The Dimpled Mermaid of Active Pass

Mermaid Active PassOn June 14, 1967, the Daily Colonist reported that passengers on the B.C. Ferry, the Queen of Saanich, had seen “a long-haired blonde with the lower body of a fish or porpoise” sitting on a rock at the entrance to Active Pass. She was visible for over an hour during which time she ate a silvery salmon. At least two pictures were taken of the “dimpled blonde”.

The next day, the Daily Colonist headline read “$25,000 Offered for Mermaid – This Is…If She is Real.” The Underseas Gardens had offered a $25,000 reward for the mermaid. In addition, the company offered the mermaid herself a contract that included a substantial salary, room and board, and a supply of the special combs that mermaids use.

The idea of mermaids living between the sea and land, luring sailors to the watery depths has fascinated us since ancient times. They represent both the bounty of the ocean, and its dangers.

Southern British Columbia is one of the few places in the world where mermaids have been reported. So last week as I sailed on a BC Ferry, I paid special attention tOrcaso the shoreline at Active Pass, snapping this photo. Sadly, no mermaid graced the shores, so I added one with the magic of Paintshop. Although we didn’t catch a glimpse of the dimpled beauty, we saw a pod of orcas passing through the Strait – always a delight with a mythical allure of their own.

Haunted Victoria

Craigdarroch Castle ranks among Victoria's top haunted places.

Craigdarroch Castle ranks among Victoria’s top haunted places.

The Huffington Post recently identified the Top Haunted Places in BC, including Victoria’s Empress Hotel, Craigdarroch Castle, and Hatley Castle. Victoria abounds in apparitions. Ghostly images have been reported at Ross Bay Cemetery, Mystic Vale and many other local sites.

Sightings of the artist Emily Carr are very frequent. Her apparition has been reported at St. Ann’s Academy and James Bay Inn, the site where she died. Carr is interred at Ross Bay Cemetery and her grave is popular with visitors who recognize her undying influence by leaving her tributes of paintings, paint brushes and pine cones.

Another busy apparition is Francis Rattenbury who still frequents many of the buildings he designed, including the Empress and the Parliament Buildings. Maids and construction workers also frequent the Empress.

Victoria is one of the most haunted cities in the Pacific Northwest. Whether our paranormal energy stems from our geography, geology or history, our ghosts speak to our unique identity and our sense of place so let’s celebrate Victoria’s ghosts at this time of year.

Have a happy Hallowe’en!

Spring in Blossom

Broughton StreetIt’s the first day of spring and Victoria’s trees gleam with pink blossoms. Over 5,000 cherry and plum trees line the streets of Victoria and are now bursting into bloom. The blossoms are a sure sign that spring is arriving!

In the 1930s, the Parks Department planted over 5,000 flowering cherry and plum trees, imported from Japan. After winning first place for their float in the 1937 Victoria Day Parade, the local Japanese community purchased over 1,000 trees with their prize money and donated them to the city.

The Sakura or cherry tree is an important symbol for the Japanese. The Japanese custom of viewing blossoms is known as Hanami, and has been practiced for centuries. Originally, the custom took the form of paying homage to the kami, or spirits of nature, that could be found in the tree. The blossoms came to symbolize the ephemeral nature of life. The blossoms are beautiful but short-lived.

The combination of beauty, a sign of spring and hope has led to the popularity of cherry blossoms festivals in many places in the world. Vancouver, for example, celebrates with its Cherry Blossom Festival that will be held from April 3 to 28 this year. Its slogan, “there are no strangers under these cherry trees” speaks to the delight we share in cherry blossoms.

For a list of the parade of blossoms in Victoria through the year, visit “Trees of the Rose Family in Victoria, B.C.” by W. Herb Warren; edited and lengthened by Arthur Lee Jacobson.

My favourite places to contemplate the beauty of nature in blossom include the plum blossoms drifting like pink snow on Richmond Avenue and the rosy round bouquets on the trees on Broughton Street between Blanshard and Quadra Streets – a real delight.

The Naiad of Bowker Creek

In ancient Greece, streams were considered to be sacred and life-giving. The people believed that every stream was protected by a water nymph known as a Naiad. The Naiads were not immortal, but they did live for thousands of years. However, their lives depended upon the survival of their associated streams. If the streams were lost, the Naiads were lost. To secure their protection, people sacrificed lambs and goats and offered honey, wine, and olive oil to the Naiads.

Bowker CreekOnce in the Victoria area, a stream meandered over 8 kilometres through Garry oak woodlands and meadows to the sea near Willows Beach. It was a source of fresh water for local Coast Salish people and it supported salmon and trout. The stream was known as the Thames because it was the largest stream in the area. Today it is named Bowker Creek.

As development proceeded, Bowker Creek was forced underground to run through culverts and pipes for 63% of its length. Its watershed, instead of acting as a sponge and filter, now drains roads, parking lots and other impenetrable surfaces, resulting in flooding/drought conditions and poor water quality. Salmon habitat was lost. It could be said that the Naiad of the stream was ailing.

Over the last several years, residents have come to care about the stream’s health. A 100 year vision for the Bowker Creek watershed was published in 2012. The vision includes increasing “daylighting” of the stream, that is, freeing it from the confining underground pipes and culverts.

Author Barbara Julian has walked the length of the creek and was inspired to produce a booklet called Walking Bowker: Befriending An Urban Creek. The booklet and photos of Bowker Creek will be unveiled this Sunday, March 9, 2014 from 3 to 5 pm at Moka House, 1769 Fort Street at Richmond Avenue. At the event, I will read about Bowker Creek from my book, The Key to Mythic Victoria. The Bowker Creek photo show will be on display at Moka House from March 2-30th, then at Serious Coffee on 2080 Oak Bay Avenue from March 30 – April 30th.

