Ten centuries ago, this world was a very different place. Already, Leif Erickson, son of Eric the Red, had just led his expedition to the east coast of North America. Soon after, battles raged throughout Europe as The Crusades began, not to mention all that followed in the next nine hundred years. Why all the history? The answer, in my mind, is that it gives relevant perspective when you discuss ancient living things. Time illustrates the incredible longevity, in particular, that trees can have.
Even as Erickson landed in North America, in the relatively undisturbed coastal rainforests of Vancouver Island, a fateful cone, plausibly, had seeded itself not too far from what is now the San Juan River. Fortunately, there would soon be a sapling where the cone once lay, which eventually managed to grow well over 300 feet tall and almost fourteen feet in diameter! It may also have reached the age of a thousand years, though that estimate is based on known sizes and ages of similar trees of its species.
Today that tree is called the Red Creek Fir, and it is, by volume of wood, the largest Douglas fir on the planet! Over the years, several violent storms have reduced its height, but it still stands at 74m (242 ft) tall. It is not, however, the world’s tallest Douglas fir. That honour goes to Oregon’s Doerner Fir, which measures 327 ft tall ( it is formerly known as the Brummit Fir).
The Douglas fir, ironically, is not actually a true fir, but a member of the pine family (Pinaceae) . Pseudotsuga Menzieszi is its Latin name, and Pseudotsuga actually translates as “false hemlock”. Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies and Scottish botanist David Douglas are its noteworthy namesakes. The Douglas fir has been a vitally important species to the timber industry, due to its strength, durability, and versatility.
My own history with this tree has been somewhat checkered, to say the least. When I lived in North Vancouver, I visited Vancouver Island not once, not twice, but three times with good friend Chris before finally getting to see it in 2009. What I’ll say for certain is that it was well worth the effort! The Red Creek Fir is definitely one of the more awe inspiring trees I have ever seen!
Considering the amount of logging that has taken place on the west coast of Vancouver Island, it’s no small miracle this giant still stands today, but now it is safe from harvesting, at least. The tree can be reached by a network of rough logging roads and a short, pleasant forest trail. I’m including a map and a few photos here that will help you find the trailhead, and detailed driving directions can be found here.
It isn’t often that you get the opportunity to meet a living being that has been around as long as the Red Creek Fir. If you’re ever in the area, and you have a vehicle with half decent ground clearance, it’s well worth a visit!
You hear it from everyone who has visited the west coast of Vancouver Island. They rave about the tall trees, the crashing surf, the unforgettable sunsets, and countless other charms. Wilderness adventurers of all experience levels come from far and wide to visit its forests and beaches year round.
British Columbia’s future may very well depend on how our province chooses to protect its natural world. It has become clear that times are changing. To those who reside here, one crucial question must be asked: If nature is really our greatest resource, why are we in such a race to destroy our future legacy?
The answer would seem simple, but conflicted interests make it complicated. We are at a crossroads: No longer are industries based solely on the extraction of natural resources a reasonable base for a thriving economy. The truth is, they have reached the point where they are destroying that very foundation. In my mind, the only way to shine the light in a different direction is to spend more time bringing attention to the natural world. That then, is primarily what this story is all about. This province needs to save its earthly splendour, and what better place to start than the windswept shores of Vancouver Island’s Pacific Coast?
The month of March brought with it unseasonably warm and dry weather this year, so it seemed like decent timing for a visit to Vancouver Island’s wild west coast. Set in the heart of unceded Pacheedaht territory, the forests near Port Renfrew still hold many hidden secrets which I hope to explore. Fortunately for me, I had an ideal tour guide for the mission, in the person of Chris Istace. “Stasher”, as he’s known to many, has spent plenty of days wandering the coast, and is one of the first good friends I’ve made in my new island home. Our plan, basically, was to visit many of the trees on the map seen below here, and to walk the Botanical Beach area. Here is a link to the fine story about this trip that Chris wrote up a while back, I highly recommend his website!
We met early in Chemainus before heading toward Lake Cowichan, where we’d grab a coffee before reaching the coast via the old Harris Creek Mainline. The last time I’d driven that road was nearly a decade before, when it was still unpaved! Much had changed, but some things had remained the same.
The ride left us plenty of time to discuss a wide variety of topics, especially the preservation of British Columbia’s ancient forests, which we both have been very vocal about. The interior of Vancouver Island is an absolute statement on how not to manage those forests and you get a front row seat to view that devastation on the road to Port Renfrew! At the very least, we as citizens ought to have more say in what happens to our forests, and there are a lot more valid questions. Why can’t we log sustainably? Why can’t we transition to a lumber economy that focuses on processing second growth timber or older stands of less prime value? Why have we been exporting raw logs and all the processing jobs that go with them? Why is there no willingness by government to protect the finest of our forests from clearcutting? To be succinct, I am not in favour of abolishing logging at all, I just feel it’s high time to change the model on which the industry operates.
It was also a chance to learn a bit more about each other’s backgrounds. We have each managed to find our way westward, but through markedly different routes. Chris has previously lived in Alberta and Estevan, Saskatchewan, whereas I moved to Nanaimo after living in Montreal, Edmonton, and North Vancouver. What I’ll say, to summarize, is that the love of outdoor living brings a lot of people to Vancouver Island!
The morning air still held a chill, as we reached Harris Creek. There we took a break and Chris showed me several of his favourite spots along the creek. The rushing waters of the canyon made for an ideal place to clear the mind, and we were happy to linger there for a while.
Our next stop was the nearby Harris Creek Spruce, a massive Sitka Spruce which is likely about five hundred years old. It’s quite fortunate that the logging companies decided to preserve it, for it holds so much life upon its aging limbs. The tree is surrounded by a picket fence, to protect its root system, and nearby there is a beautiful stand of Bigleaf Maple trees. I had first visited the tree back in 2007, and was heartened to see an old friend once again.
Port Renfrew was the next destination, where we would spend some time hiking the shores of Botany Bay and Botanical Beach. It wasn’t quite possible to arrive there at low tide, which would have been ideal for viewing the many tide pools, but nevertheless, we had a lot of fun. There is nothing quite like exploring the wild west coast of Vancouver Island, with its pounding surf and wind blasted Sitka Spruce providing the backdrop. The geology alone is quite interesting, and of course the biodiversity you find in each and every tide pool is unique and fascinating. Quite commonly you’ll see black bears wandering the shoreline foraging for food but we weren’t lucky enough to spot one that day.
Sometimes you need to go the extra mile to get yourself a really good photograph too. Have a look at this sequence and you’ll see just what I mean.
Soon we scrambled around the point and onto Botanical Beach, where we wandered just a bit longer before moving on to the next attraction. I never tire of these coastal beaches, and even the sound of waves triggers so many pleasant memories.
Our whirlwind tour continued as we stopped for a bite to eat, then headed over to Avatar Grove. The trees there were preserved through considerable effort by the Ancient Forest Alliance. On the way up we actually ventured off the trail looking at several trees that get less attention, one a venerable Douglas Fir.
The Ancient Forest Alliance, with the help of many volunteers, built trails through both the upper and lower groves and did a commendable job of campaigning for the preservation of these trees.
The upper grove is most known for the burled and twisted Western Red Cedar affectionately called Canada’s Gnarliest Tree. I’m not sure whether it can lay claim to that title but it is certainly quite the sight, with its heavily burled trunk and twisted branches!
Back on route, we visited the rest of the trees in the upper grove, and met a number of other folks paying their own respects as well. It’s notable that when left standing, forests like these drive both spiritual and economic interest in a region, which is a unique combination. Ancient forests are undoubtedly places where people find their souls.
The lower grove was our next objective, and though Chris had been to Avatar Grove a number of times he had not happened to see it yet either. I found it to be quite a revelation, in part because you could could hear the Gordon River running in the background, as filtered sunlight shone through the trees. There was a subtle breeze to go with it all, and as it turned out, we may have spent more time there than in the upper grove!
What I’ll call the high point of the day, at least in my mind, came with a visit to Big Lonely Doug, which stands almost alone in a clearcut off Edinburgh Main. Its stark existence, ironically, brings to mind that there is a campaign going on to save the trees in nearby Eden Grove merely a few hundred yards away. Keeping stands of old growth forest intact should be our goal, and in British Columbia that has been a difficult task to accomplish.
The story of Big Lonely Doug is an interesting one, to say the least! Apparently, on a winter morning in 2011, a logger named Dennis Cronin was walking through a stand of old-growth forest in the Gordon River Valley near Port Renfrew. He was supposed to survey the land and flag the boundaries for an up and coming clearcut. Soon he would soon stumble upon one Canada’s largest Douglas firs, no doubt worth a considerable sum in the timber market. Cronin, for reasons of his own, marked the tree with a ribbon that instructed the fallers to leave the tree standing, and that is just what they did. Everything around the tree was levelled and removed, leaving the now solitary fir alone in the cut block. Ironically, the tree was even used as a spar, as cable was wrapped around it in order to help haul other trees out of the cut block. Some time later, environmentalist T.J.Watt of the Ancient Forest Alliance, an organization committed to preserving old growth forests in British Columbia, happened to find it while out searching for big trees in the valley.
