Tolkien, the Story of a Tree

 

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 in 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 seedling. 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 tall and sturdy 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, and the seedling became a tree. That tree grew to be vibrant and strong, and the forest that surrounded it in the many seasons that followed flourished equally well.

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The Tolkien Giant in the prime of life, spring of 2006
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The nearby companion of the Tolkien Giant that would come to be known as the Temple Giant, one of the larger Douglas Firs in all of British Columbia

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.

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Big trees were felled with saws like this one, found in nearby Suicide Creek

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 had just been opened to recreational users. 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 timber and, unbeknownst to the public, regular harvesting was taking place in both the Seymour and Capilano 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 just 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 halted in the Seymour Demonstration Forest. The  logging in Greater Vancouver watersheds did not actually become official until 2002. This link to the WCWC’s actual conservation campaign is a real eye opener and shows you the attitude of the Greater Vancouver Water District (GVWD) and logging interests at that time.

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Ralf Kelman, here in 2009. He has been one of the most accompished big tree hunters of his day, along with Randy Stoltmann and Maywell Wickheim. He has helped to inspire several generations of forest conservationists and continues to do so today!

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.

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An excerpt from the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC ) map, now out of print. For today’s purposes, the newer Seymour Valley Trailway runs parallel and uphill to the original Seymour Mainline road which is now off limits to the public…Photo by Vida M.

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.

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Me and the Hidden Giant
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A proud moment, Matt meets the Hidden Giant, which is likely four centuries old

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.

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Tall firs like these may become future giants!

 

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.

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Me, with the Paul George Giant

It has been nearly twenty 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, bobcats, and pine martens. Cougars are also native to the area, so all normal precautions apply.

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Matt working his way up steep slopes. As you can see this is by no means a groomed trail!

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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.

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Tiny frog, about the size of a Toonie, aka a two dollar Canadian coin, for those who aren’t familiar with that term

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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.

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The Rosebush Giant
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The Rosebush Giant is spectacularly located to take advantage of sunny days!

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!

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The bark of the Nick Cuff Giant. If you stare at it long enough you begin to see little faces everywhere, or maybe that’s just me.
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Matt and the Chittenden Giant
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The Hundal Giant, like the Chittenden, is over four centuries old

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 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.

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Me and the Temple Giant
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And now Matt meets the Temple Giant. Hard for me to believe this day was so long ago!
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The Temple Giant, among the largest Douglas firs in Canada

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.

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Rich and the Temple Giant

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.

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Looking skyward into the fog

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.

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The now fallen Tolkien Giant in its resting place. It used to grow on the prominent rock behind at right

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.

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The Tolkien Giant, in happier times, as Matt and I had seen it two years earlier

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Matt photographs the Tolkien Giant, 2006

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…

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Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga Menzieszi
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Fungus
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Bark
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The underrated Pacific Yew
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Closeup of yew tree
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Daryl and Rich show you what happens when you go hiking with me!
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Chris and tree
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Rich and Daryl hiking through the morning mist
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Side by side and strong
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Tall and towering
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Paul George Giant
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More bark
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Rich and rock
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Straight and true
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Foggy forest

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 well over halfway into its first millennium of life.

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The Hobbit Tree

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!

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Rich and the Hobbit Tree

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!

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Hydraulic Creek

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 the Greater Vancouver watersheds, and only through diligence and commitment was that practice stopped. You can find out more about that history in this link here. It’s rather a lengthy read, but a worthwhile analysis nevertheless. If it had been solely up to the GVWD and the loggers who held Tree Farm License #42, the Temples of Time Grove would long ago have been logged. A tip of the hat to the people who fought so hard to save these forests!

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A grim reminder of what we have lost. This is one of the super stumps in nearby MacKenzie Creek, with my bike thrown in for scale. It’s time to ban the practice of old growth logging in British Columbia once and for all! Groups like the Ancient Forest Alliance and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee are working to accomplish just that. Get involved, make a difference!

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. ***

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6 thoughts on “Tolkien, the Story of a Tree”

  1. Hi, I just came across your blog while looking for more info on the Temples of Time Grove. I’ve been there a couple of times and noticed the last time that one of the trees–I believe it was the Paul George giant–had a lot of beads, gem stones, jewelry, and other “gifts” left at it. There was even a personal letter left in the bark. It’s as though people are leaving little offerings at the tree. Do you have any idea what the story is there, and why people are leaving things at that specific tree? It made me feel as though I should bring my own stone next time to leave there too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know, Holly, it has been since May 2017 that I visited and there were none there at the time. Makes me wonder if Paul is still with us, I will have to check on that. Reminds me I should visit the grove again soon too!

      Like

  2. That map published by the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC ) featuring multiple trails and old growth trees in the seymour demonstration, is it available (or similar version) online or in print? Looking to do some new routes this summer and have yet to find any detailed maps of the area. Any help would be appreciated!

    Cheers,
    John

    Liked by 1 person

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