If a stream disappears, its resident Naiad dies. But according to Homer, Naiads do spend time weaving in a sacred cave, suggesting the idea they may be able to survive for a time underground. With citizen support, the vision for Bowker Creek can lead to changes that will revitalize the watercourse and restore its ailing Naiad to health. Please come to the Moka House this Sunday and be inspired by the Naiad of Bowker Creek.

Robbie Burns Day in Victoria

To the Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-Race!  Today is the 255th birthday of Scottish poet, Robbie Burns. Victorians are busy celebrating the day in places such as Craigdarroch Castle. The University Club held a Robbie Burns luncheon on January 24th with traditional Scottish fare.

The highlight of the celebration is the ritual in which the haggis is piped in on a silver platter as the audience claps in time to the music. Burns’s poem, Address to a Haggis, is repeated with great drama as a knife is plunged into the haggis, trenching its gushing entrails bright. This is then followed by a taste of whiskey.

The traditional haggis consists of a sheep’s stomach stuffed with its organs -heart, liver and lungs – together with oatmeal, suet and spices and cooked for several hours. Its historical origins are lost in the mists of time, but some spirited folklore accompanies the dish. It has been said that the first mention of the haggis can be found in Homer’s Odyssey.

The Haggis website, at Haggis.com, shows wry Scottish humour by describing the haggis as a small animal native to the Scottish Highlands. The legs on one side of its body are longer than the other so that it can live on the steep sides of Scottish mountains. Furthermore, there are two subspecies of Haggis scotti. One type can travel only clockwise and the other only counter-clockwise depending on which side of the body the legs are longer. Poachers use a mirror to frighten the haggis so that it topples down the mountain where it can be seized. It is thought that the Hebridean Haggis is the original native species from which all other haggis descended.

Burns MemorialMany Victorians have Scottish ancestry and celebrate those traditions. In 1900, admirers of Robert Burns, Scotia’s Immortal Bard, erected a memorial to him in Beacon Hill Park. The statue includes an inscription from his poem, Highland Mary, about his lost love, Mary Campbell who died in 1786 at age 23.

About 1922, the Burns Club of Victoria, B.C. was established to perpetuate the memory of Robert Burns. Clearly, the celebration of the bard remains popular to this day so give Victoria a haggis!

Victoria’s Temple of Poseidon

CPR ColumnsAs you enter Victoria’s inner harbor, you will see a beautiful temple for the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon. A row of thirteen Ionic columns with scroll-tops face the harbour. The building features carved heads of Poseidon and his symbols of tridents and dolphins.

This is the CPR Steamship Terminal designed in 1923 by architects, Frances M. Rattenbury and Percy L. James. The choice of a Neoclassical temple to the god of the sea spoke to the importance of the maritime influence on Victoria. The splendid heads of Poseidon were carved by Scottish sculptor George Gibson who lived in the Shawnigan Lake area.

CPR NeptuneGibson depicted Poseidon as a mature bearded man, as he is shown in ancient Greek art. Poseidon lived in a palace in the depth of the sea and rode over the waves in a chariot pulled by horses with golden manes and the tails of fish. As he approached, the sea became calm and the monsters of the deep played around his chariot. He used his trident to control storms, shatter rocks and shake the earth. Mariners sought his favour for safe sea voyages.

The CPR building resembles the Temple of Poseidon overlooking the sea at Cape Sounion in Greece. The temple, located on a headland overlooking the Aegean Sea, dates from about 440 BCE and is rectangular with rows of white marble columns standing out against the sky.

Local author Donna Lynch compared the CPR building with the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, Greece in her book, Vancouver Island Vs The World. Both temples were believed to have been built about the same time and by the same architect.

The spirit of place in Victoria is very much influenced by the sea. I’ll explore more of these marine influences in coming blogs.

When Victoria was Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty by Walter Crane, Courtesy of Wikimedia

Sleeping Beauty by Walter Crane, Courtesy of Wikimedia

When the Empress Hotel opened on January 20, 1908, poet Captain Clive Phillips-Wooley referred to the City of Victoria as Sleeping Beauty and the hotel as “Prince Charming” in his address, saying “Victoria waited for the kiss of love and now comes into her own.”

Victoria had a reputation for drowsiness. Rudyard Kipling visited the city in 1889 and wrote about the “quiet English town of beautiful streets”, noting a “colony of old men doing nothing but talking, fishing, and loafing.” The famous architect, Francis Mawson Rattenbury, wrote in a letter to his uncle in 1894, “I could never imagine a country with so many inducements as this has for lotus-eating.” In Greek mythology, the hero Odysseus arrived in the land of the Lotus-eaters who ate a flowery food, possibly the seeds of the opium poppy. The food led the people to live a sleepy, peaceful life.

The Empress Hotel was designed by Rattenbury who must have shed his lethargy and got to work. His inspiration for the CPR hotel came from the châteaux of the Loire Valley. One of the châteaux in the Loire Valley, the Château d’Ussé, served as the image for Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the 1697 fairy tale by French author Charles Perrault about the beauty sleeping in the woods. Among the most beautiful castles in France, Château d’Ussé has blue-slate roofs, white walls, dormer windows, delicate towers, and Gothic turrets set against the backdrop of the Forest of Chinon. Today it is a tourist attraction with scenes from the Sleeping Beauty tale illustrated with wax figure tableaus.

The Empress Hotel woke up Victoria up. Even Kipling came to stay at the Empress and this time he was so impressed with Victoria that he called it the most beautiful place in the world. The wordsmith could not find enough words to describe the place, noting, “I tried honestly to render something of the color, the gaiety, and the graciousness of the town and the island, but only found myself piling up unbelievable adjectives, and so let it go with a hundred other wonders.”