As conversation topics go, archaeology can be dry as a cobweb.
But with the right blend of anecdotes and artifacts, archaeology becomes a time machine, capable of transporting us back thousands of years to that autumn afternoon when a deerskin-clad teen sat on a windswept promontory, carefully chipping away shards of basalt to create a lethal spear point.
Grant Keddie knows how to fire up that time machine. His slightly rumpled appearance camouflages a well-organized, scholarly mind, and his baggy pants pockets conceal fascinating relics borrowed from the Royal British Columbia Museum.
Keddie, a 48-year-old curator at western Canada’s premiere historical repository, is the perfect host for a bus tour of Victoria’s numerous archaeological sites. After all, he personally excavated many of them, and his enthusiasm is as bubbly and contagious as an 8-year-old’s - which happens to be the age when he first caught the archaeology bug.
Keddie is among the dozen or so Royal B.C. Museum staff members who share their expertise with participants in the museum’s “ecotour” programs. There are also marine biologists, anthropologists, botanists … even a fish-savvy ichthyologist.
Day trips include behind-the-scene tours of the Vancouver Aquarium, visits to Botanical Beach Provincial Park, coastal adventures aboard ships or sea kayaks and floats down the Puntledge River during October’s Chinook salmon run.
Other options are excursions to Pacific Rim National Park to learn about old-growth forests, and spelunking the extensive Home Lake cave system.
Prices range from $80 Canadian (about $58 U.S.) for the archaeological or sea-kayaking day trips to $2,725 ($1,984 U.S.) for a 10-day British Columbian rafting expedition.
The ecotour program began modestly five years ago as an opportunity for museum members to learn more about the cultural and natural history in and around Victoria.
As interest grew, hiking, kayaking and sailing were added, until last year the museum realized it had a winner and decided to open the tours to the general pubic.
“Part of the museum’s mandate is to illuminate B.C.’s natural and cultural history,” explains program coordinator Maya Tadsen, “and what better way to do that than to travel with a curator and experience it firsthand with a museum expert.”
In keeping with ecotourism’s “nonexploitive” philosophy, Tadsen says, “We consult with the appropriate First Nations bands (tribes) and make sure we have their full participation and support with any tours focusing on ethnology or aboriginal history.”
Tadsen says staff members seem to enjoy the tours as much as the paying customers. “The people who go on these tours are interested in the curators’ areas of expertise and eager to ask questions and find out more about their research.”
Earlier this summer, Keddie - outfitted in an Aussie bush hat and an exotic pendant carved from a nut shell - loaded a group of journalists into a minivan and headed out through Victoria’s neighborhoods in search of evidence of the Songhees People who inhabited Vancouver Island before Europeans arrived.
Keddie said finding 2,000-year-old tool or weapon artifacts in and around the provincial capital is not uncommon. “People bring that stuff to the museum all the time. Those over 40 want to know about its origins,” he says. “Younger people tend to wonder how much it’s worth.”
As we drove through winding streets flanked by comfortable bungalows and meticulous yards, Keddie described Vancouver Island’s aboriginal hierarchy of nobles, commoners and slaves.
We stopped to explore Anderson Hill Archaeological Site, a rocky knoll surrounded by exclusive homes overlooking McNeal Bay.
Our climb was interrupted by numerous questions, which fueled Keddie’s enthusiasm. At one point he abruptly veered off course and went wading through the underbrush in search of an overgrown burial cairn.
Farther up, Keddie settled on a rocky perch, his back to Victoria Golf Course, and pulled several arrowheads from his pocket.
At their peak, Keddie explained, as many as 50,000 Songhees occupied the 280-mile-long island. “Then came small pox, measles … disease after disease until the native population was all but wiped out.”
Subtle signs of those who came before remain: shards of stone where spear points were crafted; trenches dug in defense of a village; thick subterranean layers of discarded clam shells.