If ever there was an apt metaphor for the destruction of British Columbia’s ancient forests, that Douglas fir was a textbook example. A towering giant, set in a field of destruction, the tree would soon be given a name: Big Lonely Doug. It would gain tremendous popularity, embraced by Port Renfrew, which calls itself “Tall Tree Capital of Canada”
The sheer scale of this Douglas Fir is something to behold. I had seen countless photos of it and closely followed its story, but as they say, seeing is believing! Chris had seen the tree before, but was no less impressed. I’m not at all surprised that author Harley Rustad was inspired to write a book about this tree!
Just looking at Big Lonely Doug and all the stumps in the clearcut, I could not help but imagine what has been lost in our forests. Time is definitely running out to save them! We spent the better part of an hour just taking it all in and working for the ideal photo opportunity.
Before we headed homeward, we decided to make one more stop. It had been years since I had been to the San Juan Spruce, which was British Columbia’s largest Sitka Spruce up until several years ago, when a storm destroyed part of its upper canopy. I lamented the fact that I’d not taken photos of it back in 2003, as I didn’t have a camera with me at the time. It remains, nevertheless, still an inspiring tree, set as it is right beside the San Juan River, in the middle of a forest service campground!
The drive home seemed somewhat faster than I expected, but then again all things come to an end, relatively speaking. As we parted ways in Chemainus, I was already contemplating a return trip and some new explorations. You can never get enough of coastal British Columbia!
As I write this, the current state of preservation of old growth trees here on Vancouver Island is still of pressing concern. Already, very little ancient forest remains here, and neither the incumbent New Democratic Party, the current opposition B.C. Liberal Party, nor a plethora of logging companies have any desire to cease the destruction. Only British Columbia’s Green Party, part of the coalition government at this time, is supporting a moratorium on old growth logging. What is really needed here is a paradigm shift, for lack of a better phrase. The tired rhetoric of seeing old growth forest as a decaying resource that might as well be harvested or it will lose value is simply an excuse for justifying environmental destruction. Why not consider change?
Mt Cokely sounded like an interesting destination. I had read about the trip on the Island Mountain Ramblers page several weeks before, and though at first it was fully booked, I managed to latch on when a few people cancelled. The plan, for our group of ten, was to ascend the Saddle Trail, scramble up to the ridge of Cokely, and then further on to the summit. On the return trip, we’d return to the ridge, find the Rosseau Trail, and return to the vehicles via that route. This would be my first visit to the Mt Arrowsmith Biosphere Region, and I was looking forward to the views!
The lightest of rains and low clouds followed us as we made our way from Nanaimo on the Island Highway toward Highway 4. By the time we passed through MacMillan Provincial Park (Cathedral Grove) and turned onto Summit Main, the rain had begun to fade. Next came more logging roads, as we followed Cameron Main and Pass Main to the trailhead high above, at roughly 1000m in elevation.
The Saddle Trail proved to be a beautiful hike, as promised. It’s a fairly well used track that winds its way through a pleasant subalpine forest and the occasional bluff on its way to the col between Mt Arrowsmith and Mt Cokely.
John Y., who was our trip leader for the day, had also brought along his dog Chica. She proved to be quite a talented scrambler, but I suspect she may just have been there for the food!
The rest of our group was rounded out by Karen, John R., Stephanie, Christin, Janine, Adrian, Holly, and Dustin. It helped that we all seemed to have good camaraderie, but after all, it’s hard not to have fun in places like these!
While rolling fog and low cloud obscured much of the views, it was still easy to see why the Saddle Trail is a popular hike. The final approach to the saddle was particularly scenic, with wildflowers lining the path and a creek cascading down to the valley below.
It took us less than a couple of hours to make the saddle, where we regrouped and prepared to scramble up to the ridge. It turned out the rock was of reasonable quality with decent holds, but as we climbed the exposure would increase significantly. Due concentration was needed to choose the right line, especially during the last fifty metres of the climb. This was definitely my favourite part of the hike!
From the ridge, we traversed our way over to the summit block. That required another short section of scrambling which probably had the most exposure of all and one particularly tricky step you could certainly call the crux. That went very well as we made sure not to rush. Curiously, I took no photos on that part of the hike.
The summit was broad and inviting, and we stopped there for lunch near all the radio repeater equipment and hoped that the clouds might soon clear. Sure enough, after about ten minutes, some blue skies materialized and opened up some views. One could see down to the valley from where the CPR Trail to Mt Cokely made its ascent.
In another twenty minutes or so, we began the walk back to the ridge, which involved down climbing that tricky section that slowed us down on the way up. It was at that time the clouds once again shifted and parts of Mt Arrowsmith made several brief appearances.
Pretty soon everyone was together again and we began following the cairns along the ridge of Cokely that marked the Rosseau Trail. Save for one particular area where a short and sharp scramble connected two parts of the ridge, this was the easiest part of the hike, technically speaking. We simply followed the ridge until it neared its end and the trail began to descend into the forest below.
Next came a most unusual part of the route, where we meandered through a garden of stunted trees, some very ancient, along a near vertical cliff band. It made the trail seem almost enchanted!
A word of warning about the next part of the trail, because there is a spot where people have been tending to wander off route on the way down. You reach a point where the trail opens up to your left and it tends to draw hikers downward but in fact the actual route continues along the cliffs a bit longer. At one point, part of our group out front were making their way down this particular hillside, and the hikers toward the back of the pack heard a bit of a yell. I did not see what had happened from where I was. Holly, apparently, had stepped on a log then began a quick slide that ended with her tucking forward and then, briefly airborne, executing a perfect forward somersault before hitting the ground. Miraculously, even though there were plenty of sharp and nasty things she could have landed on, it turned she was just fine. We were all very happy that she was pretty much unharmed, saved by some good athletic instinct!
We actually carried on down that fateful slope for a few more minutes, before several of us finally concluded we had lost the trail, so the rest of us climbed back to the last marker we’d seen. By the time I made it back up, half the group were already laughing a bit, having easily rediscovered the trail once again. According to previous club trip leaders, and a couple of hikers I spoke to on Mt Benson two days later, wandering off the track at this particular spot is nothing new on the Rosseau Trail. It might be worth doing a little trail work to remedy that problem.
With all that out of the way, we continued on the trail, which transitions into an easier walk through a venerable forest. It didn’t take much longer than an hour or so to reach the logging road again from there, and in another ten minutes we arrived back at the vehicles.
That marked the end of another successful Island Mountain Ramblers hike, and a really enjoyable day out. Mt Cokely was well worth the time, and I can hardly wait to do this hike again!
Picture the scene. You’re hunting the forests of the Pacific Northwest in search of record giants. On a hillside you can see the outline of a massive trunk in the distance. Is it a Western Red Cedar? Douglas fir? Whatever the answer is, you’re determined to find out! You struggle up the steep slope, and suddenly that tree disappears quickly, as though it had been an apparition. Why? Because now you’re going to have to scramble over some fallen timber and around a sharp cliff face before you can see it again. You press on, momentarily cursing the obstructions, and grab onto a nearby limb to pull yourself upward. Oddly, you observe, the tree you’re holding onto also has needles growing out of the trunk, and its bark is a beautifully understated hue of reddish brown, and then you look upward…and realize the tree in question is a very sizeable Pacific Yew!
That, so often, is typical of how one happens upon a yew in the forest. It grows inconspicuously, its base preferring the shaded understory beneath the towering trees above. Meanwhile, its upper branches reach higher into the forest canopy, gathering more sunlight for growth. Quite often you’ll see one from afar and assume it’s either dead, or deciduous, as frequently there is little foliage on the lower extremities of an older specimen. The overwhelming notion, though, is that you seem to stumble upon them, as though they are hidden in plain sight!
While they aren’t frequent topics of discussion among tree hunters, they are nevertheless highly significant forest dwellers. Their flaking bark is frequently home to mosses that give refuge to flora, and their trunks, which are usually hollow, are often home to Douglas Squirrels and other small rodents. At higher elevations, the tree grows closer to the ground and seems to have more limbs. Quite often, when you walk a mountain trail at elevations up to 800m, you’ll inadvertently grab a piece of one to assist you upward!
