June 5, 2001

Big-leaf maple

Take a walk on the wild side

There's much more to the UVic campus than buildings, walkways and parking

There is no question: our university campus is spectacular. Situated on an upland plain with plenty of trees and views of the ocean, the Sooke Hills, the Olympic Mountains and Mount Baker, the campus enjoys an enviable location. Our buildings, lawns, gardens and planted grounds are undeniably fine and pleasant. However, without the surrounding wild areas, our campus would be merely generic, little more different or extraordinary than many other campuses across the country, except for the milder temperatures and more rain than some.Turner (Jo-Ann Richards photo)

It’s the unbuilt, “wild” areas around the campus that give UVic its unique character. In many ways these areas represent a last vestige of several major ecosystems that were formerly much more widespread in the Victoria region. They include a forested wetland, a Garry oak parkland with open wildflower meadows, and a mixed second-growth Douglas-fir woodland. The chip trail that circumnavigates the campus passes through these areas. Anyone who enjoys walking or jogging can easily access and experience these areas close up.

More than having solely scenic or recreational interest, these wild areas represent valuable educational and research opportunities for our students and faculty. They’re used by many classes in a range of faculties and units, from biology and geography to fine arts and education.

The campus is part of the traditional homeland of the Straits Coast Salish peoples. In fact, there was a Lekwungen village right below the campus at Cadboro Bay until the time of the first Hudson’s Bay Company settlement, and there are archaeological sites all along the coastline of Oak Bay, Ten Mile Point and Gordon Head.

For thousands of years people frequented the woods and meadows of our campus, harvesting various plant resources, hunting, and fishing the lower reaches of the creeks. There was also plenty of game here in the early days. Fort Victoria residents from the mid-1800s speak of encountering — and hunting — herds of deer at Gordon Head, and before that, elk and wolves, bear and cougar.

Coast Salish elders, too, remember their parents and grandparents coming to hunt and pick berries in this area. Virtually all the native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants here have been used in some way as food, material, or medicine for local First Peoples.

Take a walk along the chip trail, starting at the lower north end of the Fraser Building parking lot. You’ll soon enter a realm far removed from the bustle of the built part of campus, rich in colour and texture, fragrance and sound.

Before you go too far into the woods, stop for a moment under the big-leaf maple trees sheltering the trail and listen. At any time of the year you’ll hear a wild symphony. You may be startled by the piercing repeat-calls and hammering of pileated woodpeckers. You’ll enjoy the fluting of robins, and the twittering of myriad small songbirds in the upper canopy. You’ll notice the rustling sounds in the underbrush of the rufous-sided towhees, with their questioning calls and repeating trills. Bumblebees, frogs, and other creatures add their own refrains.

Many of the plants growing along this part of the trail prefer wet places. At one point the trail crosses over a small arm of the creek, and you can see the large, emerald green, tropical-looking leaves of the skunk-cabbage, or yellow arum, together with the tall, dark green segmented stalks of scouring-rush, or horsetail, and other wetland species — purple-flowered hedge nettle, water parsley and delicate lady fern — growing in and near the water.

Dense thickets of salmonberry, a wild relative of raspberry, with thorny stems and three-parted leaves and lush golden or ruby-red edible berries, also grow in the moist areas. Nearby are bushes of red-osier dogwood, with their deep red stems, and thimbleberry, another raspberry-relative with large, soft maple-like leaves. Overhead are the greens of the big-leaf maple, whose large branches are festooned with lush mosses, and enormous cottonwood trees that release their sweet, beeswax-like fragrance, especially in the spring when the buds are just breaking.

Other deciduous trees of these woods, which you can see if you wander along the chip trail from the lower end of the Fraser lot, include red alder, Pacific crabapple, cascara, and bitter cherry. Here and there are stands of trembling aspen and various species of willow. Grand fir and Douglas-fir are the most common coniferous species.

Other shrubs to be seen beneath the forest canopy, mostly in the drier areas, include: Indian plum, Saskatoon berry, black hawthorn, mock-orange and oceanspray. Mock-orange and oceanspray have straight, hard stems that were used by the Salish peoples for arrows, root-digging sticks and mat-making needles. At some places along the trail, you have to be careful that you don’t get stung by the rampant stinging nettle, a plant whose tough stem fibres were used by First Peoples for cordage and fishing nets.

The trail emerges from the woods and parallels Gordon Head Road for a stretch before crossing an entrance road to the campus and curving around through a wildflower meadow where the few dense patches of blue camas lily are reminders of what vast stretches of Victoria’s landscape were like in the past.

In late April and early May, the camas and western buttercup are at their prime, presenting dense, eye-catching patches of deep blue and yellow interspersed with reddish purple shooting stars, to contrast with the many shades of green offered by the Garry oaks and understory shrubs around them, mainly wild roses, waxberry, or snowberry and Indian-plum. These parklands truly are wild gardens, and make a wonderful adjunct to the more formal Finnerty Gardens nearby.

As you continue on, take time to enjoy the majesty of the giant oaks, trees whose history extends back in some cases 300 years or more. The Garry oak parkland is one of the most endangered vegetation types in all of Canada, with many rare and endemic species found nowhere else in the country.

The chip trail winds around, crossing the university entrance on Henderson Road, and continuing into more predominantly coniferous woods, with large Douglas-firs, grand firs, and more large maples, alder, cascara, bitter cherry, flowering dogwood, arbutus and many of the shrubs already mentioned. There are a number of Pacific yew trees here as well. These trees with their tough, resilient wood, were valued by First Nations for making implements of many types, including bows, root-digging sticks, wedges, clubs and steering paddles. They were also used medicinally, and enjoy current fame as the source of a potent anti-cancer drug, taxol.

Mystic Vale, that magical ravine running along the far side of the Cunningham Woods, is one of the most special native areas on campus. Mystic Vale has species seldom seen anywhere else around Victoria, plants like false Solomon’s seal, vanilla-leaf, rattlesnake plantain, stink currant, trilliums, orchids, and plenty of interesting mosses and lichens festooning the trees and carpeting the ground.

Like many good things, we tend to take these wild places on our campus for granted. We’re so fortunate to have this living laboratory and place of beauty and refuge right in our back yard. Few universities in Canada are as lucky. These woodlands are some of the last areas of their type left in the city of Victoria, and they are part of what makes Victoria and our campus so special.

    Dr. Nancy Turner is a faculty member in UVic’s school of environmental studies, where she studies the ethnobotanical and environmental knowledge of indigenous peoples of B.C., and its applications in conservation biology, forest and environmental policy, and environmental and cultural health and restoration.

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