It turns out that “The Gorge” – one of my favourite places – is a story of redemption and reconciliation. It’s a unique place; fresh and salt waters mix with each tidal flow, and sometimes seals bob in the wake of canoes and paddle boards. It was a rich source of food for the Songhees people and a place of spiritual connection.
Camossung was a young Songhees girl turned to stone by Havis, the Transformer. She protected the Songhees people’s local food resources of coho salmon, herring, oysters and ducks. The original sacred stone can be seen below water at low tide, on the south side of Tillicum Bridge.
The Gorge became colonial Victoria’s playground, with 6 swim clubs and up to 31 events in a day: canoe races, regattas, and sightseeing trips to the reversing falls at the Narrows, right by Camossung. Then industry and raw sewage polluted the Gorge, driving swimmers and wildlife away.
The Esquimalt side of The Gorge got North America’s first Japanese Garden, designed by Isaburo Kishida in 1907, for the Takata family. Mr. Kishida went on to design gardens for the Dunsmuirs at Hatley Park, and Jennie Butchart, and the Takatas operated a successful Tea House – until they were interned in 1941. After the war the Takatas relocated to Toronto, and the garden, like the Gorge, fell into neglect and disrepair.
The Gorge Waterway Action Society now restores the shoreline, organizes clean-ups and swim meets (the water is clean again!) and works towards “a place of beauty for human recreation and a safe place for the fish, wildlife and plants that make it their home.”
The Town of Esquimalt is restoring some of the Tea Garden’s former glory, within Gorge Park. Two of the Japanese maples, now 100 years old, were transplanted to the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific, where the Takata Japanese Garden was created in the name of the family. On the Saanich side, Gorge Waterway Park is now home to the Canoe & Kayak Club, beautiful perennial borders, a rammed-earth public washroom, and a lovely statue of Camossung, once again protecting the waters and shoreline.
Read the whole story of Camossung and the Gorge Waterway in pre-Colonial times at http://www.saanich.ca/assets/Parks~Recreation~and~Culture/Documents/Camossung-Keddie.pdf