The giants of the species are not exceptionally large when compared to their forest companions. The largest one in British Columbia, for example, is just 0.91m in diameter at breast height, fairly modest in comparison to, say, that 14 foot wide cedar that may be growing nearby! It has a consistent habit of rotting from the inside out, making it difficult to determine its precise age, but I’ve managed to find several that are at least 300 years old. It also boasts wood that is exceptionally hard, which can dull a chainsaw chain after a single cut, or so I’ve been told.
I’ve grown fond of these underrated denizens of the rainforest over the years. The next time you walk through an ancient forest, take a closer look around. You might soon find yourself looking at a beautiful Pacific Yew, and once you do, you’ll be seeing the forest for ALL the trees!
Friday, the 12th of July, 2019. It was a warm afternoon as I pushed my bike onto the ferry at Departure Bay. My destination? Horseshoe Bay, where I’d catch a ride with Steve. The morning after, we’d be meeting up with Doug for a biking and hiking expedition to Capilano Mountain. It would be my first hiking trip back on the mainland since moving to Vancouver Island, and I was really looking forward to the trek!
This, for Doug and me, would be a return to a mountain that we had first climbed some 14 years ago, and I was wondering just how well we might recollect the details. If you’re up for a comparison of two fine adventures and a dash of historical perspective, grab a refreshment or two and read on!
For clarity, I’ll first cover our “ancient” history from the first excursion, before recounting our recent experience. Much of the route remains the same, but there have been some important changes since then, not to mention that time may have altered our impressions somewhat!
The heat of the summer sun had begun quite early on that summer morning in late August of 2005. As on many of our trips, just as we still do today, we relied on the directions in Matt Gunn’s Scrambles in Southwest British Columbia. It’s always an invaluable resource and I highly recommend you get yourself a copy!
After 14 years, you’d expect there to be some gaps in our memories, but for the life of me, looking at some of these photos it seems as though I must have done this trip with a possible concussion. Oh, wait, come to think of it, I may well have, but more on that later! The first strong memory I had was crossing a massive washout of Beth Creek before finishing the bike portion of the trip. It wasn’t long after this that we cached our rides at the trailhead, elevation 665m.
Much as you’d all know or could probably guess, by the name of this website, I’m a real aficionado of old growth trees. We must have been moving very swiftly that morning, because my impressions of this forest seemed inadequate, to say the least. Doug’s own notions were similarly understated. When we walked this trail so many years later, observations were to change, but here were the only images of those ancient trees I recorded at the time.
Beth Lake is a stunning place, and I vividly recalled being struck by its beauty. Then, as now, the shadows cast by the ramparts above make the lake challenging to photograph, especially as one tends to arrive in morning light. What we both remembered best were all of the berries we ate there! It turned out we thought the lake was at about 1000m in elevation, but actual statistics have it at 1085m.
There was never going to be any confusion about the trail’s next segment, a short and winding track that passes alongside some of the more massive slide boulders you will ever find. Fourteen years ago, the insects seemed to meet us here among the rocks, and as we stopped briefly for lunch, so did they!
All recognition of these images of the climb up to the boulder field above the lake that followed seemed blurred, at best. Normally my visual memory is exceptional, but in this case I was glad to have taken photos because they were all the history we had! I honestly could not even recall anything about how difficult it was, and neither could Doug. The views of the surrounding Coast Mountains were excellent, as you can see in the next few snapshots!
The boulder field just below the alpine basin was the next focus of our attention, according to the pictures. I’m not sure whether it was a product of age, mine, specifically, but years later this part of the hike sure seemed a whole lot steeper!
The path ends up leading you through several notches as you make your way in behind and past the Beth Lake Ramparts. For quite some time you continually gain and lose elevation on the way to the summit plateau, which gets frustrating if only because you know it’s going to repeat itself on the way back! Second time around, we had but faint recollections of that process, but the passage of time can paint the scene differently, can’t it?
In 2005, we also saw plenty of signs of bear activity, and that was just as true in 2019, though on neither trip were bears actually sighted. Once you get further along the ridge, a real alpine playground is your reward. There are scores of beautiful tarns set in fields of granite. Water sources seemed very clean, though on both trips we used filters just to be sure.
The way to the summit was reasonably well marked. Once you pass Gordan Lake, you can expect close to another hour of hiking to land you on the top of Capilano Mountain. Anyone who visits will no doubt remember this part of the walk, which exemplifies all the best qualities of the Coast Mountains!
In 2005, we spent about fifteen minutes on the summit before turning around. On the way back there were even some sections we even jogged, where possible. The weather held up magnificently, and there was no thought that it was going to rain at any time.
The journey back went very swiftly, with one serious hitch. On the ride down, my bike hit a rut and I ended up sailing over the bars, landing heavily on my ribcage. I was shaken up, bloodied and bruised, but my pride was probably more injured. Still, despite that, it took just twenty more minutes to return to the bottom of the road, once we got riding again. After 8 1/2 hours, we were back at the truck, daydreaming about cold beer! Later on, in the weeks that followed, I had typical concussion symptoms like headaches, dizziness, and sensitivity to light. Well, that, and several cracked ribs! Be careful out there, folks, and wear your helmets!
Well, before I get into describing this year’s trek, how about a little history?
The name Capilano will be forever enshrined in the history of British Columbia. Chief Joe Capilano, who was born in 1850, was a leader of the Squamish Nation from 1895 until 1910, when he unfortunately died from tuberculosis. Known as Sa7plek ( pronounced Sahp-luk) to his people, he fought very hard for the recognition of native rights here in Canada. Most notably, he traveled to the nation’s capital in Ottawa, and to London, England with several other native leaders to meet with King Edward VII. They wanted to express the urgency regarding the settling of native land claims, which even today is still an issue.
The delegation of leaders were also in protest of the government law which banned potlatches in 1885. A potlatch is a gift giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, among whom it is a focal point, historically, of their economic system and culture. The government basically banned it in order to force cultural assimilation, but also to further the colonial interests of churches, who considered it to be both Pagan and anti-Christian. Understandably, First Nations people saw the law as a great injustice and symbol of oppression, which it absolutely was. It was not until 1951 that the ban on potlatches was lifted.
Capilano, who was also known as Joe Mathias, was an avid outdoorsman and guide in his younger days. Along with Dr Henry Bell-Irving and an unnamed native companion, he spearheaded an 1889 expedition into the Britannia Range that climbed the West Lion, Harvey, Brunswick, Hanover, and a number of other peaks. These were first recorded ascents, but ironically, they did not climb Capilano Mountain, though it most likely would have been within their reach. Capilano Highlands, Capilano Road, Capilano River, and Capilano Lake, however, all bear his name on Vancouver’s North Shore.
What piqued my interest even more was that Joe Capilano also worked in the sawmill at Moodyville, a pioneer settlement in what is now the Lower Lonsdale area of the city of North Vancouver. I had lived in that part of North Vancouver for the last three decades. He even inspired prose, as well known poet Pauline Johnson’s “Legends of Vancouver” was adapted from his tales of adventure!
“Rattlesnake, rattlesnake! Rattlesnake, rattlesnake!…” The rhythmic sound of Steve’s stereo was playing a long and steady beat as we rolled along Highway 99. That lengthy tune, courtesy of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, was serving two purposes. The first was to get us locked into hiking mode, and the second? It was answering that eternal question “How many times can you say ‘rattlesnake’ in one song?” Whatever the answer to the latter was, we were pretty psyched up! I was definitely looking forward to the long climb of Capilano Mountain as we pulled up behind Doug’s Toyota at the bottom of the Furry Creek Road that morning.
The weather on the 13th of July, 2019, was quite uncertain. We expected a mix of sun and cloud, with a strong chance of showers, but decided to give it a go anyway. It was about 8 am that we started out riding up the logging road.
We weren’t as quick as expected on that ride. Doug seemed to be going strongly, but Steve had a bit of a sore back and I just seemed a bit tired. When we reached the correct spur for the turnoff we actually biked right past it, but luckily, we checked our bearings after a few minutes.
That was a good catch by Steve, and it no doubt saved us much unneeded exercise on the day! With said diversion out of the way, we now cycled up the somewhat overgrown spur that would eventually land us at the trailhead. We knew it was the right road when we soon reached the familiar bridge over Phyllis Creek.
Somewhere around 450m in elevation we encountered a substantial washout that seemed relatively recent, but at least there was no problem carting our bikes around it. That was more than we could say about the next one, which was bad enough that we decided to cache our bikes much earlier than we had hoped.
The hiking, as a result, began around 200m lower in elevation than in 2005, and a couple of kilometres in distance of walking were also added to the trip. We didn’t feel it then, but we certainly would later! It took at least another hour to finally arrive at the Beth Creek washout, which was near where we had left our bikes on the first trip.
