When Harry Lewis and Rob Wickson met as members of the West Gorge and District Rate Payers Association in the 1990s, they bonded over the idea of reconnecting the community.
Friday night conversations in the basement of Wickson’s Gorge home went past bedtime and, as legend has it, first the whiskey came out, then came pen and paper.
It started with the simple concept of reconnecting the neighbourhood community and they worked their way backwards from there. Wickson and Lewis were joined by others from the West Gorge Rate Payers, which became the Gorge Tillicum Community Association.
The ideas turned into the first Gorge Canada Day Picnic in 1999. About 2,000 to 3,000 people showed up to walk along the Saanich side of the Gorge Waterway, with Gorge Road closed to traffic between Craigflower-Kosapsom Park and Gorge Park.
“You have to understand what we were doing when we started it off,” recalls Wickson, who’s since served as president of the GTCA and is now past-president. “Building community was the end goal. We were trying to take a community that was used to going inside their houses and not commiserating with their neigbhours. With the Gorge Picnic, people connected, people from the same street met each other, people from one street over, and people from all over Victoria.”
Even then it was hard to estimate how many people showed up. It’s safe to say that this year Picnic organizers can expect another massive crowd of between 10,000 and 15,000 people, depending on the weather.
Art shows, games, classic cars, multiple music stages, traditional canoe trips along the Gorge, a pancake breakfast and 28 food vendors all fill the 1.7-kilometre stretch of Gorge Road.
“That first year, people liked it, they liked that you could ride your bike up and down very easily,” Wickson said. “Now, you can’t ride your bike, there’s just no room (from all the people).”
The GTCA organizing committee credited then-mayor Frank Leonard for guiding them through the process of shutting down the road.
One of the initial events to go with the picnic was the Gorge Gallop running race. It last for the first few years but was eventually sacrificed to make room for the visitors. The 1.7km length, coincidentally, is a tich over one mile.
Among the early lessons organizers learned at the Gorge Picnic was how hungry the visitors would be.
“We had arranged for three food vendors,” recalled Wickson, who remains on the organizing committee to this day. “Mr. Tube Steak brought about 10 coolers of food. That guy had to add another 10 coolers, and he sold out everything he had. So we added more, and are still adding more.”
There were other learning curves as the Gorge Picnic was also something new and not everyone was ready.
“There was a [young guy who lived along the Gorge and] insisted on driving through Gorge Road,” Wickson said. “Saanich Police turned him around, sent him back to his place, and talked to his parents to explain what was going on.”
Now, many of the homeowners who live along Gorge route decorate their houses and host parties throughout the day.
Most of the original picnic organizers have moved on to other things. There still are those that have been there since the early days. Ray Farmer and Jayne Pullman, Donna Roth, Steve and Ann, Ed and Elsa, and of course Harry and Rob, can be seen in various roles working with the new picnic team to provide this community with an event that brings all out to have a bit of fun on Canada.
– With files from Vera Wynn-Williams and the Gorge Tillicum Community Association