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8 hidden gems: Mystic Vale

The capital region is an outdoor lover's paradise, especially in summer when the days are long and even the rain takes a vacation.

The capital region is an outdoor lover's paradise, especially in summer when the days are long and even the rain takes a vacation. Today, the Times Colonist presents the seventh instalment in our summer series Eight Hidden Gems, in which our reporters and photographers introduce you to some of the region's lesser-known outdoor getaways. Today we visit Mystic Vale in Saanich.

Tucked in the corner of the University of Victoria's Lot 1, concrete and pavement give way to dirt and dust at one of the entranceways to the steepsided gully of Mystic Vale.

In one direction, a wheelchair accessible path keeps to the high ground on land used for hundreds of years by the Coast and Straits Salish people for hunting, fishing and harvesting plants. Along the other, a set of stairs climbs down into the ravine, where Hobbs Creek snakes as the lifeblood for the watershed.

At certain times of year, however, this part of the creek disappears - a result of the paved surfaces upstream in Oak Bay.

"Before development, the rains would have gathered in the soils and been released slowly through the groundwater and the stream would have run year round, it would have been a continuous stream," said Tom Smith, executive director of facilities management.

"But with urban development now, it dries right up in the summertime and it floods heavily when we get heavy rains."

Along the creek's path, there is evidence of UVic's restoration efforts - newly planted saplings, whose roots will stabilize the soil around the creek's edges, as well as weirs that act as speedbumps along the water's path, slowing it and allowing silt to deposit along the way.

Since the university purchased the property for $2.7 million in 1993, finding a balance between preserving the sensitive ecosystem and making it accessible for public use has been a priority.

Other efforts, often involving students, have included weeding invasive species such as holly and English ivy that might choke the trees, as well as building fences, stairs and signs to keep dogs on leashes and people on track.

"It's just as much an open, accessible public space as it is a university space," Smith said.

"People come from long distances to walk through here."

Trees up to 500 years old provide a gentle canopy over the paths where students, neighbours and dog-walkers escape the otherwise residential surroundings.

Mystic Vale is home to more than 75 native plant and wildlife species, including Douglas firs, Indian plum, snowberries and the sword ferns that cover the slopes into the gully, as well as five species of woodpeckers. Some species are rarely found anywhere else in the city, such as the rattlesnake plantain, stink currant and vanilla leaf.

Bald eagles and great horned owls have also been spotted resting in the branches of big-leafed maples indigenous to the ecosystem.

MYSTIC VALE FAST FACTS

Location: Southeast corner of UVic campus.

Size: 11.6 acres

Difficulty level 3: The trail dips into a valley, which means stairs, but certain portions are wheelchair-friendly.

Name: According to the mystic spring legend recorded by UVic, a huge maple next to Hobbs Creek acted as a spirit guarding the spring. A woman who looked in the water during a full moon would see the face of the man who loves her - vice versa for a man. "If a woman is childless, this water will give her plenty," wrote author D.W. Higgins in 1904. The legend likely grew from the real use and belief system of the Coast and Straits Salish peoples and their ancestral use of Mystic Vale as a sacred site.

Previous Hidden Gems

July 12 - Sea Bluff Trail, Metchosin

July 19 - Tod Inlet, Central Saanich

July 26 - Colquitz River Trail, Saanich

Aug. 2 - Devonian Regional Park, Metchosin

Aug. 9 - Chinese Cemetery, Oak Bay

Aug. 16 - Horth Hill Regional Park, North Saanich

Story archive: timescolonist.com/gems

asmart@timescolonist.com