On the ride up, naturally, we told Doug about the “Rattlesnake” song, so from that point on in the entire trip any obstruction, challenge, or random topic of conversation had us chanting “Rattlesnake! Rattlesnake” at opportune times. You might be surprised how funny a recurring joke can be over the course of an entire day. Between that, Seinfeld dialogue, and South Park imitations, we kept ourselves well amused!
For a taste of the best of Eric Cartman, click here.
We kept a steady pace on the trail, and worked our way up to the old growth forest which starts at roughly 800 metres elevation. That was where the fun began. Steve was on the lookout for Porcini mushrooms, which were expected to be in season considering recent rains. First there was one, then another, and another, and another, and… you get the idea! He finally reached the point where he’d be adding too much pack weight if he didn’t wait to pick them on the way back. As it was, even after trimming the mushrooms they weighed over five pounds. This, for Steve, was a constant source of joy all day long!
As much as Steve was stoked about all the mushrooms, I was equally enthralled by the ancient forest we found ourselves in. Yellow Cedar, Pacific Silver Fir, and Mountain Hemlock were the dominant species, and the chattering of Beth Creek nearby added to the ambience.
Morning at Beth Lake, soon after we emerged from the forest, was all too familiar. The one regret was that sadly we were too early in the season to gorge ourselves on berries as we had done many years ago! As before, we took a break near the lake boulders for lunch, and once again, the mosquitoes found us in seconds!
We worked our way through steep forest after leaving the lake area, which we knew would give passage to the boulder field. There were even more mushroom finds, and more than a few venerable trees in this subalpine forest to keep us amused. Much to our chagrin though, the boulder field was not as close at hand as we had speculated!
Just as we were approaching the draw that contains the boulder field, we stopped to filter some water. The clouds above were starting to look a bit suspicious, but we were somehow convinced it wasn’t going to rain. Still, as we shifted into low gear heading for the ridge above, the views behind us were definitely becoming more obscured.
Though it seemed like a long time grinding up to the ridge, we finally arrived. Now came the circuitous ramble that would take us behind the ramparts into the alpine basin beyond. On the way, we ran into a mother grouse, and for a time the clouds even hinted at blue skies!
As mentioned before, Capilano’s broad alpine basin, though it takes a solid effort to reach, is what really makes this trip worthwhile. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, the rains arrived there just as we did, dampening our spirits a little. At the time, I remember saying if we wanted the sun to come out, we just needed to put on our rain gear. Just a few minutes later, we were peeling off our jackets as the sun broke through the clouds. I’ve no doubt in my mind it would have deteriorated into a torrential downpour had we left them at home!
We pushed onward, with the aid of countless jokes, toward the summit. There was a bit of route finding involved, but the views were now becoming very worthwhile. Our first order of business was to once again lose some hard earned elevation gain as we made for the summit ridge. So close, and yet so far away.
Doug’s memory returned as we began the climb up a steep slope filled with heather, and he reminded me of how we’d wrestled with that problem on the first trek. This time, after a fresh rain, plenty of care was needed just to stay upright! Steadily though, the summit got closer and closer!
And then we were there! It was just as I recalled it, a broad and rambling granite plateau, with expansive views everywhere! We took some time to enjoy our lofty perch, but not too long, as I had to be down in time to catch the ferry homeward. In the end, with a more relaxed pace and so much exploration, this trip ended up taking us over four hours longer than it did in 2005! Here are some of the sights and scenery we took in at the summit!
With some regret, we began the trek down to the tarns, happy in the knowledge that we were halfway home! On the descent, we had some unfinished business to take care of in the form of retrieving Doug’s bear spray and gathering more of Steve’s mushrooms. The emerging sunlight meant we’d be staying dry, at least!
It was at about this point that I began to get a bit of a leg cramp, but lately Steve always packs electrolyte tablets to add when he filters water. They are an item I keep forgetting to add to my own kit, as they’ve proven useful many times. Luckily the tablets breathed life into me at just the right time, but they didn’t help the sore back I was also dealing with. Getting older isn’t always fun! We hiked onward, behind the ramparts, up and down, up and down, up and down… until we finally reached the boulder field again.
We busied ourselves with hustling toward the bikes as best we could, but it soon became apparent I wasn’t going to make the 820 pm ferry at Horseshoe Bay, so I’d be catching the 1040 pm sailing. Steve’s cache of mushrooms also steadily grew on the hike down! When we finally reached the bike cache, I walked right by it, not noticing my GPS had recalibrated somewhat. The ride down went well, albeit cautiously for me as I was unable to adjust the seat post on my bike. Once we reached the trucks, everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief!
We chilled for a while before moving on, as the sun began to sink slowly out of sight. An hour or so later, I was laid out on top of my pack on the deck of the ferry, utterly spent and gazing at the full moon. It would be after midnight before I was on my way home from Departure Bay, and two more hours until I finally slept. It had been a long and rewarding day!
Biking onto the ferry, staying at Steve’s. Delores and Bosco
Repeat it all, speed walker, finding the mushrooms, finding the bikes, ride down, ferry ride home by 1 pm
Notes, electrolyte water tablets, Steve’s filter
Bagger challenge spooning, Tweedsmuir, Burwell, wtf is with our memories? Only remembered a bit re the forest, the climb up to base of boulder field, and the swim tarn area, also a bit about the climb up to the summit last pitch
How the hell did we manage to do this in just over 8 hours even after I endoed and broke my ribs? That was 2005, this is now. Arguably I think Doug could have managed it this time in 1 1/2 hours less, but the rest of us were on the limit.
They nicknamed it Eden Grove, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, which, in theological lore, was intended to be the paradise where mankind had its hopeful beginnings. Some years ago, Ken Wu and TJ Watt of the Ancient Forest Alliance (AFA) happened upon this spectacular grove of trees in the heart of Vancouver Island’s Gordon River Valley, not far from Port Renfrew. As the raven flies, it is located on Edinburgh Mountain, just minutes from the iconic Big Lonely Doug, the now legendary Douglas Fir which has only recently been designated for protection by the Government of British Columbia. Eden Grove (not an official name) falls within the traditional lands of the Pacheedaht First Nation. It is about thirty hectares of prime valley bottom ancient forest. Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar are the showcase species, including one cedar that’s well over twelve feet in diameter! Many of the specimens there are likely 500 to 1000 years in age, but forests as rich in biodiversity as Eden Grove can take up to twice that long to fully evolve.
Recently, I had the opportunity to tour this grove with local adventure guide and tree enthusiast Duncan Morrison. A resident of Sooke, just east of Port Renfrew, he’s quite knowledgeable about the area and keenly interested in saving its ancient forests. We met in Lake Cowichan and drove out to the coast from there, with the clearcuts visible from the now paved Harris Creek Main a sombre reminder of past forest management decisions. I had been looking forward to visiting these trees since earlier this year, when I visited Avatar Grove and Big Lonely Doug in March. We arrived in late morning on a warm summer day in August, and it was something of a relief when we dropped into the cool shade of Eden Grove.
The rough route through the grove was actually well trodden in places, a surprise to me, as I had thought it a relative secret. We met a number of like minded people enjoying their opportunity to travel back in time, as it were, while sunshine filtered through the canopy above.
It took just a minute or two to reach one of Eden Grove’s largest cedars, which measures a healthy 39 feet around! I could hear the calls of many birds there, though we saw very few. The mosquitoes and flies, though, were another story, as they found us right away!
It is not just the trees here that are at stake. Among other species, these lands are also known to provide homes for cougars, black bears, Roosevelt elk, marbled murrelets, Queen Charlotte goshawks, and Northern red legged frogs. Watch this video that the Ancient Forest Alliance put together, it really emphasizes just how crucial habitat like this is to wildlife. You can also read about a most interesting tree climb that took place in Eden Grove back in 2016, when the AFA teamed up with expert tree climbers Matthew Beatty of the Arboreal Collective and Damien Carré of Expedition Old Growth to ascend a giant Douglas Fir in the endangered forest.
Fifteen minutes into our hike brought us to the marking for the planned logging road into the grove. It looked as though it would lead into Eden Grove from the general direction of the clearcut that’s home to Big Lonely Doug. Much as I’d like to say it was hard to imagine a road there, it was not, as I’ve seen it happen many times in other places.
There are times when I photograph a forest that I have to make a concerted effort to show its beauty, and then there are the times when it comes easily. On this excursion, it definitely was the latter, as Eden Grove delivered in every way. Walk with me, I’ll let the images speak for themselves, with a few captions…
We meandered on, toward one of the more interesting sights in the forest. There are two ancient cedars that stand together, in more ways than one! For now at least, the larger of the two steadfastly supports the other, which leans to the right at a considerable angle. Duncan took to calling them The Arch.
The understory is diverse and alive with greenery. There are more than a few fallen giants now providing their nutrients to the forest as they decay, completing their own circles of life. These downed trees also provide shelter for small animals, amphibians, and insects.
