Mount Tzouhalem:The mountain that basks in the sun and Syd and Emily Watts

Posted February 8, 2002 | Categories : 112,People,Reports |

By Lindsay Elms

From the Cowichan River estuary, steep slopes rise to craggy lookouts on the summit of the 536 metre high Mount Tzouhalem (Zoo-hay-lum). Hikers, year round, are rewarded with spectacular views over Cowichan Bay and Saltspring Island, and on a clear day Mount Baker can be seen in neighbouring Washington State to the south.

The First Nations called this mountain “Cowichan” (meaning “basking in the sun”). Legend tells that during the Big Flood the people of the valley took shelter on its slopes. When the waters began to subside they spied a frog basking in the sun on the side of the mountain. The frog rock formation was called “Pip’oom” (meaning “little swelled-up one”) and it is said that people with good eyes can still spy “Pip’oom” on the side of the mountain.

With the coming of the Europeans, the mountain was officially recognized as Tzuhalem Mountain on June 30, 1911, but then on September 7, 1950, it was changed to Mount Tzuhalem. Finally, on April 27, 2000, the spelling was again changed to Mount Tzouhalem, this being the long established and preferred spelling as confirmed by the local Cowichan Tribes.

Mount Tzouhalem is named after a local warrior who had a penchant for killing. Born of a Quamichan man and a Comiaken woman, Tzouhalem, under the guidance of his grandmother, trained to be a warrior. Tzouhalem’s seemingly invincible fighting ability and unruly behaviour eventually led to his being asked to leave the village of Quamichan, which he did, establishing himself and his followers in a single fortified house at Khinepsen at the mouth of the Cowichan River near Comiaken. Tzouhalem maintained his association with Quamichan and in an 1853 census he was identified as the preeminent “chief,” and it seems likely that Tzouhalem’s fighting prowess helped to establish Quamichan as the largest and wealthiest of the Cowichan villages. Tzouhalem died in 1859.

On the south facing slopes of Mount Tzouhalem is an 18 hectare Ecological Reserve. Established to protect the Garry Oak (Quercus garryana) woodlands and spring wild flower meadows, the reserve protects upward of 150 species of vascular plants and 30 species of birds that forage, roost or raise their young on the mountain.

According to Dave Polster, a plant ecologist, “The pristine state of this reserve…is almost entirely due to the commitment and dedication of one couple, Emily and Syd Watts.” Syd made his first visit to Mount Tzouhalem in 1937 after moving out with his family from Alberta and recalls logging in 1945/46 when large Douglas-fir trees were hauled from the hill to feed the post-war housing boom.

In 1979 while Syd and Emily were hiking the mountain, Emily noticed flagging tape laying out a new subdivision. They contacted several other amateur botanists and after inspecting the site, they considered the meadows worth fighting to protect. This in-turn led the Cowichan Valley Naturalists Society to make a video of the spring flowers and the unique ecosystem. The CVNS then went en masse to the North Cowichan Council led by Syd. Graham Bruce, who was then Mayor of North Cowichan, was persuaded that the area should be preserved and in 1980 North Cowichan donated the land to the Province (BC Parks) for protection. On May 16, 1984, Syd Watts was appointed Warden for the Mount Tzuohalem Ecological Reserve #112 when it was established.

As land around the reserve was disturbed and developed, Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), an invasive perennial shrub, began spreading into the reserve. This weed is a strong competitor with various native plants including those within declining Garry oak ecosystems. The broom was intentionally introduced from the Mediterranean areas of Europe by Captain Walter Grant in 1850 and quickly spread up the east coast of Vancouver Island. Again Syd Watts took the initiative and organized the CVNS to clear the problem and this has continued to be an on-going battle.

Although Mount Tzouhalem attracts hikers, photographers, birders and botanists, it also attracts a number of hard-core trail runners. In April 2001, the inaugural Mount Tzouhalem GutBuster race took place pitching runners on what is touted as the most challenging race in the series with an elevation gain of almost 500 metres in the first 5 kilometres of the run. The race winds up narrow single track to the summit and then back down to the startline 12 kilometres later.

See also a biography of Syd Watts on the Beyond Nootka website