revisiting old haunts

View looking north east from Mt Erskine area, Salt Spring Island, March 5, 2019 near hydro transmission line

Finding “Mossy Mountain”

“This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,” whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. “Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!”
Kenneth Grahame The Wind in the Willows

A while ago, I wrote a post about a special place that made a big impression on me when I was a kid. My name for this place at the time was “Mossy Mountain,” because of the (you guessed it) mosses that grew all over the rocks and added a kind of magic to the area. I still love moss.

On a cold and sunny day early in March, the Spouse, the Dog, and I took a delightful day trip to Salt Spring Island. Right after getting off the ferry, we drove the island’s narrow, winding roads to a nursery that sells rare and unusual plants, where I bought three hellebores and two blue poppies. Then we turned southward, toward the quasi-urban central part of the island, where I lived in the late 1960s. In many ways, the place hasn’t changed that much. The school I attended is still there, and the layout of the streets was familiar.

We followed roads I had noted on my virtual visit via Google Maps and Street Views, aiming for a major electrical transmission line I remembered. (It’s visible in the image at the top of the post, a view looking northeast across the north half of Salt Spring Island toward the distant Coast Mountains on the B.C. mainland.) There was only one problem — the snow that fell in mid-February hadn’t left this area. In fact, there was still close to a foot of it hanging around — hard, icy, crystalline snow. It certainly made the place look different from my memories, which were of sunny May or June weekends.

Salt Spring Island near Mt Erskine, March 5, 2019
No walking up this hill!

Nelly Salt Spring Island snow March 2019
Nelly the Newf thought the snow was just fine.

But the topography and vegetation were much the same. So was the conglomerate bedrock, which I had forgotten all about, until I recognized it underfoot in spots where the snow had melted. The mosses were still there too, as well as the arbutus and fir trees, the ocean spray shrubs, and the leathery leaves of salal. I heard hummingbirds making their sizzling sounds and other birds singing. In an encounter with a fellow who lives nearby (now that’s new — in the ’60s, there were no houses up there), we heard a cougar had recently killed a deer, a chicken, and a duck. I actually thought this was encouraging. Even though development has crept up the mountain, at least there is enough natural environment left to support a cougar, deer, and wild birds.

Mossy bluffs and arbutus near Mt Erskine, Salt Spring Island, March 5, 2019
Moss-covered rocks and arbutus trees.
Salt Spring Island near Mt Erskine March 5, 2019, Holodiscus, Salal, Arbutus
Typical vegetation: salal (evergreens in foreground) and ocean spray (Holodiscus) bushes, with arbutus and firs in the background.
Conglomerate rock and mosses near Mt Erskine, Salt Spring Island, March 5, 2019
Conglomerate bedrock and mosses.
Arbutus trunk peeling bark, Salt Spring Island March 2019
Arbutus (A. menziesii) trunk showing typical peeling bark.

Because of the snow, it wasn’t possible to explore beyond the road, but a return visit is in order, most likely in May or June.

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A Virtual Visit

Fifty years ago (Fifty! How did that happen?) a school friend and I discovered a marvellous place, quite literally in our back yards. Well, somewhat beyond our actual back yards. We started out at the house my family lived in then, an old, rambling and somewhat decrepit place we were renting while my parents built our new house nearby. With bottles of water and apples as provisions, we crossed a hayfield behind the house and entered a wood in which vanilla-leaf plants were in bloom (it was May).

We emerged from the wood onto a road leading uphill, following it to where it turned away in a switchback. Leading in the opposite direction was one of those magical little nameless roads — two wheel-tracks with plants growing down the middle. It led uphill too, taking its time.

After several kilometers and one or two steep climbs, we came to a place typical of the southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia — a hillside sparsely treed with Douglas firs and arbutus, and scattered clumps of juniper, hairy manzanita, and bearberry. Moss was abundant on the rocky outcrops and cliffs, with licorice ferns growing from it. The place was completely natural but looked landscaped. No, more than that — it looked magical, as though inhabited by nature spirits. And indeed, we heard an unfamiliar sound at times, a distant, rhythmic wheezing, like someone sawing wood with a hand saw. I now suspect it was made by male grouse flapping their wings as part of their spring courtship routines. Every now and then, we heard the strident double whistle of a pheasant, but we never saw anyone else there, either human nor animal.

I can’t remember how many expeditions we made to this delightful place. At least three, but probably no more than half a dozen. By June, my annual pollen allergy (which has since vanished, one of the benefits of growing older) made outdoor activities miserable. Then summertime holidays and activities took over, and for whatever other reason, we never went back.

I’ve made a couple of tourist-type trips to that island in the past few decades, showing the sights to visiting friends, but until now haven’t made a systematic search for this special place. Recently, I revisited the area by way of Google Maps and Street View, zooming in on the locale, navigating by names of roads I remembered, finally switching to satellite and Street View. I followed various roads, floating along like a ghost, turning this way and that, looking for the familiar.

It was a weird and dreamlike experience, and ultimately not satisfying.
Although invisible, I couldn’t trespass on private property or go beyond the point where the car with the cameras stopped. Any number of inviting little roads had to remain unexplored. Frustrating but compelling. Eventually I stumbled on a photo someone had taken that looked a lot like the terrain I remembered.

Now I’m planning a real life visit. It’s not that far from where I live, and would make a pleasant day trip. I’m telling myself to temper my expectations for such a sentimental journey. Because what I really wanted to do on my virtual visit was to zoom in, press a button, and be back there, half a century ago, a child of twelve or thirteen, enchanted by the beauty I had discovered. But the eyes and brain are different now, shaped by the experiences of fifty years, and that means any new experience will be different as well.

Image from Pixabay