Eventually you swing gradually to the right and follow the top of an embankment, which is where the cut block boundary has been marked. The hillside beneath is packed with ferns, but above them all, there are a few more unexpected delights.
A most peculiar cedar with a radically twisted trunk is sure to get your attention. I have taken to calling it “The Corkscrew Cedar”.
The magic continued, more than enough to keep two enthusiastic tree hunters more than busy. Duncan knew the route was soon to end, so we took a break for a few minutes for a bite to eat and discussed what to do next. He was hoping to go for a quick swim in a nearby creek, while I was preoccupied with bushwhacking to a cedar we had spotted across a steep ravine!
During our brief stop, we were looking straight at what I am calling the Boundary Cedar, which sits right along that line of falling boundary tape. I suspect it to be in the nine foot diameter range but we did not measure it.
As anyone who has read the Old Testament might know, not everything went well in the Garden of Eden, and B.C.’s forests, metaphorically, have also been forever changed by those tempted by avarice. Recently there has been heated discussion about preserving the remaining old growth forests in the province of British Columbia, but the oldest of habits die hard. Logging company Teal Jones, which holds the timber license for Eden Grove, has even made a recent announcement that they are closing all of their mills that process second growth timber on Vancouver Island. Their intent, in the future, is to exclusively log profitable stands of ancient forest, and that has the clock ticking loudly toward the destruction of Eden Grove. Indeed, they have already begun logging in several other sections of the valley, and it may not be long before the grove becomes yet another clearcut!
Roughly ten yards from our lunch spot, we located the largest tree in the grove, which I’ll call the Eden Giant. It’s quite a sight, at nearly 40 feet in circumference and close to 13 feet at its widest diameter! It would not surprise me if it were well over 800 years old!
Having seen much of what the forest had to offer, we finally decided to hike back to the logging road. I also took a few, errrr, maybe a lot more more pictures! The end of the route is well enough marked, so that you know where to turn around.
On the way into the grove, as I mentioned earlier, we had sighted a cedar that was on the opposite side of a dry creek bed that I just had to see! Getting to it involved clambering over some fairly precarious ground. Duncan, having recently had knee surgery, wisely chose to wait for me as I made my way to it. At first I thought that it was dead, but closer inspection revealed that it is still clinging to life, with just one strong limb still growing.
I was glad to have made the detour across the ravine, but just as stoked to be back on the easier ground again! It was around this time we ran into a couple of hikers and chatted about these trees. It’s always encouraging to meet like minded people!
When we got back to the road, Duncan headed off to enjoy that refreshing swim he’d been thinking about, while I got sidetracked photographing the unnamed creek nearby. Maybe it should be called Eden Creek! There’s even a small waterfall nearby but I took no picture of it as a number of people were swimming there. Seems like Duncan wasn’t the only one thinking about cooling off that day!
The British Columbia New Democratic Party (BCNDP) campaigned on a promise to review and increase the protection of our fast shrinking ecological treasures, but in reality, their policy has been “business as usual”. All they have done to date is to designate a mere 54 significant trees for preservation, many of which were never expected to be logged. Unfortunately, while Forest Minister Doug Donaldson and Premier John Horgan refuse to implement a moratorium on old growth logging, the timber companies are, if anything, stepping up their activities. It is as though they have decided, that now is the time to escalate their efforts, rather than decrease them. Coastal temperate rainforests have been under attack for over a century now, and the crisis has risen well past the point of no return. Additionally, government policies and some of their definitions have only served to confuse the facts and end up distorting the truth. They have included countless stands of relatively unproductive timber in their inventory of remaining old growth forests in British Columbia, perhaps in order to inflate that number.
The reality is that valley bottom stands of ancient forest are disappearing as fast as they can be cut, at a rate of roughly 34 football fields per day in British Columbia alone! On Vancouver Island, almost 94% of the valley bottom ancient forest has already been cut. We hear the government say that they know, as do the timber companies, that logging these forests is the best way to manage the resource. But is this true? Let’s consider the numbers. Cutting down an old growth forest certainly does bring revenue and jobs, but it also removes a highly desired income source from the eco tourism industry. Much of the planet is becoming very conscious of nature. People want to see the ancient forests, the wild, storm blasted coastal beaches, and the roaring waterfalls! Port Renfrew, once exclusively a logging town, has already seen that writing on the wall. Its business sector has realized the value of the natural world, which they well know can only bring added value to their community. They are even billing the town as ” Tall Tree Capital of Canada”. Studies have shown that the sustainable value from ecotourism far exceeds that of a one time clearcut even if subsequent second growth harvest is factored in. That does not even take into account that many timber companies cut and ship raw logs to foreign countries for cash. When that happens, jobs are actually lost, not created, and in B.C. that questionable practice has gone on for decades!
So what is the ideal solution? Harley Rustad, the author of Big Lonely Doug, has previously suggested that Big Lonely Doug and Eden Grove be designated as a provincial park (story here). What an excellent idea! Honestly, I’d like to see ALL of Edinburgh Mountain’s remaining old growth be saved from the chainsaws, but we do need to start somewhere!
There are precedents for similar commitments in our province already, such as Ancient Forest/Chun T’oh Whudujut Park and Protected Area, which opened in 2016 as our newest provincial park. I made a recent visit there myself and I was thoroughly impressed! It’s important to note, however, that 25% of its forest was logged before it attained protected status, so now, as then, time is of the essence.
Canada ought to become a world leader in conservation, and saving our ancient forests would be an excellent step on that road to future success. Logging companies persist in spreading the notion that forests are a renewable resource, and that in a few decades the trees will grow again. Yes, it’s true, they will grow, and the forest will regenerate to some extent, but places such as Eden Grove will actually take many centuries to resemble what they are today! Considering climate change, that process, in fact, could take even longer, or it may no longer be possible. We have plenty of second growth and less productive older forests that could be cut instead, so it’s about time the logging industry changed its business model. Eden Grove should remain as it was intended to be, a paradise that only nature could have created.
Human intervention has already changed Edinburgh Mountain forever, but there is still time to save what remains of this unique place. I ask that once you have read this story, please share it widely to garner public attention. Feel free to send it to your local Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in British Columbia, and/or your Member of Parliament (MP) in Canada. Most importantly, share your concerns, along with the story, with Doug Donaldson, who is the B.C. Minister of Forests, and John Horgan, the premier of B.C. (both pictured below).
You can also share this story with friends, conservation organizations, media outlets, newspapers, and any other sources that may help to spread the word worldwide. If you do share the story, please do so respectfully, as a constructive discussion needs to take place in order to further this cause.
I’ll leave you with a video that Duncan sent to me that was made in Eden Grove by some friends of his, I hope you enjoy the musical interlude!
*While the Ancient Forest Alliance and other organizations have campaigned for the protection of Eden Grove, neither the BCNDP nor Teal Jones have yet responded positively. Edinburgh Mountain’s ancient forests truly need to be preserved for our future generations! Consider supporting the AFA’s tireless work to save old growth forests in British Columbia in this campaign, and in others, by clicking here
*Though he still remains in an advisory capacity, Ken Wu has since left the AFA in September of 2018 and now heads up the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance
Doug’s Ford Explorer rolled slowly to a stop. It was an ideal summer morning back in 2009, and there was plenty of excitement in the air. We were finally going to climb Castle Towers Mountain! The plan was simple: We would hike along the ridge lines below Helm Peak after leaving the trail, then work our way to Gentian Pass. From there, we would push on to set up camp on Polemonium Ridge and find our way to the summit the following day. You may have heard that this part of British Columbia is overcrowded and a bit too popular for your liking. While sometimes that is undeniably true, likely even more so today, I think this story might just change your mind a little. If you’ve ever had any doubt that spending a couple of days hiking in Garibaldi Provincial Park is a good idea, then be prepared to dismiss those worries!
With full packs, the grunt up the Helm Creek Trail took plenty of effort, but we were still elated to be there. Doug had put a lot of planning into this trek, and now it was time to put our boots to the trail. It seemed a relatively short couple of hours for us to make it up to the Helm Creek campsite, and some overnight campers were still lingering there as we arrived at Helm Meadows. The momentary envy we felt for the coffee they had was all but extinguished when I told Doug I’d packed some beer along for the walk!
If by now you’re wondering about the catchy title to this story, well, here’s an explanation of sorts. So, exactly what is a hoser? See the actual definition below, but the word has come to mean any typical Canadian in many circles, and it’s also a nickname that got attached to the two of us by friends years ago. The flowers and Castle Towers? I’ll let the photos answer that question!
To elaborate, I offer the following:
Hoser: (n) Canadian hockey derogatory term that is similar to the American “idiot” or “loser”. It is derived from the pre-Zamboni days in hockey, where the losing team would be stuck with hosing down the ice after the game. It was popularized again by the characters Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis played on the SCTV comedy show of the late 1970s and 1980s.
