My parents still live on the property I grew up on, a five acre parcel in Saanich, with two houses and many outbuildings on it. They bought it in 1971, from a man who had just purchased close to sixty acres of land that he couldn’t really pay for. In order to make his transaction work, he sold off the five acres that had the old house on it (our property), and sold another 2 acre lot beside that as well. Subdivision back in the day must have been easier than it is now, as this man was able to subdivide property for sale without really owning it somehow. The remaining fifty acres had a road-accessible lot on it that my friend Miranda’s family would move their trailer onto in 1979, but was otherwise left as it was by the man we knew as Mr. Bear (which, it turns out was not his actual name, but left childhood me with the impression of a large bearded woodsman whenever his name came up). As far as I know, he rarely or never came to the land, and I never met him while he was alive.
This sixty-acre block and everything around it had been logged flat to the ground at some earlier point, likely the 1910s or 20s, and two old logging roads formed the main trails we travelled through the woods. No vehicles ever drove on those roads in my lifetime, though the wheel ruts were still in existence when I was young. Way out in the middle of the forest was a concrete pad where a small shop or shed had at one time stood. A place where tools were stored or logging vehicles repaired perhaps. There was quite a bit of metal and glass debris around this spot and as children we mined the ground for small treasures when we went down into the woods. There were other ingresses into the forest also, deer trails that had become foot paths, lesser logging roads that had grown over into track, and places where Miranda’s father had cut the slash back to make room for their ponies to graze in a small meadow that a creek ran through.
At the edge where our family property and the larger acreage meet were two specific zones of interest for me. One was the dump, which sat at the foot of a bluff and was clearly where all refuse was thrown in the days before recycling. Like the former shed site in the woods, this was a trove of glass and metal bits, old bottles and metal cans that seemed like valuable antiques to me and I would make little displays of them in the woods and in the cave – my other spot of interest. This small cave, not far from the refuse site, was formed by a rock outcropping, with a tree that grew up right in front of it so that once you were in the small cavity no one could see you. Over my years as a child and teenager, I often went to that place on my own, imagining that it held some magic or secrets that would be revealed to me if I sat or meditated there.
Despite the fact it was a private forest, Mr. Bear never put up a Private Property or No Trespassing sign, never barred access to the woods in any way, and so the community used the forest as though it was their own. Trails were used and tended, deer trails to a spectacular arbutus grove and the small creek became walking paths, people came to cut foliage for their Christmas wreaths and my family took our Christmas tree off that land every year (which is not the happy memory you think it is – given the chore of dragging a heavy tree through wet trails and the fights that ensued around this annually). This wood connected up several neighbourhoods and was used as a shortcut to visit friends, and when we got older and snuck out to meet up at night we learned to traverse those trails in the dark.
Around the edge of the wood are private properties, many of which I’ve interloped through over the years to get out to a road, or avoid the marshy edge at the bottom of the creek drainage. My parents have always allowed neighbours to pass through their property to access the top end of the trails which connect Mountain and Excelsior Roads and make for a nice circle route through the rural neighbourhoods. Most recently, a new trail has been cut down to the edge of the former golf course on Prospect Lake (now leased by Right to Play) which travels through parts of the forest I never knew as a child.
Like the new trails, life within the forest has continued to expand and I have come to understand that the wood has been healing itself for the past hundred years, nearly forty-nine of those in my lifetime. Owls, once rare, are very common now. Bears and cougars, driven from other developed areas, are active in this wood in a way (we are lucky) they weren’t when we were kids playing out there on our own. The understory is much thicker now in some places, and at least one of the spur roads that once lead to someone’s house (I have a vague memory of going with Mrs. Bothwell, an elderly neighbour, through this part of the wood to visit a friend when I was only four or five) has been completely overtaken by fir saplings and great masses of salal.
About twelve years ago, Mr. Bear died and the future of the forest became uncertain. He had owned many properties in the Victoria area, all undeveloped, and his inheritors were selling them off. Given its rugged profile and watershed status, the 50-acre wood behind our house wasn’t the first property to go, which gave time for people in my family and from the community to open up a dialogue with the people who now owned the wood. While I won’t go into the ins-and-outs of all that transpired over the last decade, I will say that there were many false starts and disappointments along the way. Times when it looked like development was inevitable because the municipality wouldn’t move, and other times when it looked like a single saviour (like the Nature Conservancy) would be the answer. But the people who wanted to save this small patch of second-growth, and my father in particular, were tenacious in their goal over all these years and last week it was announced that in negotiation with the owners who agreed to price that made it attainable, the Habitat Acquisition Trust and the Capital Regional District were able to purchase the Mountain Road Forest for parkland in perpetuity (it will be protected by a covenant that disallows the CRD from changing its use in the future).
The protection of this forest gives me a feeling of solidity, that there is one place that will forever be known to me. At the same time, its park status will change it from what it has always been to those of us who grew up in it it. The cave might become the playground to more than the children who live on the hill, the hole dug to trap a cougar many decades ago will probably be filled in for safety, trails will be marked and “improved” instead of being the desire paths they are. The place where Miranda’s trailer once stood, where we spent so many of our after school times, will become a parking lot. But like all community parks, it will mainly be used by the people who visit it now, and the covenant should mean that not too much gets done to it over time.
This forest of so many stories was part of what raised my brother and I, and a place to which I return many times a year in all kinds of weather. Writing about it now, I can see it is like a friend in my life, a once and future place I hope to know until the end of my days.