Book traces local history of Lily Point, Boundary Bay
By Margot Griffiths
Tracing our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay, is an outstanding collaboration by historian Anne Murray of Tsawwassen, B.C. and photographer David Blevins. Their beautifully produced book explores the evolution of a “remarkable landscape and the people who transformed it.”
For five hundred generations this land has supported settlements – in Point Roberts, which was once an island, in Tsawwassen, once an ocean, in Blaine, where fish ran abundantly and in Birch Bay, so named by Peter Puget for its forests of black birch trees.
Murray begins her narrative at the time of the last ice age when a huge Cordilleran ice sheet stretched from Alaska to Washington, creating a landscape like Greenland. When the ice receded, about 25,000 years ago, it left the huge boulders we see today on beaches at Lily Point and in Drayton Harbor. The massive rock that gave White Rock its name was once entombed in ice.
From these cold beginnings, leap forward in time to a mere 9,000 years ago, when First Nations people began to settle at the mouth of the Fraser River, which at that time met the sea at the foot of Panorama Ridge in Surrey.
Over the eons, the delta of the powerful Fraser spread west and wide, growing into the landscape we see today.
The Coast Salish Tribe was drawn to this land due to the riches of the shellfish beds and astounding salmon runs, spawned on one side by the salty waters of Boundary Bay, on the other by the plume of the Fraser River.
Those runs would be rich for millenia, making the Fraser one of the greatest salmon rivers in the world. The river’s prize was the sturgeon – a white giant growing up to 13 feet long and weighing over 900 pounds. The giants of the ocean were the grey whales migrating through these waters, and the orcas feasting on salmon.
Point Roberts was an important meeting place for the Coast Salish, with pot latches celebrated on the beaches on Lily Point. Peter Puget landed on this point of land in 1792, and described the ruins of a village of four hundred.
Thirty-five hundred year old middens (mounds of discarded clam and mussel shells) have been unearthed on Point Roberts, most significantly at the old Whalen Farm. Across the bay at Semiahmoo Spit, middens date back four thousand years.
The late eighteenth century brought the advent of Europeans responding to the universal human instinct to explore. With them they brought new ideas, trading opportunities and smallpox, which decimated over 90 percent of the indigenous population in the 1800s.
The Spanish and English also left their names to islands including Valdes, Galiano, Saturna, DeCorcy, Whidbey and Vancouver.
Ultimately the river promised more than salmon, luring gold panners from the south, followed by loggers who felled an old growth Douglas fir, 12 feet in diameter using spring boards and hand saws.
In the 1880s, with government assistance, the Icelandic community joined other hardy pioneers, working on fishing boats, in canneries and on farms raising cattle and growing vegetables.
Murray’s strengths as a writer stem from her blended passions for nature and history and she is at her most eloquent when defending nature.
The low-lying Fraser delta was originally a wide wet land, with tidal and freshwater marshes and bogs. In winter these lands were “awash,” in summer they were “ablaze in a prairie of grasses, wild flowers, crabapple, hawthorne (whose white blooms still dominate Point Roberts in May) dogwood and wild roses.”
These beautiful landscapes have all but disappeared through drainage and diking to make room for urban development and farms in the richly fertile delta.
The author describes summer fires and winter floods, the latter all too familiar today; and the plight of the Tsawwassen (“land facing the sea”) Band, now numbering 300, and facing the loss of traditional resources to the ferry terminal and Roberts Bank coal port.
Like all lands, Boundary Bay has endured the inevitability of “progress” and Murray devotes her final chapter to conservation. And though there is the relentless endangerment to species due to loss of habitat, pollution, over hunting and fishing, there is also reason to celebrate.
The Fraser River is being restored and even the heroic sturgeon is being nurtured back to sustainable numbers.
Burns Bog has been spared further encroachment. Wet lands are being monitored. Lily Point has been saved. Heritage sites and museums bring the past into the present and provide motivation for further conservation.
Tracing Our Past is a cogent exploration of what came before and a cautionary guide to what is yet to be.
This important book, graced with a fine collection of photographs, is historically rich, anthropologically accurate and environmentally responsible. Put simply, it is a love song to the land we are privileged to call home.
The book is available online at www.natureguidesbc.com and at Village Books in Fairhaven. 240 pages. $27.95.