The next phase of the operation was to circumvent the Helm Glacier so that we could arrive at the col above Gentian Pass. To do that, we climbed steeply toward Helm Peak and simply meandered along the ridge some 250 metres below its summit. The clouds and sunshine put on a real show for us as we walked, and although the weather looked unsettled it ended up clearing just as we had hoped. The views, at least, were a welcome distraction, as the slope we had chosen to hike up was steep and lined with heather.
Spectacular views of Gentian Peak, Black Tusk, and many of the peaks of the Garibaldi Ranges made their appearance one by one. Though we were beginning to feel the heat of the day and the weight of our carry, it hardly seemed to matter. Gazing at all of the lakes, with their varied shades of blue and green, I could not have imagined a better place to be on a summer day.
Once we reached the col, we virtually stopped in our tracks. There it was, Castle Towers! The very first time I had hiked to Garibaldi Lake I had been drawn to this high, glaciated, triple summited tower, and now we were getting a closer look. After a brief diversion examining a weather station there, we continued on.
It is here on this climb that you get an idea of the punishment you’ll endure on the return, because at that point you drop at least 250 metres in elevation to reach Gentian Pass. As per mountain terminology it isn’t strictly a pass so much as it is the Gentian – Polemonium Col, I suppose, but the name seems to have stuck. It took us another three quarters of an hour to reach the short expanse of meadow below, with its fine views of Castle Towers and the nearby Spearhead Range. By then we were in no mood for the up and coming hike up to Polemonium that was to follow, so we decided it was dinner time.
Doug broke out the stove and cooked up tasty dinner of rice and chicken with Indian spices, which was so good at the time I can still recall it a decade later! Meanwhile, I iced down some beers in a creek nearby and broke out some Snickers bars for dessert. After we ate and drank, we took ourselves a short nap, which really helped Doug as he hadn’t been feeling that well the week before the trip. Still, it was only with great reluctance that we shouldered our packs again and made for the ridge above. It seemed like every step took a minute, but eventually we reached our destination.
Polemonium Ridge was a revelation! It was a broad plain of multiple levels, and featured endless vistas of the surrounding peaks. Though I don’t remember saying much at the time, I do recall being very thankful to be there! For lodging, we had brought two lightweight bivouac shelters that were braced with our hiking poles, and of course sleeping bags. We placed camp in a carefully located position, in case the winds kicked up, then set to exploring the ridge for a spell. Garibaldi Lake loomed below us, no doubt buzzing with campers, but from our perch we heard only faint summer breezes and the calls of nearby marmots. This was a real mountaineer’s camp, complete with some aging remnants left on a previous expedition or two. I even found an old pair of aviator sunglasses that date back to the 1970s which I still have today!
The sunset was a grand show, as the alpenglow danced across the nearby peaks and a fiery orange glow hung over the Tantalus Range and the Squamish Cheakamus Divide. We spent the time letting all of that sink in and talking about trips past and future, and the fact we were then out of beer! Shortly after the sundown, we turned in, wanting to take advantage of the cooler morning conditions as we knew we’d be climbing in the shadows. Sleep came easily, it had been a long day!
I awoke early, as I always do in the mountains, having never been one to lie in a few extra hours when there’s a sunrise to see. I found myself thinking about my father, who had passed away the previous November. He had a lot to do with teaching me about the joys of early rising, being of the belief that it was particularly sublime to be awake while most of your corner of the world was ensconced in slumber. I will always think of him in the wee hours of the morning.
Breakfast came next, then we cached some of our gear which we’d pick up on the descent. No sense carrying too much weight, right? Cool morning air accompanied us as we climbed further up the ridge and searched for the gully that would give us passage to the west flank of Castle Towers. It turned out that it wasn’t too difficult to locate, the crux being all of the loose rock that we had to contend with. We were well distracted by the views of the hulking mass of the Garibaldi massif and it’s volcanically created lake in the valley below.
Pretty soon our objective stood before us, and next we scaled yet another pile of randomly placed rock to bring us to the foot of a snowfield. According to our information, the snow here was supposedly in decent shape for kicking steps, so we’d opted not to bring crampons and ice axes with us. Big mistake! Doug, with his sturdier footwear, was able to lead successfully up the steep pitch to make it just barely possible for us to cross the snow. I followed behind, trying to very carefully place my steps. Since there was some exposure, this took us some time, but in time we made it up intact. Lesson learned? A serious mountaineer brings ALL the necessary gear, and that way if you need it you have it with you!
All that was left to do was to finish the climb to the west summit, where we could examine the rest of the route. That consisted of a fairly large boulder field, which never gave the feeling of walking on secure and solid ground. Nearly every rock moved regardless of its size, and that made for one very nervous ascent, but we just kept on moving until we arrived at the top.
The west summit of Castle Towers is a spectacular vantage point. Not only could we see Garibaldi across the valley, but many of the more rarely ascended peaks in the park, such as The Sphinx, Isosceles, The Bookworms, Phyllis Engine, and many more. We could even see the Tantalus Range and could make the distant peaks of the Squamish Elaho Divide. Mt Price and Garibaldi Lake stood out in especially sharp relief, and seemed close enough to reach out and touch, as did the Castle Towers Glacier!
This was a day on which I was going strongly, but I could soon see that Doug was now grinding out every step. It turned out that he was dealing with a case of vertigo which was disturbing his sense of balance, despite his determination. When we finally reached the cairn of the west summit, it was time to reevaluate our situation. Doug decided it would be best if he rested for a while, while I finished the task and made my way to the central and true summit. While that looked relatively straightforward, my concern for his well being prevented me from doing that. Had I met with an accident, I could not have been sure he was going to be alright on his own, and since we were in a very isolated location, I opted to stand down. While I felt was the right decision, it wasn’t necessarily an easy one, but whatever disappointment we felt soon faded away as we focused on the incredible views!
We savoured the moment as best we could, as soon we’d be on the clock again, and heading homeward. We’d need to pick up the rest of our gear that we’d left at camp on Polemonium Ridge as well, and were expecting a long walk back to the parking lot! For a minute or two, we could hear nothing but the wind whistling through the vents in our helmets. I love that sound!
Feeling somewhat fresher than before, we now backtracked down the boulder field, with all the more caution. It may have been even more unnerving on the descent, as even car sized boulders shifted underfoot. I remember laughing uneasily, referring to it all as “geologically recent”, mostly because it was!
When we reached the hardened snowfield for the second time, I had even come up with the idea of using a sharp rock to improve the steps, but the sun had shifted, serving to slightly soften the snows. It turned out nature had helped us out somewhat, and we were soon back on the endless rubble that would lead us back to the now familiar gully, then up to Polemonium Ridge beyond. It wasn’t quite as easy to climb as when we’d descended it, mostly because we kept finding rocks to dislodge, but thankfully it was a short, sharp, section of suffrage.
Our loads would get a little heavier, and as we retrieved our gear and stopped for another snack on the ridge, Garibaldi Lake shimmered below in the distance. It was at that moment we joked about calling for a helicopter ride home, but part of earning your keep in the mountains means you’ve got to do that walk back to the truck!
As we left Polemonium Ridge behind, we turned to stare once again at Castle Towers. Would we try again for the summit? I knew I definitely wanted to. We still have not. It was one of the most ruggedly beautiful places I’ve seen in the Coast Mountains, not far as flies the crow from civilization, but it may as well have been a thousand miles from the closest human. It’s that very feeling of isolation that fuels my love of the mountains, and most of these words are but faint praise when comparing them to being there in the moment.
Next, however, came the drop into Gentian Pass, steep as it was, followed by the climb back up to those ridges above the Helm Glacier. We were trudging along so slowly at one point that I’m sure I recall some of the resident marmots mocking us! Despite their imaginary taunts, we soon found ourselves overlooking the Helm Glacier and its sprawling valley below. Turning one last time to Castle Towers, with a quick nod of respect, we were off yet again. It would be over an hour before we reached the well groomed trail at the Helm Creek campsite, and several more before we made it to the parking lot. It was Doug who rebounded strongly toward the finish line, as I began to fade, as much mentally exhausted as anything.
The hike back was something of a blur, so I’m glad I took plenty of photographs. All I really recall was that it was dark when we finally finished the trek! Here are some more looks, in no particular order, at this wonderfully scenic place.
Author’s Note: I must have been tired and delirious because I forgot that just before we reached the parking lot we stopped to retrieve some very cold Heinekens Doug had stashed from a nearby creek. Doug actually checked the GPS track he had and found a waypoint called Beer Creek. It makes me happy to know we weren’t deprived of refreshments after all that walking!
