Imagine a journey back in time, if you will, to the year 1497, let’s say. A tiny seed cone from a western red cedar flutters to earth deep in the North Shore Mountains, in what would later be known as the Hydraulic Creek drainage, of the Seymour River Valley. It comes quietly to rest on an outcropping of granite, and in this protected enclave, somehow takes root and begins life as a tiny sprout. In a forest seldom if ever seen by human eyes, but walked by deer, bears, mountain lions, and squirrels, the tree is never wanting for companionship. Not fifty yards downslope, a sturdy young Douglas Fir already into its second century provides it shelter and shade.
Then, every year came the rains. The time passed, ever slowly, ever quickly. The tree grew vibrant and strong, and the forest that surrounded it in the many seasons that followed flourished equally well.
All began and ended as nature determined until the turn of the twentieth century, when men arrived in the Seymour Valley, wanting cedar for the shingle bolts that would be used to build homes. Life for the cedar, now a towering spire, would never be quite the same. In fact, its very survival became threatened.
Teams of loggers arrived in the forests, working their way up the valley in search of the harvest. Many trees fell to their crosscut saws, but somehow, that gnarled cedar atop the rock and its neighbouring Douglas fir survived. Some might speculate that it was because of a great fire that halted logging operations in the mid 1930s, or that they may also have been saved by the fall of timber prices and the Great Depression. In any event, luckily, they were spared.
Travel far forward in time now, to the 1980s and early 1990s. The forest was then under the administration of those charged with maintaining Greater Vancouver’s water supply. The area below the Seymour Dam had been designated an auxiliary watershed and eventually became opened to recreational use. Though logging had been strictly banned in the watersheds prior to 1967, once again it reared its ugly head in the years that followed. There were extensive plans to cut down the valley’s remaining old groves and, unbeknownst to the public, full scale operations were taking place north of the Seymour Dam within the watersheds. The area below the dam now called the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve then bore the more ominous name Seymour Demonstration Forest. It was not clear at the time as to how much of the forest would ultimately be saved.
Enter Ralf Kelman, the son of a North Vancouver logger who had grown up in the woods of the Seymour Valley. He had developed a love of the forest sometimes bordering on obsession, and had spent many a day hunting down remaining stands of undisturbed old growth trees. He certainly did not want to see any of these trees destroyed, and became involved with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee in order to speed their preservation. Together with Paul George, Will Koop, Chris Player, and numerous others, he strove to end logging in Vancouver’s watersheds. The conflict raged on for quite some time, with more exploration and mapping as well as the clandestine gathering of photographic evidence. The powers that be were very reluctant to stop the practice, but eventually, in 1994, logging was finally stopped within Vancouver’s watersheds. The ban did not actually become official until 2002.
During that time of conflict, the WCWC had published a map of the old growth tree groves in the Seymour Valley, and through my good friend Vida I was able to get a scanned copy of the map, so I set out to find what Ralf had already discovered. The very centrepiece of his finds was the Temples of Time Grove of Giants, which was just south of Hydraulic Creek. The Tolkien Giant and the Temple Giant, two of the trees on the map, particularly captured my imagination.
On a perfect spring morning in 2006, Matt C. and I visited the trees to find out whether they were all still alive. While I had visited many of the them before in 2004, the plan that day was to try and visit each and every one on the map. After a brisk bike ride to the Hydraulic Creek Bridge, we stashed our rides in the woods and began hiking. Matt, who at the time worked for the Seymour Hatchery near the Seymour Dam, was really looking forward to seeing the grove.
We began as I had several years before, by trekking steeply uphill to the Hidden Giant. It is a Douglas Fir that spans about seven feet in diameter, and could be as old as four hundred years old. If it remains permanently protected, it will surely become one of the finest remaining specimens in the valley.
From there we worked our way a little bit higher, as the sunlight filtered through the forest canopy. We could easily imagine how Ralf must have felt when he discovered these trees. Just thinking about the fact that they might well have been cut down shows how far the conservation movement has come in a relatively short time. Still, the balance between preservation and industry will always be a precarious one. Hopefully, compromises will be reached, and forests like these will survive for future generations to enjoy.
Our next stop was the Paul George Giant. Paul is well known for his environmental efforts, and also authored the book Big Trees, Not Big Stumps, which documents many of the efforts to preserve British Columbia’s forests. His namesake is a six hundred year old fir whose trunk measures about eight feet in width, and sits quietly overlooking the rest of the grove.
