate right. The trail quickly arrives at Bilston Creek with it’s man-made impoundment that early pioneers constructed to irrigate properties at Tower Point. It now serves as important summer habitat for the native cutthroat trout in the creek. Bilston Creek stretches 10 km from Mt Macdonald to Witty’s Lagoon and good stewardship practices are critical to maintain the health of the creek and lagoon.
Crossing the bridge, close up views of the twenty metre rocky bluff known as Sitting Lady Falls are offered from the viewing platform above the falls, but taking the fork to the north affords a more spectacular panorama of the deluge, especially in late winter and spring when the creek is at its most tumultuous..
The walk to the beach, through enormous big-leaf maples, Douglas firs and more gigantic arbutus, as well as past some ancient apple trees takes you alongside the lagoon and salt marsh. Natural ongoing processes will eventually change the lagoon from a saltwater environment to freshwater marsh, however, these processes can be accelerated by increased sediment loads from human activities.
Many birders, novice and expert alike, enjoy the multitude of bird species that use the park. Like snowbirds to Florida, huge flocks of migrating American widgeons overwinter at the lagoon during our mild rainy season while elusive marbled godwits are rare transients glimpsed by only a lucky few. In late winter great horned owls set up their territory in the park with their nocturnal Hoo!, hu-hu-hu, Hoo! Hoo! Early May brings “birder’s neck” as the quick moving warblers fly through the treetops on their way to northern breeding grounds. The secretive Swainson’s and hermit thrushes entice the females with their melodious flutelike songs before the summer brings quiet as parents are busy feeding their families and hiding from predators.
What better time to enjoy the pleasures of the long sandy beach and tidal flats? Stretching 550 metres, the beach and sandspit provide great picnic areas and the shallow tidal flats can stretch half a kilometer during low tides, providing many hours of summer fun for the exuberant energies of the young and young at heart. Unfortunately we are loving this area to death, as it appears that overuse has caused a decline in the diversity of marine life in the tidal flats.
Contrary to intuition, the natural forces of erosion can have a silver lining and the eroding bluffs to the south of the spit prove that point, as they provide the sand that supplies the beach. Without that erosion the beach and sandspit would someday disappear. Those with a botanical bent can amuse themselves searching this area for the uncommon yellow sand verbena (Abronia latifolia) and rare contorted-podded evening primrose (Camissonia contorta).
Just behind the beach area is an old abandoned field and orchard that is quickly being displaced by invasive species such as Himalayan and evergreen blackberries, broom and English hawthorn. Introduced rabbits are everywhere, perhaps keeping the owl chicks well fed.
One small section of the park, over near Duke Rd and Cliff Drive has a remnant Garry oak ecosystem on some rocky bluffs and a doctoral student from UVic has been researching camas cultivation in this area.
After arrival or before departure from the main parking lot, be sure to visit the refurbished Nature House (open weekends and most holidays 12-4 pm), stocked with fascinating artifacts and data of marine, plant and animal life and friendly volunteer staff grateful (it can be quiet!) to answer your questions. From the giant grey whale vertebrae often propping open the door on a warm spring afternoon to the great blue heron who keeps an interested eye on proceedings, the nature house is a mini treasury of natural history knowledge.