As popular as Garibaldi Park has become over the years, there is still land in the park that is as isolated as it is difficult to reach. Castle Towers Mountain is, in spirit at least, the gateway to this wilderness, so don’t pass up the opportunity to experience it. The harder you work, the greater the rewards!
When discussion turns to the great remaining stands of ancient Western Red Cedar, most people are referring to the trees found on the western coasts of British Columbia and Washington. Even among those interested in hunting down those fast disappearing giants, precious little attention is paid to the few surviving rainforests of British Columbia’s interior. If you have never been to one of these rare and beautiful sanctuaries, then this story might just pique your interest!
High in the upper Fraser River Valley, about 110 kms southeast of Prince George and 93 kms northwest of McBride is a surprising grove of trees just off Highway 16, near the outpost of Dome Creek. Ancient Forest/Chun T’oh Whudujut Park and Protected Area ,close to Sugarbowl Grizzly Den Provincial Park and Protected Area, is also host to a most unusual climate. Here, all of the right conditions have combined to create something truly magical. You see, this cedar and hemlock forest has somehow managed to exist without any natural disturbance, including a complete lack of fires, for at least a thousand years. It has the added distinction of being further from an ocean than any of this planet’s other inland temperate rainforests.
The quest for the conservation of these trees was a determined one. It was a University of Northern British Columbia graduate student named Dave Radies who first brought wider attention to this incredible place. The forest had already been been marked and surveyed for logging at that time. This story, thankfully, was to have a different ending! After consistent lobbying and a barrage of media publicity, the provincial government agreed not only to preserve the trees, but to designate the land as a provincial park! Thanks to the efforts of the Caledonia Ramblers, an extremely dedicated local hiking club, trails were built, and later interpretive signs were posted so that future generations could appreciate these cedars for years to come. Substantial parking space was also created to accommodate the expected increase in visitors. Cooperation between local First Nations and British Columbia finally led to the official opening of Ancient Forest/ Chun T’oh Whudjut Provincial Park and Protected Area in 2016.
There are a variety of hiking choices in the park. You can choose a boardwalk section that is wheelchair accessible that can be seen in half an hour, the forty five minute Big Tree Loop, a sixty minute trek to Tree Beard Falls, the ninety minute Ancient Forest Loop, and even a 15 km hike along the more rugged Driscoll Ridge Trail, whose western trailhead is five kilometres west of the park on Highway 16. Not having an entire day to work with, I experienced a good combination of all but the last option! I took a great deal of photographs, and have arranged them, for once, in no particular order. Should you ever visit this park, I think you’d enjoy the opportunity to discover it yourself, as I did!
I can only ponder what it must have been like for First Nations people to discover this woodland paradise. Everything about it seems as venerable as it is verdant. The understory is alive with mosses, lichens, ferns, and many other plants. Rising above the forest floor are tall groves of spiny Devil’s Club, always a challenge to the forest explorer, and a look skyward reveals not only the spiked tops of the ancient cedars, but also their ever present coastal companions, the Western Hemlocks. This forest, being inland, is subject to winters that are colder and lengthier than seen on the coast, thus growing seasons are shorter and trees take longer to reach larger girth. Other than the man made structures that have been constructed to preserve the fertile and fragile ground, not much has changed here in the last twenty centuries or so!
Wildlife in the area is considerably varied. At lower elevation, black bear and deer are commonly sighted, as are moose. Above the forest, high on the Driscoll Ridge Trail, you’ll find Engelmann Spruce and Subalpine Fir growing, where grizzly bears, mountain caribou, and even wolverines can sometimes be sighted.
When I hear logging companies talking about trees like these, they speak in terms that confound me, focusing only on harvesting them for cash value before they reach the end of their lives. What they fail to understand is that aging trees, and those that fall to the ground, are the life blood of the ecosystem, allowing for maximum biodiversity and wildlife habitat. That is why what little remains of apex old growth forest needs to be preserved, not cut down! Surely there is room in our resource based society to at least protect the finest of old growth stands that still remain. If not, they will exist only as posts and beams in some grand architectural design, or worse, be shipped off as raw logs to some foreign land to be processed.
Every once in a while, a superb place like this gets discovered and then preserved in its intact state. While most would agree that it doesn’t happen often enough, at least when it does, I believe it sets an inspirational example of what we should be striving for as a society. We need to preserve nature in its intended state and save its very best for all, instead of destroying it for our own purposes. That’s a vision that I know that I can embrace.
“Whose idea was this anyway?” The question was Ted’s, as we traipsed up the old road to Singing Pass. The answer from Denis came quickly: “I believe this was your idea. You getting old or something?” I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but I know it included some pretty good back and forth! That was unsurprising, considering the two have been hiking and climbing together for decades and were into their sixties at that time. As funny as I found the banter, I just wasn’t awake enough to laugh, though I wryly kept asking “Are we there yet?”
It may have been a lengthy approach, but I was still more than curious about the destination. Fissile Peak, part of the Overlord Group, boasted volcanic rock and fine views of the Overlord Glacier. It was also quite close to Russet Lake. Surprisingly, this part of Garibaldi Provincial Park is relatively quiet once the snows recede and the skiers pack it in for the season. You’re unlikely to meet too many other hikers on most days. The previous year, Ted had climbed Whirlwind Peak and Overlord Mountain, so he was keen to complete the trifecta by ascending Fissile.
Soon enough, but not soon enough, we were passing the old mine adit at trailside and Cowboy Ridge was now within our sights. Just like that, we were out of the trees and following easy switchbacks to the broad plain above. Some of Garibaldi’s grander summits were already front and center, and the icefield of the Cheakamus Glacier shone brightly in the morning light.
What was the highlight of the trip for me, though, was that up until that day I’d never had the chance to see a marmot in the mountains up close. Sure, I’d seen them at parks and campgrounds in British Columbia’s interior, but never on an alpine excursion. This trek was different! An entire family of marmots, in no hurry to scurry away from us, were out to welcome us to the area. We happily hung out with them for a while before heading up toward Russet Lake.
Well, that was unexpected, I remember thinking. So you ask, could this day have gotten any better? Well, yes, and no, as I’ll soon describe. We continued our stroll toward Russet Lake, opting not to check out the Himmelsbach Hut, which I recently learned has now been rebuilt since then.
Back on the trail after that moment of respite, pretty soon our quarry was within sight. Fissile Peak is a dramatic sight as you approach it, standing out beautifully against the dry alpine plateau. As I alluded to earlier, Ted had been this way a few years earlier when he’d climbed Whirlwind and Overlord Peaks, and he knew well these mountains had a reputation for loose rock. The routes up the mountain, as written in Matt Gunn’s guidebook, described two options. We chose the first, something of a free for all scuffle up an intimidating pile of scree, which, coincidentally, describes this mountain to a tee. Pretty much anything you lay your hands on or step on is a potential souvenir!
Remember New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, known for his peculiar sayings that stretched the boundaries of the English Language? One of his gems was “No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.” Well, he certainly wasn’t talking about Fissile Peak, which is way down on Garibaldi Provincial Park’s to do list. It isn’t a place recommended for the novice hiker, to put it mildly, but as long as you are careful and persistent you should be able to make a go of it.
Once we attained the well earned ridge above, views really began opening up far and wide. The Whistler area is a great place to wander as long as you can sort out the parking and access issues. I can certainly say with conviction that I’ve never spent a bad day in Garibaldi!
Next it was simply a matter of scrambling up to the summit for a very well deserved break. We had a great laughs reading all of the quotes in the summit register. Such beauties as “I can’t believe I lived!”, “I’m not dead!” “How do we get down from here?!”, and “OMG, I’m still alive!”
Ted jokingly commented “I’d never have left that last comment. Not so fast, buddy, you’re not down yet!”
Denis and I could only concur, with the climb still fresh in mind! The views, on the other hand, were splendid, and we took more than our standard ten minutes on the summit to admire them and eat lunch.
More incredible scenery unfolded as we worked down the ridge line. “Route Two” in Matt Gunn’s Scrambles in Southwest British Columbia was our choice on the descent. There was no way we were coming down what we’d encountered on the way up! There is a bit of stiff third class scrambling to drop down off the end of the summit ridge, and then some moderate scree sliding as you reattain the valley. All in all that worked out very well. Soon we could say we’d made it down this mountain, followed by a quite a few of its rocks!
It was with great satisfaction that we staggered back down toward the trail, meeting some ptarmigans along the way and enjoying the 360 degree views. What a place! Those ptarmigans were very well camouflaged, because we nearly stepped on them! This trip certainly had been great for wildlife sightings!
A successful climb was in the books, in more ways than one, but this trek was far from over. You see, a total of 34 kms had to be walked before the journey would be complete, and we were barely halfway there. Mercifully, the temperatures remained comfortable as we started our long hike back to the truck. Since leaving was gradual, there were of course more scenes to be admired as we bantered endlessly about beer and potato chips, or rather, our current lack of same!
