The Freshwater Playground
Whenever first-time visitors come to Victoria, one sight on the Pat Bay Highway that always seems to surprise them is Elk Lake. Victoria's many lakes are one of the great unpublicized features of this city, and the most popular of them is Elk/Beaver Lake Park, which had over a million visitors last year. But it’s likely that not even the locals in those crowds know much about its curious history.
Elk and Beaver lakes were part of the traditional boundary between the territories of the Saanich and Songhees natives, who gathered medicinal plants in the area, and cattails for woven baskets. The lakes were first identified by their current names in 1855, on the Hudson’s Bay Company map of the “Lake District” north of Victoria. The colonists probably named the waters for the animals they found nearby. According to reports in the 1858 Victoria Gazette, hunters were shooting two or three elk per day near Elk Lake. Beaver Lake, then a separate body of water, was little more than a swamp created by beaver dams.
It wasn’t long before the colonists decided they needed that water. Officials were worried about the risk of fire around Victoria, and riots broke out in 1861 when local tycoons tried to seize control of the public wells at Spring Ridge (today’s Fernwood neighbourhood). To meet the demand, in 1872 the chief engineer for the province proposed a solution. If the city built a dam on Colquitz Creek, the levels of Elk and Beaver lakes would rise by two metres, turning them into one big reservoir. (See map at right.) The city approved the $100,000 project, and ordered 13 kilometres of cast-iron pipe – which had to be shipped from England – to channel the lake water down to Victoria. (You can see riveted sections of this old water main near the park entrance at Pipeline Road, as shown in the bottom photo.) The new water system opened in 1875. By 1882, as many as 1,200 buildings were connected to it.
Unfortunately, Elk Lake wasn’t an ideal source of municipal water. So many houses began connecting to the system that in 1886 the city had to build a pumping station midway along the pipeline to maintain sufficient pressure. (Today that station is the Keg restaurant at 3940 Quadra Street.) Victorians complained that small fish and tadpoles were coming out of their household taps, so in 1896 the city built vast sand-lined “filter beds” to purify the water. (The filter beds are now under the parking lot at the south end of Beaver Lake.)
Victoria boomed in size and strategic importance during World War I, and in 1915 it began switching its water system over to the larger and cleaner supply in Sooke Lake. Although Elk Lake continued providing water to parts of the Saanich peninsula, in 1922 governments designated the reservoir as a public park, securing its future as the city’s premiere recreational playground.
Just as it is today, the most popular corner of Elk Lake back then was Hamsterley Beach. In 1928, Algernon and Letitia Pease, who’d been successful selling strawberry jam from their Hamsterley Farm (its former water tower is a distinctive part of the UVic campus), used their money to develop a resort on Elk Lake, dumping truckloads of sand on the shore, and building a Tudor-style tea room and dance hall named the Toby Jug. It was a tremendous hit: on nights when live bands played, cars of revellers from the city were lined up along the road for miles.
The Toby Jug was torn down in the 1950s, and the well-meaning harmony of its time has largely faded – to be replaced by the screeching discord of various recreational groups asserting their rights to use the water. Rowers, who started training on Elk Lake in 1952, often have run-ins with local anglers, who complain that the sculls are disturbing the annually-stocked rainbow trout. Floatplanes have been banned, and boats with motors over 10 horsepower are restricted to the lake's northwest corner, following incidents in 1994, when a powerboat hit a jet-ski and fractured a young woman’s back, and in 1996 when another powerboat sliced a canoe in half. Even figuring out who's supposed to resolve these conflicts is messy: Elk Lake's boating rules are written by Transport Canada but enforced by Saanich Police; the Capital Regional District controls the land around the lake, but the water itself is the responsibility of the province’s environment ministry.
The ecology of the lake has suffered too. Over the decades, would-be farmers have dumped catfish, yellow perch, and – most notoriously – bullfrogs in the lake to breed and fatten local dinner plates, and the invaders have nearly wiped out the native fish. In 1996, Elk got a “borderline” rating and Beaver was considered “poor” in a provincial water quality study, mainly because of runoff from septic tanks and pesticides and manure from nearby farms. But the ecosystem does seem to be recovering. The waters aren’t as choked with overfertilized weeds as they were 15 years ago, and though Colquitz Creek is still dammed to a tenth of its natural volume, hundreds of coho and chum salmon make their way up it from the Gorge every year to spawn, thanks to the restoration work of the Habitat Acquisition Trust and other conservation groups.
All things considered, Elk Lake is still a pretty special place. Residents of Vancouver or Calgary or Toronto often drive for hours just to enjoy the simple pleasure of swimming outside in relatively clean, fresh water; in Victoria you can take the plunge only minutes from downtown, and immerse yourself in history at the same time. Seriously, if big-city tourists say there’s nothing interesting to do here, tell them to go jump in a lake.