Stoney Hill revealed: from perilous bluffs to churning waters
Second in an occasional series on the Six Mountains
Anyone who has stood atop the bluffs of Stoney Hill Regional Park and admired the views of Salt Spring Island has also looked down with trepidation at the swirling currents of Sansum Narrows, and the homes that line its shores.
The bluffs are a dangerous place for fools, but perfectly safe for the reasonable. I applaud local government officials for not installing barriers that would lessen the experience for all. At some point, at some places, people must exercise caution for their own good.
I have watched transient killer whales hunt for harbour seals off Burial Islet and observed a peregrine falcon strafe the head feathers of a raven perched atop an arbutus tree — perhaps a shot across the bow before breeding season.
I have also left wondering about the people at the base of the bluffs and the fascinating lives they must live on the eddy line between civilization and the wild.
I want to visit — by foot, navigating down the bluffs — but how?
Stoney Hill is comprised of regional parkland, North Cowichan’s Municipal Forest Reserve, and secluded private properties that line Stoney Hill Road.
Beyond the park’s 3.2-kilometre loop trail, Stoney Hill is interlaced with meandering, unmarked paths largely maintained by black-tailed deer.
Clearly, I need local intel to achieve my goal.
Enter marine biologist Bill Heath who has owned property both below or atop Stoney Hill for four decades. He knows the lay of the land and who to ask for permission to cross private property.
Heath’s home — like most on Stoney Hill — is invisible from the road and located at the end of a long driveway where savage things can happen.
This past summer, a fawn was eaten on his driveway. “A few days later, I was coming back from a walk and — lo and behold — in front of me was a black bear,” he says. “He stopped and sniffed at the kill spot, seeing if anything was left.”
I follow Heath along a series of faint trails carpeted with slippery arbutus leaves, through a forest of Douglas-fir, around ponds and wetlands, across blankets of moss, and past a near-prostrate arbutus tree he calls “God’s handrail.”
Then, the hike turns serious.
We navigate steep terrain, stepping over and around the boulders and follow small patches of exposed dirt that suggest the route ahead.
Table-like slabs of rock hang vertically like guillotines poised to drop. At one point, the trail narrows to a goat trail beside a sheer wall.
Ahead are flatter private lands containing massive western red cedars and firs, the likes of which are no longer found in North Cowichan’s 5,000-hectare forest reserve.
This area lies within the smallest and most endangered ‘landscape’ in BC — the coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone, with less than one per cent of old growth remaining
Heath and a business partner purchased eight hectares of waterfrontage and an older home here in 1979. One year later, they began an oyster operation, taking advantage of water flows through Sansum Narrows — named after Arthur Samsun, First Lieutenant aboard HMS Thetis, a Royal Navy frigate on the Pacific station from 1851 to 1853.
That same year, Heath and his wife, Valerie, and their infant daughter, Amanda, moved into the property’s home and fixed it up. “It was in pretty rough shape, but it was a foothold,” he recalls. Their son, Eric, was born two years later.
In 1984, Heath also purchased 27 raw hectares atop of the bluff, 17 of which were later sold to Cowichan Valley Regional District for Stoney Hill park.
Heath would regularly hike up from the waterfront on this same bluff trail with a chainsaw and can of gas to clear the second property for a new home and to carve out a three-hectare lake — one that anyone hiking the Stoney Hill loop today can glimpse.
“I was in pretty good shape in those days,” he says. For the record, he still is.
Starting around 1988, the increased frequency of red tide threatened the viability of the oyster operation. They subdivided and sold the eight hectares in two parcels and Heath took a full-time job as shellfish biologist with the BC government in 1990 in Courtenay.
Heath only moved back to Stoney Hill full-time in 2019 after the death of his wife.
“To me, it’s a special place,” he says. “I enjoy the combination of living in the forest with water at my doorstep — initially the ocean, and now the lake.”
One of Heath’s four-hectare parcels is currently owned by retirees Doug and Anne Stone — members of a large and well-known family in the Cowichan Valley.
The couple greets us with warm smiles and the offer of cold drinks.
They are accustomed to visitors — oftentimes unexpected. “We used to get quite a few boats breaking down,” says Doug Stone. “Pretty much every summer someone drifted by with an engine that wouldn’t work anymore. We’d tow them in.”
Not long ago, a lone kayaker in distress fetched up on a nearby shore. “He had capsized up near Octopus Point,” says Stone, referring to a landmark to the north. “He was going from Nanaimo to Victoria, but really hadn’t a clue where he was.”
Killer whales, sea lions, and harbour seals frequently swim by, squeezed between the narrowest point between Vancouver Island and Salt Spring.
From time to time a black bear drags its butt down the bluffs. And once his cousin’s son-in-law found the skeleton of a cow in a nearby bog. “It was kind of strange,” Stone says. “How did that get there? We dug up all the bones. We even found the skull.”
There are also shell middens in the area, and occasionally Indigenous fishermen show up with poles to spear sea urchins. Sqtheq is their word for Sansum Narrows and also means narrows. (For more First Nations history, visit: https://bit.ly/34Wfblf.)
The Stones bought here in 2001. It took a year to clear the massive Scotch broom (https://bit.ly/355iyqm) that had taken residence before putting their shoulders into construction of a 1,500-square-foot cabin.
Today the walls of their home include a framed newspaper clipping describing the fiery 1944 crash of a Royal Canadian Air Force B24 Consolidated Liberator bomber in Sansum Narrows that killed 11 crewmen on a night-time training exercise.
A glance at their bookshelf shows that we share a love of BC nature and local history, including no fewer than four of the same titles.
Doug used to own Duncan Motorcycle Sales, where his wife, Anne, worked as bookkeeper. I agree to drop off a copy of Riding The Continent, based on Hamilton Mack Laing’s classic 1915 ride across America on a Harley-Davidson. (Mack Laing Nature Park in Comox is dedicated to the accomplished naturalist; comox.ca/macklaingpark).
Plenty of time for reading here, although they are surprised at how fast the time goes.
The Stones have no Internet or TV, and cell service depends on finding the sweet spot on their property. They scoot around on a 5.5-meter, aluminum Lifetimer power boat made in Duncan, and keep a small car at Burgoyne Bay for grocery runs to Salt Spring.
In summer, you’ll find them on the front deck. “We eat pretty much three meals a day out there,” Anne Stone says. “The beautiful view, the peace and quiet, it’s so relaxing.”
Their property is among only a handful — one owned by another batch of Stones — on Sansum Narrows with no road access. “It’s an interesting spot,” Doug Stone confirms. “You get a good look at all the boats, barges and log booms going by.”
When he invites me to “drop by any time,” I know that the allure of the narrows and the folks who live here won’t keep me away for long.
— Larry Pynn Oct. 16, 2020