One of the afternoon’s highlights was a visit to Gorge Kinsmen Park, where tidal waters create a waterfall effect as they fight their way through a narrow passage.
When artifacts were unearthed several years ago during construction of a nearby sidewalk, Keddie convinced the municipal government to redesign the project to reduce damage to the site and allow for future excavation and display.
“There’s history all around us,” said Keddie. “The more you learn about what came before, the more you start looking for clues and noticing things.”
The following morning, more than a dozen great blue heron nibbled their way through the shallows of the Roberts Bay Bird Sanctuary as our ecotour group donned life jackets and sun block and hauled two-person fiberglass kayaks to the water’s edge.
Our hosts and guides for the five-hour outing were museum marine biologist Kelly Sendall and kayakers Gordon Hutchings and Janice Mason of Sea-Trek Sports.
It’s hard to imagine being in better hands. Beside Sendall’s familiarity with everything we were likely to encounter - from killer whales to the white spots on kelp (“Bryozoa,” he explained) - Hutchings is an accomplished paddler, and Mason, his wife, is both a former member of Canada’s Olympic rowing team and a physician.
As it turned out, medical assistance wasn’t necessary. On the other hand, waterproof notebooks might have been nice.
Most of the trip was spent skirting the shore of small islands along the Saanich Peninsula northeast of Victoria, marveling at the varied creatures on, above or under the water.
Sea kayaking might seem too much like work for some vacationers, but the reward of viewing lion’s mane jellyfish, harbor seals, sea stars, bald eagles and even a curious raccoon up close more than made up for one or two blisters from paddling, and the occasional wave breaking over the bow.
Kayaking, spelunking and whale-watching don’t fit the traditional image of museums. But faced with dwindling tax dollars, public institutions in Canada as well as the United States are adding entrepreneurship to their job descriptions. And judging by the Royal B.C. Museum’s ecotour program, that’s good news for the museum-going public.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Victoria (pop. 326,000), the capital of British Columbia, sits on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Warm Pacific air keeps temperatures mild year-round, contributing to Victoria’s reputation as Canada’s “Garden City.” U.S. citizens entering Canada most show proof of citizenship, either a passport, birth certificate or voter registration card. A driver’s license is not acceptable proof. Daily airline and ferry service make access convenient from Seattle, Vancouver and other points around Puget Sound. Horizon (800-547-9308) offers six flights daily from Sea-Tac to Victoria Airport, starting at $78 round trip. Kenmore Air (800-543-9595) has three floatplane flights daily from Seattle’s Lake Union to Victoria Harbour, at $149 round trip. Ferry service is available from Anacortes via Washington State Ferries (604-381-1551). Boats leave Anacortes daily at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., arriving in Victoria three hours later. One-way cost is $35.65 for car and driver, $6.90 for passengers. Children and senior passengers pay half fare. Passenger-only ferry service is available from downtown Seattle aboard Victoria Clipper (800-888-2535), with one-way rates ranging from $55 to $99, depending on vessel and route. Other ferries operate from Port Angeles (Black Ball Transport, 604-386-2202); from Bellingham (Victoria San Juan Cruises, 800-443-4552); and from mainland British Columbia (B.C. Ferry Corp., 604-386-3431). Victoria’s most famous hotel is the elegant, newly remodeled Empress (800-441-1414), where rooms start at $120 to $155 Canadian ($88-$116 U.S.), depending on the season. From Nov. 1 through March 1, an “anniversary special” allows couples to pay the last two digits of their anniversary date for their room, e.g., couples married in 1964 pay $64 Canadian ($47 U.S.). Tourism Victoria (phone 604-382-2160; fax 604-361-9733) provides information about accommodations and sites in an around the capital. For information about the Royal British Columbia Museum’s ecotour program or current exhibits, phone 604-387-3701 (fax: 604-356-8197), or write to the museum at 675 Belleville St., Victoria, B.C., Canada V8V 1X4.