Book Review: A Journey Back to Nature, A History of Strathcona Provincial Park

Dave Flawse

ISBN 9781772033588

Softcover | Publication Date: May 18, 2021

Book Dimensions: 5.5 in. x 8.5 in.

256 Pages

Take a summer drive up Highway 28 between Campbell River and Gold River and along the brim of Buttle Lake you’ll glimpse a broad shore of sun-bleached stones and water-logged stumps.

The lake’s dam-controlled water level fluctuates nine meters throughout the year, and if you’ve ever wondered how Strathcona Provincial Park’s largest lake could ever be allowed to be flooded, Catherine Marie Gilbert’s A Journey Back to Nature A History of Strathcona Provincial Park has the answers.

Gilbert has a master’s degree in public history from UVic, and her first book featured another location-based history about the military base on Yorke Island. She has written articles for Western Mariner, BC Historical Federation Journal, BC studies, and Escape.

In eight informative chapters, Gilbert offers explanations to the recondite history of BC’s oldest provincial park, from Indigenous activity and early European exploration to industrialization that sparked a conservation movement.

Each chapter begins with quote from the Department of Lands, describing how the park appeared in 1921: “The Park abounds in all the attributes of nature in its primeval condition; giant forests; sunlit lakes bounded by bold rock shapes and overshadowed by snowy peaks and glaciers reflected in their placid, sunlit, vari-coloured waters.”

Much of the park exists today as it appeared for millennia with the exception of the Buttle Lake region. Besides the flooded shores, the park’s other noticeable scar at Myra Falls Mine, once an open pit mine but now operating underground, displays how the industrial machine penetrated a “primeval beauty.” A landscape that one early park visitor claimed would “appeal to a large number seeking healing for sick minds and jaded nerves.”

The Buttle Lake region was home to most of the conflicts between conservationists and industries seeking to further exploit the park. This area is the book’s main focus which culminates in Chapter 7, “Don’t Cut the Heart Out of Strathcona Park” where conservationists and the “Comox Valley Crazies” successfully halted further mine development.

Chapter 5, Forbidden Plateau, is a respite from conflict and a place where recreational development prompted an expansion of the park. The chapter features fascinating anecdotes from the area like how the Department of Fisheries brought 100,000 trout eggs to populate the area’s previously trout-free lakes.

As someone who grew up hiking and skiing in and around the park, I find its history fascinating, and Gilbert delivers enough details enthrall any like-minded fan of the park. While a pleasant read that flows logically, Gilbert’s narrative leads with facts, as opposed to compelling story, and readers seeking the latter may find it tedious, especially if they do not have a previous connection to the park.

The tale of Strathcona Provincial Park, however, is naturally endowed with conflict, and Gilbert’s book is an important work for understanding what a small group of environmentalists accomplished and how close we came to having a diminished park.

In this vein, the title seems a missed opportunity to show what the story is about—the hidden blemishes and a pulsing white head of industrialization hidden just out of sight. I’m drawn to a line on the first page of the introduction that I feel encapsulates this book: “…behind this picture of serenity is a less than a peaceful history.”

Early European visitors to the park saw its beauty and advocated its use “for the enjoyment of people.” And I recommend doing just that: exploring this wild area of this Island. And wherever you find yourself out there, A Journey Back to Nature would make a great reading companion to a perfect day.

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