For thousands of years, First Nations people lived on the Gorge Waterway and used the area for food-gathering and spiritual purposes. Shellfish, seaweed, herring and salmon were harvested from the sea; birds, wildlife such as deer, elk and bear, were hunted and plants for food and medicine were gathered from the surrounding forests. The sheltered waterway provided a safe refuge in storms. After the establishment of Fort Victoria in 1843, the Gorge Waterway soon became a recreation destination for local residents, with numerous boating regattas, canoe races, swimming and diving competitions and sightseeing trips to the famous reversing tidal falls at the Gorge Narrows. Each year in May thousands of people gathered on the Gorge to celebrate Victoria Day, and prior to World War II heading up the Gorge for a canoe paddle or to camp in the wilds of Portage Inlet was a favourite pastime.
During the same period, the Gorge and Victoria Harbour areas became the site of many industries, including sawmills, ship building, paint manufacturing and fish processing. Victoria was at one time the busiest west coast port north of San Francisco, with sealing, whaling and fishing fleets based here. These activities took their toll on the water quality of the Gorge, and by the late 1930s, the Gorge was no longer considered safe for swimming. The residential areas surrounding the Gorge all discharged their sewage directly into the Gorge until about 1955, when a community-wide sewer system was installed, but even following that many industries continued to dump pollutants into the Gorge. In the 1990s, a local father and son started cleaning up junk in the much-abused Gorge Waterway. This action, along with some publicity, inspired local businesses, non-profit organizations and governments to pitch in. Clean-up efforts are now conducted regularly by local groups, and awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship of the Gorge is widely recognized by the community. An effective regional source control program now restricts the type of waste that is permitted to enter the city’s sewers and storm drains, and water quality in the Gorge and other harbours is improving.
The Gorge Waterway Initiative
, formed in 2005, is a collaborative group of community organizations concerned with protecting and enhancing the natural and cultural features of the Gorge Waterway and Portage Inlet. The GWI coordinates information exchange, initiates restoration projects and provides public education and outreach in the community.
More information on Gorge history:
- Dennis Minaker, 1998. The Gorge of Summers Gone, A History of Victoria’s Inland Waterway.