It has been a number of years since I was told that an official trail was planned to be cleared and marked through this grove, but that has not happened just yet. Should you wish to explore these trees you should be fit, sure footed, and experienced in off trail hiking. If you’re lucky, as I’ve been, you might also see wildlife such as black bears, deer, and pine martens. Cougars are also native to the area, so all normal precautions apply.
While you hike it also helps to have a keen eye for the little things, like this tiny frog that we stumbled upon, and a wide variety of mosses and fungal growths.
We soon found ourselves traversing through thickets and deadfall as we worked our way toward a small creek bed (Krisby Creek on the WCWC map) that would lead us to even more ancient Douglas firs. Here we found the tree called the Rosebush Giant, sitting in an isolated clearing that readily gathers sunlight.
Not too far away you will find the Hundal Giant and the Chittenden Giant, two more beautiful firs with deep, channeled, almost crenellated bark. A little known fact about the bark of these trees is that it may reach nearly a foot in thickness. With protection like that, a tree is capable of enduring many Pacific Northwest winters!
A little more time and persistence brought us to the monarch of this grove of trees, that six hundred year old leviathan known as the Temple Giant. It measures almost ten feet in diameter and towers well over 250 feet from the forest floor. It may have a chance, if it thrives, to become the biggest champion tree in the valley if it isn’t already.
Within sight of this leviathan, still wedged into the rock face just uphill, was the twisted bulk of the Tolkien Giant. It almost seemed to be watching us. I will describe our meeting with this veteran of five hundred winters, but for an important perspective, first we need to move forward in time once more…
Two more revolutions of the earth around the sun. Now it is the spring of 2008, and as the remnants of a spring storm fade into mist, I find myself once again cycling the Seymour Valley Trailway. On this day, my companions are Rich, Daryl, and Chris, tree enthusiasts all. We opted to use the more southern trailhead to access the grove on that day. There were few sounds other than our occasional banter, as even the birds were still hiding from the morning rains. We made our way slowly to the Temple Giant, which still stood tall and proud.
I stopped for a second, watching Rich approach the tree. I recall turning to Chris, who, like me, had been to visit the Temple Giant numerous times, and saying that something didn’t seem quite the same. I didn’t remember the tree sitting in a reasonably well lit opening in the forest. Chris agreed, adding that the tree had always been difficult to photograph because of the shade.
The explanation for our momentary puzzlement became apparent all too soon. Lying in bizarre symmetry, the perfectly split trunk of a great tree had come to rest on the hillside. As it had fallen, it had also taken out a number of younger trees, hence creating space in the forest canopy above. I soon realized that the Tolkien Giant had met an untimely end.
This was both unexpected and sad. I paused interminably, thinking. Though I’d only known the tree for a fraction of its five centuries, I felt as though I’d lost an old friend, and found myself looking back to the bluebird day on which I had last seen it. Matt and I had marvelled at what an unlikely looking survivor it had been. Its location alone, anchored steadfastly around and into the grooves of the rock face, was a classic example of the way nature wastes no opportunity.
Much as I felt the loss, I also began to see that its passing had made way for other denizens of the forest, and my eye was drawn to some nearby cedars I had not noted in years past. Nature always provides, however mysterious its ways, so to speak.
Our hike continued that day, as the mist cleared and the forest brightened somewhat. We visited most of the trees Matt and I had seen two years before, and made several more discoveries as well. Even the most familiar walk can be a unique experience. Here are some sights and scenes from the rest of the trek…
Though it was a shame to have lost one of the valley’s most spectacular trees, there was a most fitting way to end our day, a consolation of sorts. We made our way back toward the banks of Hydraulic Creek for a visit with the Hobbit Tree, another cedar halfway into its first millennium of life.
This tree, which can be easy to miss although relatively easily located, is at least nine feet wide and just exudes character. Rich was kind enough to pose with it for scale, just to give me an idea of its immense size. I hope that it still stands for at least a few more hundred years!
There was little left to do but stop, eat lunch, and take a few photographs of the creek nearby before heading home for the day. It had certainly been an eventful day!
While it’s important to remember that while these trees are currently protected, it wasn’t always so. A mere twenty years ago, after all, there was still logging in our watersheds, and only through diligence and commitment was that practice stopped. You can find out more about that history in the link below here. It’s rather a lengthy read, but a worthwhile analysis nevertheless.
In order to protect the best of our forests, our values of conservation must remain strong. In that sense, the message conveyed in the title of Paul George’s book remains as relevant as ever: Big Trees, Not Big Stumps.
*** Update: As of a visit to this grove in the spring of 2017, I can happily attest to the health of all the trees and that the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve remains committed to their preservation. ***