The better part of four more hours had us arriving back at Denis’ truck down in Whistler, where we were three very happy guys! For those interested, the Coles Notes on this trip: Elevation gain was approximately 6300 feet, that courtesy of Denis who measures vertical gain the old school way! 34 kms hiked, or about 21.25 miles. One could make the case for climbing this mountain on spring snow, if it managed to spare you the struggle up the scree. You could also choose to camp at Himmelsbach Hut if you had the time, but that wasn’t going to happen with these guys. To quote Denis “Why would I want to sleep in some drafty alpine hut when I have a perfectly good bed at home?”. Lastly, I’m not recommending this mountain to all my friends, and that’s basically because I’d like them to remain my friends!
To begin with, beer may have been enjoyed at the parking lot, and on the way home we decided to stop at Wendy’s in Squamish and load up on cheeseburgers and fries. It was one of the best decisions we made all day! What a sight we must have been walking up to the counter with the uneven gait of three old western gunfighters. It was a helluva way to end the adventure! It didn’t look at all like this, but who doesn’t love “The Good, the Bad, And the Ugly”? This trip, as it turned out, was all of those things, and more!
Anyone who knows me well enough is quite aware that I’m an obsessed Tour de France fan, so much so that I’d somehow shamelessly work “Le Tour” into the title of a story. There’s something about the true sacrifice, courage, and suffrage of the world’s premier bicycle race, which was first held in 1903, that has always fascinated me. I’ve been a devoted fan of Le Tour for decades. This story, full disclosure, bears no real resemblance to that gruelling 21 stage bike race, seeing as how it’s really about a one day tour of the Black Tusk region in Garibaldi Provincial Park. That said, I hope you’re enjoying the race so far this year and that you enjoy this tale. Hey, in the end, I’ll settle for the latter!
It had been some time that we’d been kicking around the idea of hiking up the Rubble Creek Trail en route to camping on the shoulder of the Black Tusk one evening, and then doing some looking around on the following day. So it was on a perfect August afternoon that Doug and I were grinding uphill, overnight packs in tow, starting out on the dusty switchbacks at the relatively late hour of 6 pm. It was a balmy 22 degrees, cooled by a bit of a breeze, and surprisingly, there were very few hikers encountered on the trail. The intent wasn’t actually to climb to the summit of Black Tusk- I had done that before, and on this trek we had chosen not to bring our helmets- but to thoroughly explore this ancient volcano’s features.
The hike in to our campsite up went exceedingly well! We covered the 1400 metres of elevation gain and 15 kilometres of distance in just about three and a half hours. We then set up our lightweight shelters right at the end of the maintained trail, as per the park signs. The Perseid meteor showers were in their beginnings, and it was amazing to be in a place so very quiet that was so close to civilization. Garibaldi Lake loomed silently below, and a panorama from Helm Peak all the way around to the Tantalus Range stretched out before us. One could easily see how this place had become sacred to the Squamish people, as there’s really no place that is quite the same!
Well, sometimes it’s true that all good things must come to an end, because the next thing we knew, an insidious breeze began drifting down from the col above. It started out innocuously enough, but after a while we felt as though we’d been tossed straight into a walk in freezer. We had not brought an excess of warm clothing ( especially myself), and this was to be a major issue as the night wore on. It would have helped to pack an extra layer or three! Pretty soon we reconfigured the shelter into a double bivy to try to cut down on the draft, which helped a little bit, but I spent one of the most restless outdoor nights of my lifetime. To give you an idea of how cold I was, I wasn’t even annoyed that I’d forgotten to pack the beer I’d brought with me, so I’m sure that must have meant we were close to the limits of hypothermic tolerance! The hours ebbed away at a snail’s pace, the way they always do when your teeth are chattering. We knew that it was to be sunny and 25 degrees the next day, but of course the night hung on endlessly.
Never was I so glad to see the glow of sunrise nudging the ridge beside Helm Peak at 5 am or so. I don’t know how cold it was at Helm, but I’m certain there was probably plenty of rock falling there just as there was on the slopes of Black Tusk above us that night. You see, sleeping directly below the Tusk is kind of like being at poolside with a bunch of big kids behind you, because you never really know if they’re going to push you into the pool, or not! After a while, I had convinced myself that most of those rocks were smallish and far enough away, perhaps because we had not the inclination to move anyway. So ended the infamous “Night of the Frozen ‘Nads”, as we took to calling it later!
Here follows a few images taken at the scene. You’ll have to imagine the cold just as I had to imagine the photo, as I had rolled over in the middle of the night and somehow shattered my camera screen! That made photography quite interesting for the rest of the trip, as I had no clue what I was getting in the shots that I took.
I’d be remiss, before telling the rest of this tale, if I didn’t give you a little background information on this intriguing destination, so first a little knowledge. The Black Tusk is one of the most identifiable landmarks you’ll find in the Coast Mountains. It almost seems to be thumbing its nose at the world, some might say, while others have implied the gesture might be a little more profane! The true summit, rarely reached due to several pitches of hard to protect and fast crumbling rock, is 2319m in elevation. The sub summit I had reached years ago has a worn trail right to the top and stands slightly shorter. It can be seen from quite a distance from the Squamish and Whistler area as you drive along the Sea to Sky Highway (Highway 99). Part of the Garibaldi Volcanic Belt and, of course, the Garibaldi Ranges, it’s classified as a stratovolcano
The volcano has been extinct for ages, but trust me when I tell you that when you walk its slopes it somehow seems like it could spring to life at any given moment. Geologists believe that it was originally formed about 1.2 million years ago, and that a second round of activity after glaciers receded eroded the surrounding cinder cone, leaving only its harder lava core. It’s thought that the most recent changes occurred just 170,000 years ago, which is relatively recent in geologic time!
Unbeknownst to many, the Black Tusk actually also has two sizeable glaciers, which can be found on the northeast and northwest slopes of the mountain. Like many glaciers today, they are in serious retreat, but since they are also covered in a substantial layer of fallen rock for the most part, they are melting very slowly.
The peak also has great significance to the people of the Squamish First Nations. They call it T’ak’t’ak mu’yin tl’a in7in’a’xe7en, which translates as “Landing Place of the Thunderbird”. It is said in their lore that the fire and lightning of the thunderbird was what formed the mountain. Having long been fascinated by its unique appearance, I can certainly see why they assigned such mystic qualities to it, as it certainly commands your attention! After all, as original inhabitants, they may well have witnessed its fury firsthand! When you visit, remember these words, and treat the land with the utmost respect.
After the rough night, we didn’t expect too much of ourselves, but as it turned out the coffee and cheerios we put down had us on the way to points higher at around 7 am, but not before we’d defrosted somewhat! We walked parts of the approach trail toward the summit to have a look at the chimney, stopping for all distractions on the way. Most folks who visit only bother with the direct route, so you usually have the outliers to yourself, which I enjoyed a lot. Next time up I think I would want to camp above the col on one of the sub summits, as the views from there are unparalleled!
Here are some scenes from all of that rambling, and I hope you enjoy them as much as we did!
The diversity of this place was very unexpected. I’d just expected to find a big pile of black rock but there was so much more there than meets the eye. Once we’d had our fill of the main summit, we branched out to explore the perimeter areas.
It was at this point we took a break for lunch, not really wanting to leave, but knowing that we had to. Returning to the mountains and forests again and again is seen by many as seeking a challenge, but for me it has always been the easiest thing in life to do. It’s the everyday mundane tasks and duties that confront me the most, while the mountains are a place to savour freedom in one of its purest forms! The sunny weather and warmth of the midday sun may even have been the very best part of all, as we soon forgot the cold of the previous night! It took a couple of hours to descend the path back to the parking lot, and we soon met the first of the hikers on their way uphill once we reached Taylor Meadows.
The Tour de Black Tusk ended very well, though the haze of distant wildfires obfuscated some of the views, and by mid afternoon we reached the truck and our highly anticipated cooler of beer. We met scores of people on their way up the trail to Garibaldi Lake. It was a popular place then, and that’s even truer today. All manner of folk were seen, in all ages, shapes and sizes, and in widely ranging states of preparedness. In the parking lot we enjoyed some much needed refreshments and were even gifted some cheese by some hikers from Washington that we met! Random acts of cheeseness, what more could a Canadian ask for?
While it might be difficult to time a trip to this wilderness in order to avoid the crowds, the highly unique terrain of the Black Tusk is without a doubt worth the effort. If you manage to see it for yourself, here’s hoping your tour goes as well as ours did, minus the evening chill!
Travels and adventures past and present, from camping to hiking to searching for B.C.'s remaining old growth trees, and treks to the mountains