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South Port Mann Bog, 1927

October 14, 2012
  "In the spring, when the laurel and labrador tea are in bloom the bog presents a brilliant display of colours, but in the summer brown and gray-browns are predominant. However, the monotony is broken to some extent by the Nymphaea hollows, which form a very effective contrast. Sometimes the hollows are very small, sometimes they cover many square meters. The Nymphaea grows either in a dense bottom layer of liverworts . . . or as is particularly the case in the larger hollows, in a dense cover of a luxuriant Sphagnum apiculatum . . . The relatively moist wood surrounding the bog still retains the features of a virgin forest . . . Masses of fallen tree trunks, often hidden by a luxuriant thicket vegetation and a treacherous moss carpet, make it very difficult to walk through this morass. The surface of the soil is bare but as a compensation there is a rich growth of mosses on the fallen trunks and on the dead trees, forming a soft and thick coating mainly composed of a thriving Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus, a giant elegant Hylocomium proliferum, and the vigorous Antitrichia curtipendula var. gigantea . .. ."  

This was how the  area of Surrey City Centre appeared to young Swedish scientist Hugo Osvald in July, 1927. At the intersection of what is now 104 Avenue and King George Boulevard there lay a 40 acre bog, and though Osvald spent but a couple of days here, his findings provided enough data for a lifetime of study and publication.

  South Westminster - map by Surveyor-General-1938  
  Location of bog shown in Section 22 on Pacific Highway     – Surveyor-General, 1938  

Hugo Osvald was a visiting scholar at Yale University in 1927 when he had the opportunity to attend the First Congress of Soil Science in Washington DC, a large international conference opened by United States President Calvin Coolidge on June 13.  Following the conference Osvald embarked with about 200 of his colleagues on a train excursion trip across the States and up to Vancouver.  On July 11 the train left Vancouver as the tour continued on across Canada, but Osvald took the opportunity to stay behind and research the peat bogs of the Lower Mainland, while taking time out also to visit Custer, WA and Vancouver Island.

Osvald contacted botanists John Davidson and Paul Boving at UBC for advice and was fortunate to meet  Mr E. E.  Carncross, who offered  to show him about the district.  Coming from a pioneering Surrey family, Elmer Carncross was at the time working for the Soldier Settlement Board and possessed an intimate knowledge of the local landscape.

The two men who travelled about the Lower Mainland in July 1927—in one fortnight forming a bond of mutual appreciation that lasted a lifetime — would each profit from the experience—one for scholarship and the other for industry.  Osvald published his findings over a long academic career when he returned to Sweden, his final book going into print only after his death.  Carncross was inspired to acquire the bog  on Pacific Highway the following year and built a peat processing plant— pioneering an industry that meshed to perfection with the needs of local poultry farmers — the predominant form of agriculture locally. 

The bog at Surrey City Centre has been known variously as South Port Mann bog, Pacific Highway bog and Whalley Lake..  The clue to its value for research is found in Osvald’s description in one of his first articles:

  "Having passed the southern suburbs of Vancouver and reached the top of the hills south of the town a wonderful and wide view of the Fraser River delta is obtained. As seen from the map, a considerable part of this area is occupied by bogs. Most of these, however, are strongly influenced by drainage and cultivation along the margins, and in order to give an immediate idea of the vegetation of a bog which still exists in its original state, the studies made on the little bog somewhat south [should read north] of South Port Mann will be presented first of all."  

Bogs - Fraser River Valley - Osvald   Shown on Osvald’s map of Lower Mainland bogs is the location of the South Port Mann post office, at the junction of the Pacific Highway and Old Yale Road, now King George Station, with the small bog a little to the north, at present 104 Ave.
Situation of bogs in the Fraser River Valley – Hugo Osvald 1927    

The high land above Brownsville, composed of glacial drift and heavily forested, was less attractive for farming than the lowlands, was only lately settled, and the bog was largely undisturbed, although the Pacific Highway was paved through part of the bog in 1920.

Osvald spent just two days at the South Port Mann bog, fitting in side trips to the Tyne Head bog (Surrey Bend) and the Cloverdale bog. 

Osvald took eight core samples which he examined for sediments and pollens when back in Sweden. His studies and publications are full of scientific nomenclature and beyond our scope here. Here is his general description of the life of the South Port Mann bog:

  "During the first stage (after the recession of the last ice sheet or since the area was lifted above sea level) the basin was an open lake, in which some clay and a rather thick layer of lake mud were sedimented. Later the open lake was overgrown by a Carex fen.
In the northern part the Carex swamp continued to grow for a long time but at last it was invaded by a Sphagnum mat and some trees. In the southern part this invasion seems to have taken place much earlier, and here the wood swamp formed a thick later of peat. Then the wood was flooded in both ends of the section — and probably all around the basin — but in the center the Sphagnum mat was growing continuously.
For a rather long time there seems to have been a Sphagnum island in a shallow lake surrounded by a wet wood. During the next stage the Sphagnum island spread over the surrounding open water, and for some time a well decomposed Sphagnum peat was formed, indicating that the Sphagnum bog was growing very slowly. At the end of this stage the bog was dry enough to burn. Then suddenly the well-decomposed Sphagnum peat is followed by a nearly un-decomposed one, which is still formed."

  South Port Mann Bog Profile- Osvald  
  Diagram of the section through the South Port Mann bog showing borings and legend of layers. – H. Osvald  

Over time the bog formed a record of  plant development and disturbances both climactic and catastrophic — floods, fires, and even volcanic eruptions are evident.  

Hugo Osvald returned to Sweden after further study of bogs in eastern Canada and the U.S.  He became director of the Peat Experimental Station at Jönköping.   Following his involvement at the Soil Congress, he was Secretary of a committee to set up an  International Organization for the Study of Peat Soils. Published reports of his Surrey bog investigation appeared first in 1928 and spanned four decades, the last appearing after his death in 1970.  His colleague Hugo Sjörs kindly supplied additional information about Osvald’s career.

  "Osvald started as a plant sociologist before 1920. His first, and very big work was on the Swedish bog Komosse (1923). He specialized in peatland cultivation and became professor of Plant Husbandry at the Agricultural College (now University) at Uppsala. He was also a politician, representing the Liberal Party in the Swedish Parliament. He retired (probably) in the 1960’s. After retirement he worked for a few years (only part-time) in our present Department of Plant Ecology."  

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